About the interviewee
Bill Witherspoon is an artist, serial entrepreneur and founder of The Sky Factory, a fine art and digital technology company that designs high-tech illusions of nature -virtual skylights and windows- that trigger a genuine “relaxation response” in observers.
Bill’s fascination with the sky and its power to recharge our mental and emotional faculties, led him to study our perceptual mechanisms and how our love of nature –known as biophilia- plays a role in biophilic illusions. (‘Biophilia’ stems from the Biophilia Hypothesis proposed by Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize author and eminent biologist who proposed that man has an innate, genetic-based need to affiliate with living systems.)
2004 paper, Awareness Engagement Technology: Healing with Nature, presented at the American Institute of Architects Academy on Healthcare Design, gave rise to Sky Factory’s unique Open Skies Image Technology, an artistic tool that engages areas of the brain involved in spatial cognition.
Tell me about your firm (number of employees, location, type of companies you work with, etc.).
The Sky Factory is a small company (40 people) based in Fairfield, in south east Iowa, with partnerships in over 45 countries. The company designs virtual skylights and windows for major hospitals and clinics, corporate offices and government facilities, senior living centers and communities, retail spaces, restaurants, SPAs, hotels and even private residences.
Our predominant market is healthcare because professionals in the field were the first to apply the research documenting the benefits of views to nature to the built environment. Due to the staggering costs involved in healthcare construction, the industry relies on evidence-based design (EBD) to insure that every design feature and application is backed by verifiable results and benefits.
It turns out that views to nature, whether real or simulated, help patients heal faster by lowering stress and anxiety while delivering wellness benefits to staff and visitors alike. Sky Factory virtual skylights are an EBD solution.
What type and size of companies do you have as clients?
The Sky Factory works with some of the largest healthcare groups in the country including Renown Medical Group, Baylor Health Care System, the Mayo Clinic and St. Joseph’s Medical Center.
We’ve also completed installations for Fortune 500 companies like Microsoft, Intel and Apple, and blue chip foreign firms like Suez, France’s largest provider of gas and electricity, and Total S.A., one of the six largest oil companies in the world.
However, the Sky Factory also works with small businesses, schools and universities, nurseries and dental offices, veterinary clinics and niche boutiques. We’ve even designed a customized ‘Star Wars’ skylight for the Millennium Falcon in a fantasy basement.
Whether a client seeks to retain tenants with beautiful virtual skylights in a commercial real estate building or offer realistic views to nature to open up a reception area or a treatment room, all our clients seek to transform enclosed interiors.
What comes to mind when you see this topic?
Visionary CEOs to me are those individuals who strive to change the way companies do business, particularly leaders who put people first. And I’m not talking about making people feel good or patting them on the back, but actually empowering them to discover their own potential.
In this sense, I was greatly inspired by Jack Stack’s book, The Great Game of Business, and his whole notion of open book management. We modeled Sky Factory’s management style on these ideas, including operating with 100% financial transparency, sharing the information with all employees.
We also eliminated the hierarchy, which tends to impede people’s natural curiosity and creativity. We wanted to create an environment where people would function like entrepreneurial owners, not employees. And to achieve this we gave people equal standing at the company. We reach decisions by consensus, hold people accountable for their performance and provide extreme customer service.
What are the best practices when it comes to this issue?
In my experience, the single best practice to create an environment where people think and act as managers, not employees, is to hire managers. Everybody at The Sky Factory is hired as a manager, no matter if you’re hired in production, finance or graphics; you’re expected to weigh-in on strategic business decisions.
You’d be surprised what can be accomplished when people are given the freedom to explore options, set their agenda, and meaningfully contribute while holding themselves accountable. And when people become active participants in the ownership and rewards of the enterprise, then they behave like owners, not hired hands.
Particularly today where there’s a widening gap between upper management and workers, it is imperative that we tender a bridge that not only recognizes, but leverages human capital as an essential business asset. If you treat people right, they will give their best.