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.
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.