Advice for Designers Who Want to Be Founders

Author: Phin Barnes - Partner

Eoghan McCabe is the CEO of Intercom, a new kind of CRM and messaging platform. Before starting up, McCabe was a freelance designer and co-founder of a creative agency. In this Design+Startup talk, Eoghan explores the role of the designer-founder and shares a cautionary tale on the pitfalls that people in this role often fall into. Words of wisdom below are his.

Where Are We Now?

Designers have never been more in demand. It’s not entirely uncommon for a 19-year-old designer to get a cold call from a CEO with a six-figure job offer. As the technology stack becomes increasingly more plug-and-play (think Amazon Web Services), innovation is now moving into the experience layer. There are incredible opportunities to create software experiences that can tangibly connect with people on an emotional level. It's an incredible time to be a designer.

All of this innovation is giving more power to designers, and we're beginning to see more and more designers become founders and CEOs — a role that was traditionally relegated to technologists or seasoned managers. As a designer, if you're thinking about making the leap and becoming a founder, there are a few things I've picked up over the years that you might find helpful.

Don’t Get Tech? Don’t Start a Technology Company

Design is a force multiplier — while technology is at the foundation, design can still be a force to be reckoned with. However, it's challenging to leverage design in an impactful way if you can’t read a line of code or understand how your infrastructure fits together. If this describes you well, you may be in the wrong field and are surely setting yourself up for disappointment.

The good news is that you can reconcile the disparity between you and an “ideal design founder,” by doing one of two things: Learning how to code (daunting, but achievable) or partnering with someone who does.

Love Designing? Avoid Founding

If you’re most passionate about the design process, founding a company is not for you.

Starting a company will ensure you never get to do hands-on designing in the long-run.

That’s not to say, however, that being a great designer won’t give you insights to problems that you might face while building your business.

If your endeavor is ultimately successful, you simply won’t be designing. And if you continue to design after starting your company, chances are you won’t be successful. Make sure you’ve come to terms with this reality.

Pick the Right Fight

Industry people like to harp on product market fit, but founder market fit is equally important. As cliche as it is, pivoting a product is always a viable option, whereas changing the founder or the market itself is a lot more difficult.

Pick a market that will benefit from the fact that you're a designer — that you have the taste to employ great design talent and that you're going to be able to use design thinking.

If you have multiple founders, this will be a great indicator with regards to who should be the CEO. The CEO is the person ultimately tasked with making difficult strategic decisions that are relevant to a particular market — and if they are design problems, you should have a design CEO. If you’ve got a tech partner, however, the reverse is true. Put simply, fantastic companies like Stripe and Github could not be founded or run by designers because they’re so engineering oriented.

So, if you want to find a unique opportunity, a truly rare entity as the designer-founder, ask yourself: "What opportunities and what markets could engineers not exploit?"

Think Like a Designer

Design is not just a set of activities that one must do in order to build a product. While it’s easy to claim that design is Photoshop, wire frames, and white boards, these are merely ways to execute design. If you don't step back from these little activities that make up design in the technology industry and use your unique abilities to foster design thinking, you're not playing to your strengths.

As a designer, realize that you think in a fundamentally different way than engineers. Engineering is rooted in equations, formulas, procedures and the like, very well-defined is not generally how you run a dynamic business. Running a business is more of like an art —  it’s something that’s intuitive and comes from a creative process.

This intangible sense will help you intimately understand what people want, create it, give it to them, sell (over and over), and keep them as customers. It's not an engineering problem. It's not a left brain problem. It's not a thing that most engineers can do, so this is your advantage.

So if you understand the technology, are okay with the fact that you may not be designing as much, have the right market and always think like a designer, consider being a founder.




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