Introducing Mesa, a Brazilian startup that has spread its wings abroad

By Monique Lima, from Você/SA magazine
February 8th, 2021

For five days, a team of carefully selected people get together for a deep immersion. They stay inside a room with all they might need at hand: food, water, work tools and comfortable furniture. It’s a bit like a pocket version of Big Brother, but not really. Mesa is an intensive work system that places multidisciplinary professionals together to find solutions. Barbara Soalheiro, Mesa Company’s CEO advocates that this is “the best method to solve a challenge”.

The power of these words is immense, mainly due to companies’ troubles in finding answers for their biggest problems. When a company faces a challenge, they typically have three possible lines of action, namely 1) finding another similar company to produce a solution, 2) hiring a professional to solve it, or 3) hiring a consulting firm to lend help.

The first option, which is very much related to benchmarking, depends solely on finding a similar case. Not a simple task, since each company has its own quirks. The second entails a recruitment process, because choosing a professional with a determined set of skills is not easy. So, the most frequent path taken is the third option: hiring a corporate consulting firm.

But according to Barbara, however, a consulting firm is not always the best option. “The ideas and advice they offer are frequently not connected to reality because these professionals do not experience the daily business or the pains of what they might end up recommending, she points out. So, Mesa’s concept was born to correct this riddle and propose a fourth way of solving corporate pains.

Inspiration vs. Learning
Born in Belo Horizonte, with a degree in Journalism, Barbara didn’t take long to sort her life out. She had a meteoric career. At 23 she was one of the editors of Superinteressante magazine. At 26, she was the Chief Editor of Capricho. At 27, in 2008, she left the teen magazine to attend a course in Italy at Fabrica, a renowned arts school founded by Luciano Benetton and the photographer Oliviero Toscani, famous for the clothes brand’s iconoclastic campaigns. And she was also successful there. In a short period of time, she became Chief Editor of Colors magazine, an international publication funded by Benetton. Rocket woman.

Barbara Soalheiro, Mesa’s founder, had already held several management positions before the age of 30. Ph: Luiza Ferraz

But the time at the top of the world had an expiration date. Her husband lived and worked in Brazil. She knew that sooner or later she’d cross the Atlantic again. So, she did it two years later in 2010 and decided to retire her employee badge and become an entrepreneur. That was when Ted Talks were at their peak — varied lectures in which people are selected to talk about innovative ideas. Well, after having watched a few, Barbara noticed she enjoyed the feeling of inspiration and excitement they prompted in the audience, but she believed that couldn’t be used for teaching purposes.

“That stuck with me. Speaking about a subject, giving advice… That inspires people, awakens the desire to do things, but real teaching is a hands-on process. It’s showing in practice how something is done”, she adds. This was her first insight to what later would become Mesa.

It all started as an educational project in 2011. Barbara invited renowned professionals to teach their techniques to a small group of students. Everything was really informal with people gathered around a table. After all, there are no better means of interaction, is there?

But she still wasn’t satisfied. Something was missing for her “ted talk” project to soar. She needed to offer something truly unique.

Then she had the insight: turning the meeting around tables into design thinking labs for corporations. Basically, the idea is to gather people from different backgrounds to solve a specific problem. And in the most practical way: the group must come up with tangible answers and, at the end of five whole days of meetings, produce the prototype of a solution ready to be applied to the real world.

Each Mesa would be led by a leader (in the beginning, Barbara herself), would have specialists on the subject to be researched and the decision makers from the company that had hired the service (people who really decide what is put into practice or not, who might be the CEO, the innovation head of a department or HR. The common denominator is that this person should be able to decide in the name of the company). “We solve complex problems, and by complex we mean a mission that needs multidisciplinary professionals who can contribute with their personal experiences. The key to solving complex problems is having 100% of knowledge and 100% of the needed skills to solve the problem at hand at the same time”, says Barbara.

Each day is focused on a phase of the process: understanding and finding out about the problem on Monday, discussions guided by the Mesa’s leader on Tuesday and Wednesday, creation of a prototype on Thursday. And on Friday the wrap up of the project. And beer. Five days are the maximum time.

The first client was Natura in 2013. The cosmetics company’s challenge was to create a functional e-commerce that would not steal or impair the company’s traditional resellers’ performance, i.e., people who used to work on a door-to-door basis. The solution was to put them online. Natura’s network’s e-commerce allowed resellers to create their virtual shops so that when clients purchased online the same commission received personally was given to the owner of said stores. Bingo.

Natura’s experience was a success, Mesa’s fame took over the corporate world, and more clients arrived. The likes of Coca-Cola, Google, Fiat, Nestlé, Sebrae, Serasa, SmartFit.

Mesa’s method has already developed even a TV show: GNT’s Desengaveta. The mission was to create content for premium time television that was capable of retaining the audience amidst fierce competition that is typical of this particular time slot, between 9pm and 10pm. The solution was creating a TV and internet combo. Desengaveta would invite celebrities to open the doors of their personal closets and select items to be sold on the Enjoei.com platform. At the end of the show, the pieces would be available for purchase and, if fans did not want to take the risk of missing out on their idol’s clothes, they’d have to watch the whole show.

According to Barbara, the secret lies in the curatorship of specialists. “We bring to a Mesa people who would never have worked together otherwise. For instance, for GNT’s project, we had Ana Luiza McLaren, Enjoei’s CEO. For Serasa’s, Matheus Morais, 99’s President. It’s interesting for the client having someone from a different sector working on his or her project and for the professional, it’s interesting to collaborate in a different company”.

Mesa’s reputation crossed borders and it opened a branch in the USA. It was there that a very special client hired its service: Kobe Bryant, the NBA legend. Kobe hired Mesa to create an efficient NGO in which at least 70% of the money raised would go to concrete actions.

This purpose was a challenge because in the great majority of NGO cases, approximately 60% of the raised money ends up going to pay employees, suppliers, and bills. After five days of Mesa, Kobe had in his hands the definition of the operational system for this organization. But unfortunately, there was not enough time to put it into practice since Bryant died in January, 2020.

Barbara was leading a Mesa in the USA when the pandemic broke loose. “There were 20 of us immersed in the project for one week, quite unaware of what was happening in the world. Then when I came back, I started feeling ill and I knew that 12 other participants were also presenting symptoms. It was a horrible situation”.

Online mode
After this event, the CEO decided that with or without quarantine, in-person meetings were cancelled until further notice. She knew that this decision could end up pricey. What would happen then? “I thought it was the end of our business”.

It wasn’t. Before the pandemic, Mesa performed on average 45 Mesas per year and the same amount was also done in 2020. Clients hired online versions and the required global adaptation using the Zoom platform has even broadened the range of available specialists. There have been Mesas that gathered people in four different continents. “Actually, it was a fresh start. The whole thing provided us with proof that the method is what counts and that it works in any environment. Even the happy hours still take place, only remotely, of course”.

Another project that gained momentum post-pandemic was Mesa School, an online course. It was an old idea. Because small and medium-sized companies found it hard to set up Mesas dedicated to their problems due to the larger projects for huge corporations. So, Barbara decided to reveal the work system and create an online course that teaches the method that needs to be applied for prototyping a solution. More than 1.500 people have already taken the course and spread around the world the insight Barbara had on how to generate good ideas.

Click here: mesa.school

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Mesa is a team-based work system designed to solve complex problems by helping talent process more and execute faster. Learn the method at https://mesa.school

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Mesa Company

Mesa Company

Mesa is a team-based work system designed to solve complex problems by helping talent process more and execute faster. Learn the method at https://mesa.school

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