If you’re the stereotypical “technical” or “business” founder of a startup, partnering with a designer co-founder can give you an important advantage and help you achieve early success. Let’s talk about the characteristics of designer founders, scenarios where design is particularly important, and how to spot designer founders in the wild.
Characteristics of a great designer founder
Designers come from diverse backgrounds and contribute to startups as employees, freelancers, and consultants. A rare few — highly skilled, driven, and equipped for uncertainty — are fit to be founders.
The shape and definition of this rare person is still loose, but there are emerging examples where designer founders have built valuable companies around compelling and high-quality products: YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, Etsy, Kickstarter, AirBnB, Typekit, and Path to name a few.
In lieu of a clear definition, I’d like to propose a few important characteristics and point to research and writing that make the case for each of these.
In A Software Design Manifesto, Mitch Kapor argues that the most important social evolution within computing professions would be to create a role for the software designer as a champion of user experience. He defines a designer as someone who stands with a foot firmly in two worlds — the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes — and brings the two together. Although over 15 years old, Kapor’s argument holds strong to this day. Designers need engineering skills and technical understanding so they can continue to stand with feet in both worlds.
Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston includes 30 interviews with founders of companies ranging from Apple to PayPal. In her stories you see re-occurring traits across successful founders, for example: relentless determination, ability to overcome rejection, adaptability, craftsmanship, a passion to change the world (not just make money), and resourcefulness. Designer founders need to absorb the characteristics of great founders from other disciplines.
A third important characteristic in designer founders is innovative design thinking. The Innovator’s DNA includes interviews with more than a hundred inventors of revolutionary products and services like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff. Here we learn that innovators are much more likely to question, observe, network, and experiment compared to typical executives. “One’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors.” Designer founders must be experts in practicing innovative design thinking behaviors — not just pushing pixels.
Taken together, these behaviors — acting as a multi-disciplinary champion of the user experience, demonstrating characteristics of great founders from other disciplines, and practicing innovative design thinking behaviors — start to show us the shape and template for highly successful designer founders.
When a designer founder can be an especially important addition to your team
Designers can make important contributions to nearly every kind of product or team, but here are some situations when a designer founder can be an especially important addition to your team.
The first is the market you are entering. Serious structural changes in certain markets mean consumer expectations for product experience have risen. Music is a great example: devices evolved from Discman to iPod to iPhone; applications matured from Napster to iTunes to Spotify; and the technical barriers to publishing music have dropped dramatically. As a result, competition has increased — this means the user experience of a new music startup has to be significantly better to stand out in a crowded market. TJ Zark’s work with 955 Dreams’ History of Jazz and Band of the Day are great examples of high-quality apps that have created value by redefining mobile music experiences.
Also consider your team and leadership. Who can hold a strong point-of-view on product design and drive the team to prioritize design? To cite the Steve Jobs biography: “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers.” Steve consistently (ruthlessly at times) pushed Apple to simply. To realize his vision he worked closely with Jony Ive, who led the design studio that housed radical integration between designers, engineers, and the manufacturing team. Steve had the vision, but I bet Jony was a key unsung hero — driving the team and iterating through nitty-gritty details to actually make great products. Consider if you need someone like Jony Ive on your founding team.
Partnering with a designer founder also makes sense if you view design and user experience as core competencies of your company — they can help you attract the talent to realize that vision. Great designers attract other great designers, just as great engineers attract other great engineers. Designer founders also help create the environment where great designers can thrive. They know that many people on their team make design decisions regardless of title. Designer founders that model and teach others innovative design thinking behaviors will foster a long-term culture of design.
Finally, consider the situation where you can competently create products but you’re not quite sure what to build — especially when you’re pivoting, developing a new product, or expanding your user base beyond “people like you.” A designer founder can help empathize with users, identify the right problems to solve, and target the use-cases that best address your goals for the company. Great designers do this in a number of ways, including observing and interviewing users (hopefully modeling this behavior for the whole company).
If you’re wondering whether to work with a designer founder, here are some questions to ask:
- Is the bar high for design among your potential competitors?
- Are you having difficulty executing great product design?
- Do you need another leader capable of recruiting, managing a design team and fostering a culture of design?
- Is your company going through an uncertain phase of new product development?
If you answer yes to all of these questions, partnering with a designer founder might make sense.
Despite all the plusses, a designer founder will not magically solve all your problems! Many companies will succeed without designer founders and many will fail with them. There are plenty of outside factors that influence success — the composition of the founding team is just one of the variables.
How to spot potential designer founders in the wild
The successful designer founders we’ve seen are consistently multidisciplinary — they have the full range of skills necessary to make decisions about product design and work with a development team to execute on those decisions. Their skills range from user research, to interaction design, to information architecture, to communication design, to writing. They may not be experts in all areas, but they can “wear all the hats” in the early days of a startup and attract specialists when needed.
Designer founders also understand the technology commonly used to build software products and the business methods used to market and evaluate those products. As a designer, design skills are important — but as a founder, technology and business skills are critical to lead not only product design but an entire company.
Beyond skills, we can categorize designer founders by the type and extent of their experience. We’ve started interviewing designer founders for our book, and a few categories are becoming clear:
- Designer founders with “raw talent,” like David Karp, Rob Kalin, Akshay Kothari, Joe Gebbia, and Kyle Bragger. These designer founders are young and accumulated limited design experience before launching their startups.
- “Successful startup offspring,” like Jason Putorti, Michael Karnjanaprakorn, and Mike Krieger. These designers worked for startups and achieved significant success (either in user numbers or financial outcomes) before founding their own companies.
- “Consultant converts,” like Ryan Freitas, Lane Becker, Rashmi Sinha, Alexa Andrzejewski, Charles Adler, Brian Chesky and Chad Jennings. These designer founders were successful as a consultants before starting companies.
- “Platform alumni,” like Chad Hurley, Dave Morin, Christina Brodbeck, Garry Tan, and Marcos Weskamp. These designers worked on major platforms and used those experiences as launching pads for founding their current ventures.
- “Serial entrepreneurs,” like Jeff Veen, Jack Dorsey, Caterina Fake, Stewart Butterfield, Zach Klein, and Brian Witlin. These designers have founded multiple startups; some have achieved multiple exits.
(Of course we realize these categories can apply to all founders, not just those with design backgrounds. These are not mutually exclusive; in fact, some designers fit into multiple categories. We’ll showcase more interesting patterns as we continue our research and interviews. If you’re interested in learning more, consider contributing to our non-profit book about designer founders on Kickstarter.)
Inspired by Dean Kamen — A nation gets what it celebrates. By highlighting and celebrating the contributions of designer founders, we hope to inspire more entrepreneurial designers to create companies of lasting value.
Join us in the comments to share your thoughts. How can we encourage and enable more entrepreneurial designers to start companies?