Designer Founders and Choosing Problems

Now and then, designer founders of new startups ask me for advice on the companies they’re building. Having tried and failed to build a sustainable business as a designer founder myself, I feel a little leery about offering advice. At the same time, with the benefit of hindsight, I can recognize some of the same missteps that we made with Mixel.

The most prevalent one is not putting the user at the center of the company. This is somewhat ironic, because designers often pride ourselves on being advocates for the user experience. But there is a difference between user-centric design and building a user-centric business.


99 Problems

As designers, we are quite naturally attracted to a certain kind of problem that may in fact turn out to be a distraction from the real work of building a company: crafting elegant, thoughtful user interfaces that solve real needs. On its surface, doing this work feels very much like the most productive way to put our skills in service to users.

But in a designer-founded startup that’s frequently not the case. Building a great UI, while almost always important to a technology startup, might not always deserve to be the central focus of the business itself. Because startups always have extremely limited time and resources, prioritizing the UI comes at an enormous cost to the company. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do, but when it’s not, when it gets top priority because it’s the challenge that the designer founder might be most comfortable with, or simply the one that he or she prefers the most, that can be disastrous. Because when you’re designing, you’re not necessarily acquiring customers, or marketing your product, or forging partnerships — or any of the many other complex, taxing and ongoing efforts that startups require, but which are only tangentially related to design.

This is the essence of the unexpectedly huge gap between being a designer and being a designer founder. As a member of a product team, a designer can focus on the UI, can make it the central focus of his or her day. As a designer founder, there are many, many priorities to balance all at once. The two roles are very different, even if they might sometimes seem very similar.

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7 Comments

  1. Khoi,

    Thanks for this insightful little read. At Bound, we constantly struggle with that same problem. I think it’s good to have designer-founders who are equally partnered with technical-founders, which I’ve found helps balance this out a bit. (And on the flip side, I have to balance his “we need to rewrite this bit here cus it’s not nice enough code”.)

    Also helps to have a cynic around too to constantly ask “How is this [feature / upgrade / flashy whatever ] going to make us more money?”. It’s the honest truth about what a founder has to be asking, whether they’re a designer or not, and we know how sometimes designers (stereotype-alert) tend to get carried away with the details…

  2. Khoi, you nailed it. This is *exactly* the thing I feel I’ve been learning over the last year (as a designer becoming a founder), but I haven’t heard other designer-founders talking about it. It’s a difficult but critical shift in the way I think and approach my work. I still find myself fighting my instinct —аoften.

    I also find that there’s an “unexpectedly huge gap” in the way I relate to my designer peers, as well. Being excited about what I’m working on means something completely different now (even though I haven’t lost my appreciation for great UI).

    Thanks for putting this out there. Great to read your experience.

  3. This mirrors the challenges of engineer/hacker founders too. They gravitate towards problems they are more comfortable solving, which usually are not what their company needs.

  4. This is a thoughtful and well timed post. Thanks for your honesty Khoi. I’m not a founder at Relay Foods, but right up there at it demands I forsake the path of perfect pixels at times for the greatest problems and challenges right in front of me and my colleagues.

  5. It sounds like the challenge of any founder is learning to serve the business needs above one’s particular area of expertise. I find this is true even in my decidedly not-a-startup venture.

  6. In a way, I think what you’re saying is that if you’re a founder, your focus is on the design of the company rather than the just the design of the product, keeping in mind the focus on the user.

  7. Great food for thought. Being a designer-founder means much more than focusing on UI, in my opinion —аbut I can understand how this might be a trap.

    Being a designer-founder means taking on all levels of building a company as a design challenge. In essence: what type of company do you want to co-create with your employees and your customers —аand that’s a wonderfully interesting design challenge!

    I recently read “The Connected Company” (published by O’Reilly) and it talks at length about putting customers at the very center of your company. Great read, highly recommended for any founder, designer or not.