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Why Designers Should Be Running Startups

This is an excerpt from Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs, a book that features candid conversations with 30 leading designers who have founded startups, channeled personal passions into self-made careers and taken risks to do what they love. Here, Jessica Heltzel and Tim Hoover talk with Enrique Allen, who founded the Designer Fund to help designers launch new startups.


What was your motivation for starting the Designer Fund?

Our mission is to create the best community of designers, whose success in business generates positive social impact. We look for startups that not only have technical but also, specifically, design talent in their DNA.

After leading design-thinking exercises with startups in the portfolios of Facebook Fund and 500 Startups, I realized that strong design leadership at the founding-team level is critical to an integrated and sustained culture of design. You can host design workshops, office hours and consult, which are all helpful, but often startups revert back to their existing habits, and design becomes an add on, like putting lipstick on a pig. Who is going to lead, model and inspire design behaviors in everyone at a company? Who is going to truly champion the user-experience with the authority to make decisions?

We believe more designers can create startups with meaningful, positive social impact. We’re building a bridge to help designers cross over to the startup world and align resources from angel money to big VCs. On a more personal note, I became a bit frustrated and jaded by startups that seemed to solve problems around superfluous and ‘cool’ factors with near-sighted outcomes. I’ve been lucky to travel a bit around the world and work on products for the other 90 percent with extreme.stanford.edu in emerging markets such as Myanmar and South Africa, which has helped me put things in perspective.

I’ve seen too many talented people in Silicon Valley work on products that are incremental or not that life changing for anyone. By using the term ‘designer,’ we have a responsibility, even a moral obligation, to intentionally impact people’s lives, hopefully for the better. Unfortunately, the products we design often waste people’s valuable resources and their attention, which is more scarce than money and time. Why is it that there are so many talented people working on shallow problems?

Many investors are philosophically interested in opportunities such as education and emerging markets, but there aren’t many examples of successful startups in those areas, so how can they justify making those bets to their partners? For example, if a VC invests millions into a photo-sharing startup that is eventually acquired by a well-known platform company, thus creating wealth and fame all over TechCrunch, that recognition sends a direct signal back to aspiring entrepreneurs and talented students to also create photo apps. Unfortunately that cycle doesn’t encourage young designers to create, say, alternative energy products in East Africa. Luckily it doesn’t have to be this way.

The emergence of crowdfunding and initiatives such as the jobs act will help fuel new system-level changes. Hopefully, as a community, we can back businesses whose core economic engine inherently creates positive social impact and improves our environment.

What avenues are available for designers who are fluent in well-crafted design and have entrepreneurial ambitions but are unfamiliar with the business side?

There are so many avenues and DIY resources emerging that I can barely keep up. Nearly every top school has entrepreneurial courses, and alternative forms of education — such as General Assembly’s curriculum — are sprouting up in different permutations. To paraphrase Mike Krieger, the cofounder of Instagram, ‘One day on the job as a real entrepreneur is worth more than all the entrepreneurship books combined.’ I think young designers can easily grow into the business side of things and just learn it by doing it.

Just recognize when you need help, and don’t be afraid to ask. It’s that simple.

What would you say to a designer who works in the client-service world to get them to think about working for a startup?

Pick up side projects that will help you form a strong team, make sure that you’re passionate, and build a skill set that’s valuable in a startup. Consulting can train you to be a better consultant, likewise, working in a startup will help you become a better startup designer. There were many designers working with startups during the first Internet bubble, and many of them got burned. It’s ok for designers to tiptoe in and see that not all that glitters is gold, but eventually they need to commit full throttle and be comfortable being uncomfortable. Discovery and invention lie under conditions of extreme uncertainty, and in spaces and problems that seem frighteningly ambitious.

Do you have advice for designers who want to follow their passion and be entrepreneurs?

Join a startup, and cut your teeth a bit. The world doesn’t need another amateur rock band.

Focus on forming the best team above all else — it’s the one variable you can control.

Have a deep motivation of love for whom you’re serving and what you’re building. Ask yourself five ‘why’ questions — if the answers end in some version of fame, money or power, start over again.

Image courtesy of Jessica Heltzel and Timothy Hoover

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