Design as seen by a startup
We founded Measuremake, a made-to-measure clothing company for women, at the beginning of this year, and it is still very much in its infancy. While we continue to grow, we continue to learn new things - design included. But here’s how our journey has looked to date.
DIY at first
In the beginning, our design (and everything else) was done by us. There are so many things involved when starting a business, and everything is incremental in the beginning. A baby version of marketing, baby version of accounting, and, yeah, baby version of design. The reasons for this were as follows:
It’s cheaper, of course, which means it also keeps resources (namely: time, attention, and money) committed to the most important things in the beginning, which are a.) product and b.) sales.
A light investment also gives design breathing room to evolve with the company, as it most certainly will early on.
Lastly, DIY also offers you exposure to this area of business. Even if you’re horrible at them, understanding even the basics of all parts of your company is really beneficial as you evolve. It lends respect to those who will do it later down the line, aids in conversations with them, and helps you understand what you want.
All of this in mind, here is how we approached design:
Design doesn’t lead the company.
“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.” -Jeffrey Zeldman, A List Apart
There are a lot of entrepreneurs and “wantrepreneurs” out there who spend a lot of money on the “markers” of a company - business cards, a website, a logo… maybe even an office or lawyer.
These things don’t make a company. Sales do. Everything else is supportive, and follows. If you’re spending the majority of your early startup days doing design - rather than making or selling your product - then you are doing it wrong.
Only do as much as you need to support whatever it is you do. Your business cards, website and logo don’t need to be fancy in your infancy. They just need to be enough to facilitate business.
Don't let design overshoot your actual offering. Some people worry that without good design, they’ll seem amateur, so they rush to make everything pro. (“Dress for the job you want,” after all.) But we felt the opposite.
Done right, very early design can help underpromise and overdeliver. There are plenty of companies that disagree, but the last position we wanted to be in when starting out was having a product or offering that was worse or less professional than our design. So we tolerated rough design until we were sure of our product.
Similarly: humble design can also protect a company by qualifying early clients - it can be a transparent marker of where you are in your life cycle. If we lost potential clients over a bad business card early on, changes are those clients weren't ready for us anyway. In the beginning of your company, before you’ve perfected your offering, you want early adopters, who are out-of-their-mind excited to take whatever you’ve got even if it’s rough around the edges- not mainstream clients who will be disappointed (or upset) with anything short of perfection.
*There are exceptions to this, of course. If you are playing in a perfect-competition space - restaurants, bars, retail, many services, consumer goods, etc. - then design is a large part of what sets you apart. Same goes for an offering that’s already well-developed. In this case, it may pay to invest upfront.
Design is a living and breathing thing.
Your company is multi-dimensional, and will change over time.
This is, again, especially true in the earliest days of your company, when you’re still figuring out your core customer, their core problem, and your primary solution. One of the most important questions in design is “who’s your customer?” and that’s a question that’s not solidified until sales roll in. It’s okay to have a target, but throwing a huge amount of money at designing around a guess rather than reality is not the best use of resources.
In the beginning, your company might change half a dozen times before you figure it out, and you don’t want to be hindered by your design - or invest heavily in each new overhaul. Don’t get married to a single aesthetic.
How to get started
Design starts with ideation, and ideation starts with understanding your company. It helps a lot to think about things like:
Audience and context: Who is your target customer? What is their problem or pain point? What is your value proposition? Who are the competitors in the space and how are you a.) alike and b.) different?
Philosophy: Design is the face of a company, and even in its infancy, it reflects its heartbeat. Defining your company’s values and “mindset” will go a long way in developing both. Our philosophy relied heavily on authenticity and “just enough.” This was carried through in our photography and design.
Metaphor: If your company was a celebrity, who would it be? What car would it drive? What would it drink?
Visual: Early outputs like mood boards - curations of visual elements that inspire design concepts. Collect colors, textures, body language, backgrounds, and lighting that can could represent the brand. One of the initial steps to creating more developed design assets.
You can think about all of these, or you can just tackle a few. Doing any of them will get you started, however, and from there it all evolves as you do…
When to hire a designer
-- And you definitely should! You can’t - and shouldn’t - be your own designer forever, especially as your company grows.
There’s probably no golden rule here, though some indications of “the right time” include:
Hire when it hurts. You no longer have the time to do it all.
Your design is trailing company performance. You’ve got traction in sales, you know your offering is good, and now your design seems almost adorably out of place.
Your design is inhibiting sales. You’ve moved into mainstream clients and they’re not digging your design.
Our trigger was largely the second bullet. The majority of our clients are word of mouth - some of them don’t even know we have a website - so what was on it didn’t make or break us. But as we continue to grow and we have sales to support it, we’ve started bringing on professional support - in visual, starting with photography.
Author and serial entrepreneur Ash Maurya spent months getting feedback from his blog readers and reiterating his book Running Lean before worrying about its design.
“Only once the book was ‘content-complete’ did I hire a designer for the book cover.”
So maybe, put best, the timing for design is: when you have your “content” in place.
At that point, it’s time to hire!