The Challenge


How might we support web entrepreneurs in launching and growing sustainable global businesses? read the brief


Have a designer as the founder

Design Week magazine have just published an article where they discuss 'how companies embed a design culture that enables them to produce great products over and over again'
Although the article in Design Week is talking about what designers can bring to start-ups in general, it's very interesting to see that they have listed web start-ups Tumblr, YouTube and AirBnB as good examples - these are all web start-ups! 

The article states that 'The clearest and simplest way of doing this is by ensuring that design is included in the earliest stages of a company’s formation - by having a designer as a founder.'

Do most web start-ups have a designer as their founder or are they usually a 'business entrepreneur' with a web idea?
'Beyond having the right idea, designers are also really comfortable with the hands-on processes required to get an innovative new product to market.'

Who ever is making the decision for the start-up they really need to think with a web design head to a) understand what their limitations/scope is
'It’s not easy though. Founding a startup is always a huge challenge. Beyond working 120-hour weeks, designer-founders need to be prepared to move their thinking beyond designing a product to designing the organisation that designs the product. In short - management.'

and b) create something fantastic that people will use!
‘Digital products and services are now so inexpensive to test and prototype that my advice would be to stop thinking about building something and just go and make something.’

Do web start-ups need to spend time creating their team properly before rushing into creating their idea?

Mission #2 Day in the Life of a Start-up


Join the conversation and post a comment.

Meena Kadri

May 01, 2012, 19:54PM
Though you might find this interesting from this week's Fast Company:

Meena Kadri

May 01, 2012, 22:10PM
Oops! I meant "thought you might find this interesting" not "though" Damn slippery iPad keyboard!

Giulia Piu

April 03, 2012, 13:20PM
Hi Louise.

Thank you for this inspiration!

I believe having a Designer as Founder is key as it not only helps keeping quality and consistency into a project, but also helps saving money (good design is expensive) and helps adapting to changes (start-up needs to be flexible to easily adapt to what customers want or to what is possible to 'build' in a certain time-frame). Also designers always try to innovate and think about ways to improve a product/service (which is also the reason why probably 'designers' should not be the only ‘founders’ as otherwise they will never launch a product on the market!).

At the moment I'm working on my first web start-up, Buddy Bounce, and I can say that, if I wasn’t the Founder, I would have never been able to reach the quality the product have today without asking for investment (and a big one).

To try to make design more affordable, over the past 2 years I also worked as ‘Design Coach’ with a few start-ups that didn’t have design in house. My experience so far showed me that Designers are really important to help start-ups clarifying their mission, getting to know their customers, innovating within their offering (too often start-ups focus on features rather than benefits) and can also help visualising an idea quickly so that it can be tested in front of potential customers. This speed up the validation process too.

I came up with the idea of 'Design Coaching' as I wanted to help start-up understand the value design can have for their businesses without asking them for a massive investment. Unfortunately start-ups usually try to cut on design, thinking that an un-experienced and un-paid intern could do the job without any support (or that they can do the design themselves!). Also, often start-up founders with no design background believe design is just about colouring suff and that research only means 'quantitative market research' (which I consider a waste of money for a start-up), whilst they don't know how valuable qualitative research methods can be for them to understand their customers and spot opportunities in a really short amount of time. Having Designers as ‘coaches’ could help start-up improving their products/services but could also 'teach' them the value and complexity of design (so that they may invest on that as soon as they have the money for it).

If you are interested in my idea of 'Design Coaching' here is my presentation on that topic: . At the bottom of the deck you could also see an example of how my coaching with a start-up, Meetphool, helped them to transform a web product with no clear purpose, into something that is ‘speaking’ to an audience (and the founder of Meetphool did everything on her own, I only guided her for 3 days!)

Looking forward to hearing your comments!

Jiangxuan Wu

April 03, 2012, 18:48PM
design coaching sounds very interesting~and I truly agree with having a designer as a founder is necessary~good job

Tim Hood

April 01, 2012, 13:33PM
This resonates a lot with my experience. The lesson I learnt was that you need people with a stake in the business who can help you iterate quickly and continually. That may be a designer or a developer. Outsourcing this function inhibits your responsiveness to customer feedback, even if the quality you get is better. Start ups are also less in need of a highly experienced chairperson, something which VCs are always keen to add. Speed, responsiveness and customer relationship building trump wisdom and detailed planning. The need for that comes later.

Louise Wilson

April 01, 2012, 19:17PM
Quick and continuous iterations are really important, Tim. Good to hear your personal experience on this subject. It's true that VCs want to add a chairperson - I very much believe in mentors (which a chairperson should be) but do feel that entrepreneurs can often get caught up in going by the book instead of being speedy... most would blame shortage in funds but hopefully some of the concepts will help resolve all of these issues ;-)

Meena Kadri

March 29, 2012, 20:16PM
Suddenly remembered this article from my buddy Bruce over at Fast Company from a while back which I thought you'd be interested in Louise:

Louise Wilson

April 01, 2012, 09:43AM
What a fantastic, thought provoking article, Meena! Thanks.

Here are my take-aways:

'One key to entrepreneurs’ success is that they frame things differently, they connect existing dots in unique ways' - are successful business men automatically entrepreneurs or does a business man need an entrepreneur working with him for a successful business?! This plays on my thoughts are creativity verses design....

'We also need to know a lot more about “meaning,” not just the data gathered by ethnography but knowledge that takes us much deeper into understanding culture.....We need to know more about shared spectacle and why we crave it, and how honing craft and skill to near perfection can enable you to make and do the unique--which is what entrepreneurs do' - gaining empathy instead of just gathering data is soooo important! It's very easy for a business to take research figures literally instead of interpreting them into useful insights.

Matt Melchiori

March 19, 2012, 18:27PM
There are two ways to go with this. First, if we would like every start-up have a designer as a founder, we need more designers. :) This needs to be pushed into the curriculum of the top business programs within their entrepreneurship tracks - where many a start-up founder spends some time.

Second, does the founder need to be a designer, or have access to designers willing to help them form their plan and consider the angles that design thinkers see that a typical entrepreneur would not? How about a confidential, invite-only site where professional designers and design thinkers can provide feedback on business plans, UIs, usability, etc. for either a small fee or return business-focused feedback on their own projects?

Louise Wilson

April 01, 2012, 09:19AM
Hi Matt, yes, good thoughts on the subject. It's more about being creative and understanding user centered design than NEEDING a designer. Design thinking opens up different methods and in my view, often leads to a successful, sustainable solution. It can be less ruthless, more thoughtful and appealing to the end user. I believe a designer is more likely to think about what the end user actually wants rather than assuming what they want. I'd love to see a system where design thinkers can contribute to business plans etc but I really think they need to be part of the process all the way through.... I like your thinking though!

Louise Wilson

April 01, 2012, 09:44AM

Meena Kadri

April 01, 2012, 09:48AM
It's below now ;^)

Arjan Tupan

March 15, 2012, 12:54PM
Good point, Louise. I think that getting different perspectives to turn an idea into something great is very important.

Louise Wilson

March 15, 2012, 13:17PM
definitely needs a multi-disciplinary team but having a designer as the founder is very thought provoking. Would be interesting to interview start-ups and discover what discipline their founder is....

Kelsey Ruger

March 15, 2012, 13:30PM
Interesting thoughts. When I think of combining multi-disciplinary teams I always think of the final scene in The Breakfast Club where they learn that simply fitting the mold of what other people want and expect of them is severely limiting. ( How might having a design as a founder be different? What results does that yield?

Real power comes from stepping outside that expectation and using the acquired skills to produce results instead just playing the role.

Like it!

Arjan Tupan

March 15, 2012, 14:06PM
I think that just as in The Breakfast Club (you should get DQ points for referring to that classic by the way), a team existing of different characters can help in stepping out of that expectation of the mold.

Arjan Tupan

March 15, 2012, 14:08PM
Oh, by the way, for future reference links in comments are only recognised by the system if they're surrounded by spaces. Like this and because it's such a brilliant reference, I copied it here :).

Meena Kadri

March 15, 2012, 20:28PM
Provocative conversation you've started here, Louise – just the way we like it! ;^)

Amy Bonsall

March 16, 2012, 08:33AM
Love the idea that is underlying this - starting up a company is a hands-on job. Thinking of other inspirations I've seen, I wonder how many shared work spaces invite in a mix of folks to cross pollinate.

Louise Wilson

March 18, 2012, 20:17PM
Cross pollination is really important but also hard to facilitate. I know from hearing stories from The Hub in Westminster (London) that people are really starting to talk and share skills. It's a bit like your Make-a-thon idea, Amy where people started to move around groups depending on their skill set.

I went to an event at NESTA last year where people posted their business cards on a wall and you could draw links to show how you could help or collaborate with each other... I feel another inspiration coming on!!

Bassem Bitar

March 22, 2012, 14:02PM
Hello, I read this article today and it reminded me of your post!

Louise Wilson

April 02, 2012, 15:26PM
Thank you for sharing this article, Bassem. It was this bit 'Facebook doesn't just want to catalyze interactions. It wants to catalyze emotions. It wants you to have the same feelings--the positive ones at least--that you have when you cuddle up to friends and family in person' that I see as being important - having a designer on board means you're more likely to have design thinking incorporated and therefore empathy with the end user!
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