Why Design Needs Entrepreneurship (and Entrepreneurship Needs Design)

In my opinion, there are two conversations that are a waste of time. One is “should designers learn to code”. The other is, “should designers learn the language of business.”

The first is easy to answer. Architects learn to pour concrete. Painters learn to stretch canvas. You just have to know your medium to design well for it. Getting an understanding of code will make you better at Interaction design, and getting an understanding of databases will make you better at information architecture. And then you do not need to do it again, until your medium shifts. Which it does.

The second question is harder, because it’s a poorly framed question. Design rarely asks if it needs to understand business; there is an implicit feeling they know enough already.

But business is as much a medium we work in as code. This is not a linguistic issue. It’s not a culture issue. It’s a knowledge issue. We complain business people don’t understand design, then turn around and commit the same sin.

So, if we ask a new question, should designers learn how business works, I’d say yes! But then I’d ask, what do we mean by business?

When I was working as an interaction designer at Yahoo, back in 2001 (a cyberspace odyssey) I was promoted into management. I took it very seriously, and subscribed to HBR, read Porter and Drucker and Mintzberg and tried to use excel.

(I’d find out later that didn’t end well because I have dyscalculia. I had always thought the numbers danced around mocking me because I was a designer, but apparently it was neurological.)

The thing was, all that studying of MBA-type syllabi did not help me understand why my partners in business made the choices they made. Not once in my career has anyone used the term ROI, outside of a “talking the language of design” talks I’ve attended. I know now most of what I read was theory, designed to move forward the practice of management. It was like trying to understand how to write by reading book reviews.

Flash forward a few years. I’m leaving a struggling design agency I helped found, pregnant with a child and a startup. My cofounder is an engineer, and neither of us know enough of the reality of running a startup, though we think we can since we’ve both run our own consultancies. We struggle along for a while, raising money and signing important people like Om Malik to our platform. And then a book comes out, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, and I read it and it blows my mind. It’s a practical book, but also it was a book I was ready to read. For the first time I had skin in the game. These words weren’t theory, they mattered.

I have a history of emailing people I find interesting, but couldn’t find Steve Blank’s email, only a phone number at Hass where he taught. I called it, expecting to reach an answering machine in his office. Instead I got his wife. She said, “I think it’s one of your students.” I explained who I was, and he invited me out to his ranch in Pescadero, where they were staying. I made some ridiculous comment like I’d be out there anyway Wednesday to meet a potential client and I’d love to swing by. I drove out there to talk to him. We spoke for two hours. It was before Eric Reis was his student, before he became the godfather of the startup surge. He talked me through market sizing and customer development. It changed my life.

I realized I had no market for the product as it was. I was being a good user-centered designer and I had been doing customer interviews all along. I had all the facts to tell me that the people I was targeting couldn’t and wouldn’t buy my product, and my business was not going to survive.

I’d have to pivot.. a word we didn’t use yet.. in order to make money. Or close down. I shopped my company around, and me, my CTO (my previous cofounder had left to become a life coach, but that’s another story) and our code base found a home at Linkedin. We informed our customers we were going away, and we were absorbed into what would be one of the most successful IPO’s of 2011. Linkedin was my finishing school, a smart and nimble company that knew how to marry mission and money.

When I was offered a job at Linkedin, I was asked a critical question: join design or join product management. I chose product. I turned my back on design. After struggling so hard and long to have my dream come true, design seemed frivolous.

Most designers continued to seem so as I moved through my next few companies. There were always individuals I loved working with, but most always seemed be advocating choices that would damage the business model, destroy revenue or erode competitive advantage. And once burned, twice shy. I liked working with engineers, I loved working with analytics folks, but designers made me nervous now. Their choices seemed whimsical and dangerous.

But after leaving my last job as a General Manager, I found myself slowly returning to my roots and my early love. I met with Kristian Simsarian to talk about teaching at CCA. I knew what I’d teach. I’d teach entrepreneurship. The Designer Fund had started, AirBnB was the poster boy for entrepreneurial designers, and 500 startups kicked off Warm Gun, declaring design as the next silver bullet. I went to CCA excited to share my hard-earned learning at the newly minted topic studio, Designer as Founder.

Any teacher will tell you: to learn anything well, teach it. I taught them Steve Blank, Joined by Eric Reis’s Lean Startup and the newly released Business Model Canvas from Alex Osterwalder.

If you don’t know the holy trinity, let me give you the 10000 foot bird eye’s view.

Steve Blank said you should talk to your customers as you develop your offering. He said there were no answers in the building, you must go out into the world if you want to make something people want.

Eric Reis said you should build small things, test them, learn, then build the next thing until you find successes.

Alex Osterwalder said you should look at all aspects of the business and design them collectively to assure a successful ecosystem. While all three hold a distinctly user-centered design approach, Osterwalder is the first to state it unambiguously, using design tools and innovation games throughout his book and calling them that. It is a designed book, in every sense of the world, and it was written in collaboration with a group of beta readers.

All three, at their hearts, are user-centered designers. They just happen to design business.

While it is true my designer students still balked at doing market sizing, they were terrific at customer development and rapid iteration. That said, their relationship with math changed when I gave them one key assignment: Map out their personal burn rate. They had to, in order to determine how much money to raise, and how much to charge for their product. For the first time for many, they added up their rent and food and transportation. They went on salary.com to find out how much an engineer would cost them (and boy, were they mad about their major when they found out.) They had thought they knew what their business model was. But the math told them otherwise. If they were making an app, they found out they’d have to sell to everyone on earth to break even. Job’s 99 cent world didn’t seem fair anymore. Advertising had similar problems. And like Barbie, they said, math is hard. But for them, it meant the math of survival is hard.

One thing I didn’t expect is that they made better entrepreneurs than most of the startups I advised. At this point, like most senior people in the Valley, I had a handful of startups I spent time with. Most struggled to get traction with their target market. Once designers got over their prejudice against business and fear of spreadsheets they were fearsome entrepreneurs. IN fact, I took many of the techniques developed in that class as well as a summer version of it I taught in Copenhagen at CIID, and brought them to the Lean Startup Conference and to my Stanford class in the Leadership program.

It’s not just being user centered that makes them so great. It’s they way we work. It’s the post-its, and the walls covered with research and photos, and the drawings and the paper prototypes. It’s the way we play, and are wrong and try again. It’s how designers think not only with their minds but with their bodies and with the world. Call it design thinking or just call it design, but it matters.

When I teach business people to act like designers, they think like designers.  They put the end-user in the center of their thinking. They playfully experiment, and test their hypothesis with real people. They develop empathy, and refine their businesses. They make better things. Sometimes they make truly good things.

Man and woman kissing across two vessels, 1920-1939
Man and woman kissing across two vessels, 1920-1939

This matters because we all want a better world, and right now entrepreneurship is the way to accelerate progress. If we leave it to the MBAs who should be on Wall Street pushing around pretend money, we abdicate an opportunity to make real and lasting change for the better in the world, in favor for those who want to turn change into another profit game. But if we choose to teach our students what a healthy business ecosystem really can be, they will be make the next B-corp, or healthy sustainable nonprofit or maybe even a business that actually respects the people it profits from, rather productizes them.

We need business and design to come together.

At the end of the Designer as Founder class I asked my students to write 500 words of a lessons learned for the class.  This sums it up for me.

“I think about design differently in the sense that our design work doesn’t exist inside of a bubble. The reality of the matter is that we influence many aspects of a business with our work but that they also have huge influence on what we design…whether we like it or not.


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