An overlooked strategy entrepreneurs often miss when starting a company

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A founder is wrapping up her V1 of a product that seems to have potential. She spent a good chunk of time and funding on programming and engineering to incorporate all the bells and whistles before launch.

Then the inevitable happens… she launches, expecting great fanfare to reward her team’s efforts, but, nothing. Friends and advisors help her realize she’s missed the mark. What’d she miss? Design.

Without deeply understanding her audience’s needs or preferences, her product was maybe slightly off, missing product-market fit.

Or without paying attention to the design of the product, the voice and tone, or brand, she maybe missed the mark in gaining trust or delighting her audience.

With funding and time running low, she seeks out a quick and dirty solution. She emails her friends asking for cheap, fast, “clean and simple” design help. She settles on something mediocre and basic, which in turn tarnishes her product and stagnates her growth and success.

How many of you think that you should hire a designer six months from now, just before launch?

How many founders allocate their money on everything but design when they receive their initial funding round?

How many times have you heard your colleagues or read articles on people launching then run out of money because of a poor product or service?

As a co-founder of The Determined, a design-led collective, I see many founders get access to funding then jump into building the product or service while focusing on the technology behind it neglecting the brand they are trying to build. They either think one of three things;

  1. “Design can wait til I’m done with the important stuff.”

  2. “Design is too expensive. We’ll just design it ourselves.”

  3. “I have to build it before I brand it.”

Either way, people like me are brought into a project at the end of the process to work with the left over budget and time which can then make the work suffer.

Here’s the thing

Good design, at the start of any business endeavor, is an investment in the business itself. Design, and the process around design, is a great way to discover much needed content, insights, and ideas that will continue to play a role throughout the lifespan of the company.

With good design at the start, you can;

+ Understand who your target audience is to then market directly. This ensures you spend your marketing budget on the most impactful collateral.

+ Communicate your mission and vision clearly and effectively. This helps you reach your business goals by attracting the right people you need to support your business.

+ Establish a strong look and feel along with voice and tone to create an authentic, professional looking brand. This will promote trust between you and your customers which will lead to more sales, downloads, follow-through, calls to action… which is what you want right?

+ Attract more funders, partners, and key stakeholders to help propel your business even further. This can help with scale, impact, building a team, and getting buy-in from people to help move your idea forward. A remember, good design delights everyone.


Avoid making the “Design in the 11th hour” mistake.

Find a designer early. Ask your network. Search on Behance or Twitter. Do research. Browse their work. Meet them and talk to them. You want to approach your design the same as you’ve been approaching your business, strategically and with purpose.

You and the designer should be answering the following questions;

Who are you? 
What do you do?
Why does it matter?
Whose attention are you trying to get?
What are your desired outcomes?

The answers will help both you and the designer stay on track, and even uncover important insights that can impact key strategies of your business. Also, your designer will have a better understanding of the whywhat, and whom regarding their design decisions.

If you need help hiring a designer, check this great resource out.

Start small

Allocate at least 10% (maybe 20%) of your budget for marketing and design. You can use that to create basic assets such as:

  1. A brand style guide which includes; identity, color palette, brand pillars, and exploration in voice and tone. These are some of the bare minimums of what you will need to get started in creating an authentic and professional brand, which promotes trust. (Oh, and this will become vitally important to ensure consistency as you grow as a company and your team ensuring that each person on the team is representing your brand in the marketplace.)

  2. If you need some online collateral, work with the designer to create a simple landing page using something like Squarespace. This is a quick and easy way to direct people to “learn more” about your business. Perhaps include a newsletter signup form to build your audience which you can use to send them updates on launch, news about your product/service, or to communicate with them to build a community around your company.

  3. I’m old school and still think business cards are a great asset. Have 50 or 100 business cards made on or something similar. Simple, fast, affordable. If your tagline or logo changes, you’re not stuck with 1,000 unusable business cards.

This approach can give you great design while leaving plenty of room for evolution of your idea as your product goes through later iterations.

Design shouldn’t be an afterthought

Throughout the last 8–10 years, we’ve seen designers get asked to come and sit at the big kids table. So many books, articles, videos, presentations, even conferences have been created to highlight the importance of having design play a bigger role within a company’s DNA. Apple, IKEA, Target, Tesla, Airbnb, Charity:Water have shown us that investing in good design is good for business.

“When design principles are applied to strategy and innovation the success rate for innovation dramatically improves. Design-led companies such as Apple, Coca-Cola, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble and Whirlpool have outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 10 years by an extraordinary 219%, according to a 2014 assessment by the Design Management Institute.” (Source)

With more and more people using/interacting with some of the companies mentioned above, they (consumers, users, customers… you know, human beings) are becoming more and more aware of what good design is. They expect it. They can see it when it’s not there. If you don’t put attention towards design at the start or continue to think it’s just an afterthought, then you might have a hard time incorporating it down the road.

“Design is something that can enrich every person, and help them be successful not just in their careers, but in their lives.” — Michael Beirut of Design Observer and Yale School of Management

Again, the people you are wanting to use your product, experience your service, follow-through on your ask, buy your device, donate money or time to a cause are much more aware of good design. Keeping that in mind and starting design at the early stages in building out your product/service will ensure success both externally and internally.

Don’t just take my word for it

John Maeda has been making the case that design being infused within tech companies, startups, and organizations is vital to their success. He provides stats and proof of this in his latest Design in Tech 2017 review.

Last year, New Enterprise Associates conducted a survey with over 400 submissions from companies to help understand the value, impact, and company culture design plays within a company.

Our friends over at put together 100 articles and and PDFs on Why Design-Driven Innovation Matters. It’s a great list. Check it out here.

[Shameless plug alert]
I’ve been working in the social impact/social innovation/social design (whatever you want to call it) space since 2009. I’ve worked with a number of non-profits, startups, companies, and organizations across multiple industries. When Shana Dressler approached me to create the Social Good Guides, I knew I could bring key insights, knowledge, and experiences to the project. As the co-creator and lead strategist, we worked together to create a collection of subject specific small-business guides created for startup changemakers. Below are two guides authored by industry experts that cover some of the topics discussed above (design, branding, and marketing).

  1. Why Great Design Matters
    Mark Randell, of

  2. Branding + Identity
    Deroy Peraza, of
    Hyperakt Labs


No better time to start then now

The Determined believes that the people making the world a better place should be the ones making a shit-ton of money. We want you and the work you are doing to be successful and have the most impact if can. And we feel that design can play a huge role in doing this.

Click  here to download a PDF  that will help you kick start your design process.

Click here to download a PDF that will help you kick start your design process.


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