In 2011, over 60 designers started the Designer Fund, to give angel funding, mentorship, and connections to designers creating businesses with positive social impact. We believe that designers should be part of the DNA of companies from the beginning and partner with business and technology cofounders to build great products, user experiences, and a culture of innovation for the long run. That core principle has informed our Designer Founders book series, which includes interviews with designers about the path they took to create tech startups. Our goal with this project is for designers around the world to find inspiration in role models who have successfully taken the journey from designer to founder.
The first edition features conversations with Evan Sharp of Pinterest, Rashmi Sinha of SlideShare, Yves Béhar of fuseproject, Christina Brodbeck of theicebreak, and Scott Belsky and Matias Corea of Behance. Collectively, they’ve helped create over a billion dollars of value and impacted the lives of millions. Our book shares their personal stories while expanding the popular notion of what designers can achieve. Reading through the interviews, we selected five lessons for aspiring entrepreneurial designers.
One lesson comes from Evan Sharp of Pinterest, who says, "We just built [Pinterest] for fun … We built this prototype that’s basically the same thing we have today. Honestly, it’s kind of crazy." Sharp taught himself programming and, while attending Columbia’s graduate school of architecture, took on some freelance design projects to help pay for it. Turns out, one of those projects became Pinterest, now a billion-dollar company with more than 30 million users globally.
After studying human-computer interaction as a postdoc at UC-Berkeley (she also has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology), Rashmi Sinha started her own user experience consultancy and built a gamified research tool called MindCanvas. It started to make money, which gave her the confidence and resources to try and build something bigger. "I just took it step after step," she says. That something became the presentation-sharing platform Slideshare. Six years later, more than nine million presentations have been uploaded to SlideShare, and it was recently acquired by LinkedIn for over $100 million dollars.
"The work of design is not to skin stuff, says Yves Béhar of fuseproject. "It’s not to put a nice dumb box around whatever is inside. It’s the whole conception. Design should deliver the whole ecosystem." Béhar refuses jobs that entail styling products, opting instead to work as a partner to design innovative and award-winning products like the Jawbone headset, Sabi (a line of ergonomic wares for the aging), PayPal Here, and Ouya and its video game console.
The fourth lesson comes from Christina Brodbeck, who began her startup career while holding down a fellowship at NASA as a UI designer. "I really had to prove myself," she says. "Some days when I was ‘working from home,’ I was really in the city working to convince [MRL Ventures] to hire me."
Brodbeck, who had moved out to Silicon Valley with no job but a passion for tech, was determined to surround herself with smart people and make an opportunity for herself. Working at MRL Ventures eventually led her to YouTube, where she became their first UI designer and designed the first mobile app. Most recently, she cofounded theicebreak, a site dedicated to helping couples sustain meaningful relationships.
The fifth piece of advice comes from Scott Belsky and Matias Corea of Behance. In their interview, Belsky joked, "The funny thing is if you look at the initial mockups from 2005, we had no clue what we were doing on the technology, product side. But we were both real students." The duo was able to overcome their weakness in part through their complementary skill sets: Belsky went to business school, and Corea studied design. Each trusted the other to compensate for his lack of expertise. Today, Behance is profitable, the largest network of creatives in the world, and was recently acquired by Adobe for over $100 million in cash and stock.
Belsky cautions, "It’s a tumultuous rollercoaster of a journey, and there are many times when it would be a lot easier to have my paycheck and my health insurance and just check in, check out, and know I’m going to have a job in three years. But for people who have the drive, who want to create value in this world, that’s the start of what you need to become a founder." Brodbeck concurs, "Find something you really love to do because statistically the odds are your startup won’t work out. But if you love it, who cares who tells you no."
These are just a few lessons from the rich interviews in the first edition of our book series. While a small step in generating more awareness about the potential of designer founders to impact billions of people, we hope these stories fill future designer founders with the confidence to create their own path.
The first edition is available for download on the Designer Founders website and is free for current students. We are grateful to everyone we interviewed for their candid responses, our Kickstarter backers, and the Designer Fund community and many others for helping spread these stories to designers worldwide.
[Image: Illustration via Shutterstock]