At Figma's recent conference, Brian Chesky, cofounder and CEO of Airbnb, urged thousands of designers to "rise up and start companies." The crowd responded with huge applause, which was music to my years, given as we’ve spent the last decade trying get more designers to take the path of entrepreneurship.
If you were one of those designers in the crowd or if the message to rise up and start your own company is swirling around in your head and you can’t let it go, this guide is for you. We've packed it with best practices drawn from a decade of investing in founders who value design—so you can create the next transformative, multi-billion dollar company.
Most designers are trained in problem-solving. When we’re embedded in a company, our colleagues typically come to us with challenges and we work with them to develop solutions. Much less frequently do we self-initiate problem seeking through our own research. This leads many designers to attempt to start companies in spaces they know well, like consumer social or product development.
However, there are tons of spaces—such as climate innovation, healthcare, or fintech—that would greatly benefit from well-designed products, and where design plays a critical role in a company's outcome. It’s worth exploring these important areas that badly need design innovation. Your contributions could have a tremendous positive impact on our world.
For example, Jeff Anders is the designer founder of Ambrook, an accounting platform for farmers. While good platforms for online businesses are abundant, there are many industries like farming that simply don’t have access to products and services designed with their unique needs in mind. Jeff and his team realized that building well-designed products for farmers to help them automate bookkeeping, invoicing, and expense reporting could really help them succeed in tough times—building a unique platform with few direct competitors.
“We researched water scarcity and climate challenges in the American West for nine months before starting Ambrook,” says Jeff. “Turns out that agriculture is a top user of freshwater (plus land, fuel, and more), but farmers are missing tools to help tie natural resource usage to financials. Our team has been building an easy-to-use finance platform that will make sustainable transitions, resource conservation, or ESG reporting a core part of business decision making.”
While design skills can help you as a founder, being a great designer doesn’t mean you’ll be a great founder. So when considering a cofounder for your business, look for a skillset that balances yours. For example, if you’re a great product builder but tend to be more of an introvert, consider if you need an outgoing cofounder who’s comfortable driving sales. Or perhaps you’re a great brand storyteller but don’t have a great passion for finance—consider a cofounder who views the world through that lens.
At Designer Fund, we look for the tri-force in our founding teams: great product and design skills, domain expertise, and technical excellence. So if you’re a designer founder, seek out cofounders who have domain expertise in what you’re going after or who are also great engineers. We believe this is a great recipe for success.
For example, one of our portfolio companies, Monograph, has three founders who met in architecture school. They’re building tools for architects and they have amazing domain expertise, are highly technical product builders, and as architects have exceptional product design skills. In our view, you can’t get better than that when it comes to an early team.
Finally, it’s important to find a cofounder who values what you bring to the table. Ideally, this is someone who already recognizes how important good design is, and doesn’t need to be convinced. Ask your potential cofounder questions like: What products they love and why? How have they worked with designers before? What role do they want to design to have in the company?
There’s lots of good advice on how to find a great cofounder out there, but Gloria Lin, CEO of Siteline, has written a great piece about her process for finding a cofounder, which we highly recommend reading.
People who are very similar in their strengths can lead to weaker co-founding situations. You want someone who shares similar values, but in terms of interests or characteristics, it’s often better if you’re different—there’s a reason they say opposites attract.Gloria Lin, cofounder & CEO, Siteline
Another thing we look for with founding teams is whether they’ve been through hard moments together. Startups are really hard. You’re going to run into these periods of major frustration. What happens when you’re both frustrated and angry and something's not working? How do you work together to find a way forward?
We’ve seen so many great stories of people starting companies with former coworkers. Why? Because they’ve been in the trenches together. They know each other, they know how they work, they know their strengths and weaknesses. Even Enrique and I basically prototyped Designer Fund for a year and a half before launching the business.
Look at your current and former co-workers with that lens today. Who would you start a company with? Who do you want to build a relationship with? Whose skills complement yours?
If you haven’t had that experience with a cofounder, you need to have conversations ahead of time about how you’ll resolve issues if you disagree. Who is the CEO? Who has the final call? How will you handle conflicts?
Not many designers resonate with the famous saying, “Done is better than perfect”—too many of us are perfectionists! Within an early stage company, however, striving for perfection can significantly limit the number of iterations you get towards building a great product. Designers tend to want to ship beautifully crafted products so basically you should always feel uncomfortable, like you’re putting out stuff that’s not perfect. The best teams are shipping product updates on a nearly weekly basis.
For example, for those that have followed the trajectory of Framer from a technical prototyping tool, to an easy-to-use prototyping tool, to now a best-in-class website builder—that took a massive amount of product iterations over many years and they wouldn’t have gotten here if they were too precious to release new products. Amazingly, the team’s shipping velocity has only increased over the years as they’ve learned the importance of balancing product quality and speed.
Another way we describe this at Designer Fund is: Sweat the details that matter. Early on, that means designing things that are impacting the success of the company. Is it moving you towards product-market fit? Will it help your company make money? Will it help you get customers? If it’s a yes, then you can probably up the quality bar. If no, you’d better skip that work or move very fast in that area.
Sweat the details that matter. Early on, that means designing things that are impacting the success of the company.Ben Blumenrose
If you find it hard to get out of the perfectionist mindset, try to see each product release as an opportunity to collect user feedback, which will inform what you need to change in the next iteration—which will ultimately help you build a more perfect product sooner.
Design is a superpower that can be applied to many parts of a business. While most folks have a tendency to focus on applying design to product or marketing, it can also create a huge advantage in other areas like recruiting, fundraising, or even sales.
For example, we have a number of design for business impact case studies on our website where companies use design in non-obvious ways to achieve business outcomes, including how Gusto used their office space redesign to create positive outcomes, how Pinterest used design to improve onboarding for small businesses, and how Dropbox used design to create a successful IPO.
Designers have a unique ability to tell compelling stories and make things look and feel real—don’t discount how powerful this can be. Founders need to help investors imagine the future and it’s much easier to do that when you can show it. Designers can literally show ideas through visuals, mockups, and prototypes. With software, designers can get very close to how a real finished product might look, feel, and even function—significantly shortening the leap of faith for a potential investor.
For example, at Designer Fund we were one of the first to invest in a great “Figma for maps” tool called Felt, in part because designer founder Sam Hashemi had a pretty good representation of what this product could be. Even from his first presentation, it was very clear that this could be a useful tool and that his team could build it.
Designers have a unique ability to tell compelling stories and make things look and feel real.Ben Blumenrose
There are so many things founders need to execute on day to day—building product, marketing, hiring, sales, pricing, internal operations, financials, and the list goes on. As a designer founder, you need to educate yourself on all those parts of running a company then figure out what needs to be outsourced or delegated.
What are the parts of leading a company that you don’t feel inspired to own? Failing to outsource or delegate the areas you aren’t passionate about will lead to them being underdeveloped—and any of them could easily cause the failure of your company, from underestimating your burn, failing to raise more capital, hiring poorly, or something else.
We also recommend learning enough about the key parts of running a successful startup, beyond design—don’t be oblivious to what a good go-to-market strategy looks like, or what good sales metrics are. Your blindspots will lead to your downfall.
You don’t have to do everything yourself, and luckily there are affordable experts out there you can pay to do it for you. From consulting CFOs to ad hoc copywriting, there’s no shortage of folks you can rely on to help you run your startup. (Check out our Guide for Working with Design Freelancers and Creative Studios for some collaboration tips!)
While at first it might be hard to spend your funding on outside support, it’s often worth it—as long as you’re hiring for jobs that are critical for your startup’s success. Ask yourself: What do you absolutely need to get done—and who (or what software) can help you do it?
Bebe Kim, Cofounder and CEO of strategic finance platform Basis, also recommends shortlisting providers that use best-in-class software. “We built Basis because I was frustrated that accounting and finance teams were still sending KPIs and reports in Excel, which made it difficult to keep track of our cash position and other important metrics over time,” she shares. “It’d be like working with a designer who only delivers PDFs!”
Ideally the service providers you work with won’t take their work with them, and can easily transfer over key resources. “Recreating your frameworks costs time and money,” Bebe shares.
This is another area where referrals are key. Ask for trusted recommendations to find the right person sooner, so that you can start functioning more effectively today.
While Designer Fund is a VC, taking capital from VCs is not the only path to building a company. In fact, I would even argue for most folks looking to start a company this shouldn’t be the default as this signs you up for a very specific trajectory and outcome which might not align with the type of company you want to build or the lifestyle you want to have.
Freshbooks, for example, was built by Cofounder and CEO Mike McDerment, who bootstrapped the project while running a design agency. This path of using agency revenue to fund product development has been taken by a number of founders and is definitely worth considering if you run a freelance business or small agency.
Not all funding is created equal, and getting the right kind of funding is crucial for your startup’s success. Not sure what makes sense for you? Take the time to examine your business model, the market opportunity, and what kind of lifestyle you’re willing to live (and for how long): all of these are key factors that determine what kind of funding and level of risk might be right for you.
Additionally, don’t forget to ask other designer founders about what worked well for them–communities like Designer Fund are great places to seek and share hard-earned advice.
A final word of advice: you don’t need to be ready to launch a startup today to start building the skills you’ll need as a designer founder. Just as you might look at your colleagues as potential cofounders, you can also start to look at the problems facing your current company with a business impact lens, which is a great way to develop the skills you need to be an exceptional founder.
As a designer you have this amazing power to create change within your current organization. You just need to ask yourself: Where can I use my design superpower to create the most impact with my company? How can I use design to create business outcomes?