3 Things I Learned as a Designer in Startupland

A couple of years ago while I was a student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I found myself at a crossroads. I decided I wasn’t happy in my current graphic design job, so I made the bold move to quit—hoping that quitting would be the best decision of my life, but of course, I had no clue. Two weeks later, through a stroke of luck, a friend came to me with a startup idea: Renting electric bikes to college students to solve a transportation problem in the community. And he wanted to start it together. Even though the idea of starting a company scared the shit out of me and I didn’t have any business acumen or knowhow, I took the plunge, went for it, and dove into the unknown.

Over the past 4 years, BoltAbout has contributed to taking 800 cars off the road in San Luis Obispo, currently employs 12 people, and we are proud that the work we are doing is creating a visible difference in our community that is improving the lives of our customers in a very tangible way. While I’m thankful for the experience I’ve had, it certainly wasn’t easy; if you are looking at going down this path too, here are some tidbits I’ve picked up that may help your venture into Startupland as well.

1. Being the one designer in a room full of engineers makes you popular.

For some reason, founding teams at startup companies tend to consist of two types of people: Business or CEO types, and Engineers. Yet a lot of the early work that startups need to do to get off the ground—creating an MVP, customer development, marketing, and pitching to investors—requires A-level design to make your “company” look and feel legit. Good design builds trust, and bad design, well, doesn’t help. I think this is something that few early-stage companies realize, and it has made a world of difference for us at BoltAbout. Needless to say, I was popular, given that among 12 early-stage startup companies in our incubator, BoltAbout was the only one with a designer—and I was that one designer. This resulted in me helping out with other startups beyond my own, lending my design skills to projects such as launching websites, raising investor money, or winning big money in startup competitions. The sheer variety of work and “clients” (if you’ll consider each startup as a separate client) was fun, and not only pushed my design skills further, but helped grow the entire incubator of startups. That said, while having a designer on your founding team may seem frivolous or unnecessary, it will make a world of difference.

2. Ignorance is not bliss.

When we were starting BoltAbout, I had no freaking clue about anything business-related… and I loved that! I am a designer, after all! I did not know or care what financial projections were, what the differences between a C-Corp and S-Corp were, or the differences between different investment instruments. I was happily ignorant. But then I realized that my ignorance was only going to hurt me if I was serious about growing my company. I needed to learn, and I needed to learn quick. I started reading as many business books as I could, learning from advisors and friends, and admitting to them that I had no clue what I was doing. It’s been a humbling experience but I’m now proud that I understand more of the nuances of starting and leading a business, and my skill set has expanded beyond that of “just” a designer.

3. Done is better than perfect.

While reading one of those business books, I discovered this mantra at Facebook: “Done is better than perfect.” And it’s so true. There is definitely this air in the design world that everything you create needs to be beautiful from the get-go, but in Startupland, you have to change your mindset. Get over your designer hubris. You don’t need an Eames chair from day one. You also don’t need a fancy logo when you don’t even know if your company will exist in 6 months. Go on Fiverr, get your logo, and get on with your day. I think it takes a certain element of humility to know that design isn’t everything when starting a company, but it is a necessary element along with great ideas and great execution. And if (or when!) your company does survive, you can spend the money on a fancy logo later.

By Tavin Boynton | AIGA CC Initiatives Director
Published June 10, 2019
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.