How Startup Founders Should Think About Design

I recently had the opportunity to speak on a panel about the value of design (and designers) to an audience of startup founders at San Diego Startup Week. My fellow panelists and I spoke on a variety of topics related to design and business, from visual branding all the way through design thinking and user experience design. I’m attempting to capture some of my thoughts about those subjects here…

How should startups think about branding?

Here is my main message: Invest a little bit on your brand identity, but don’t blow your entire budget. Let me share a quick story… A client came to me not too long ago and said that VCs were telling him that though they loved his pitch, his pitch deck looked amateurish. He literally wasn’t being taken seriously because his design was terrible. I looked at his deck and asked him about the logo. He said he paid $50 for it on Fivver or something similar. We embarked on a project to upgrade his brand identity. I redesigned his logo and brand identity, redesigned his pitch deck, and now VCs, partners, and customers are paying attention. On the flip side, in the past, I’ve also worked with a startup that spent probably $100K developing their brand identity and marketing assets. Probably not the wisest. (We wrote more extensively about this topic in a post titled, “6 Important Things To Consider When Branding Your Startup.”)

You can have a little more freedom when branding for a startup since the brand doesn’t really exist yet. What did you learn working in (and with) larger organizations, where the branding was already defined, that is helping you with your current work with smaller organizations?

I’ve worked with lots of established brands, both externally as an agency partner, and internally, when I worked in-house. The hardest thing to do with an established brand is to change it because there is equity built into the brand and brand identity. Mind you these are Fortune 100 companies I’m usually talking about. When I work with startups today, and they’re reluctant to update their brand identity because they think there’s equity in it, I tell them, “no” they actually don’t. They don’t have hundreds of thousands or millions of customers like an Apple, Samsung, or Cisco. Startups have the freedom to evolve their brands because their audiences are pretty small. Take advantage of that freedom because once you get huge, it’s costlier to change.

After you finish a branding project, how do you translate that into a UI design system?

I’m currently working on a project where the brand identity was done by a really great design firm. I was brought in to translate that into a design system for their product. So I have two observations so far: Having a thoughtful brand identity system, with good conceptual and strategic thinking, makes product UI easy. To be sure the brand identity won’t cover all the needs of a UI, but it’ll give you cues. The other observation is, if you’re making a software product, the easiest way to establish your brand—at least from a visual and experience standpoint—is to infuse your product with your brand identity. Don’t copycat all the other UI trends out there. Make it your own.

What is user-centered design? How does it add value to your business?

Everyone in this room thinks they know their customers and users. As humans we naturally overlay our own personal experiences on top of others. Therefore when we think something is obvious, it really might not be. That’s why it’s so important to constantly test with users. When I was at my last startup—it was VR for real estate—we did our fair share of startup fairs and demos with customers. Being on the frontline and demoing at these startup conferences literally gave me instant access to hundreds of users around the world. I could see where in the app they were getting hung up, or where it brought them joy. I could also see where I was wrong.

Talk about why it’s important to bring design into decision making.

Designers are your advocates for your users. Great designers will be able to balance between the goals of the business and the needs of the user. So trust them.

Let’s say you get to be the CEO for a day, what would you do?

I’d make everyone spend a day or an afternoon with a customer. And I’d make people do this regularly—maybe once a year. To see firsthand the challenges your customers face every day, in their own environment, can be profound.

The other thing I’d do is to make sure that everyone in the company knows our mission, vision, and values. Because ultimately, every single employee should be an embodiment of your brand, so when they interact with prospects or customers, they are your brand.


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