Design Entrepreneurs Need Developers to Succeed. 


Over the past year there have been numerous articles questioning the connection between designers and entrepreneurs, with many of these articles tossing around the term design thinking. I first noticed this last August with a well-written article in Wired by Jessica Alters followed by Jeff Domke’s article in Medium. In the past few weeks there has been buzz in my network again about design and entrepreneurship, mostly started by Michael Tavani’s article concerning consumer startups in Atlanta and the incubator he’s launching.

In my personal life, I have spent the past year conquering a handful of milestones. I graduated from the MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA) program at California College of the Arts (CCA), commuting to San Francisco once a month for the program’s low-residency structure. I relocated from Atlanta to Denver, then back to Atlanta, and took part in the Switchyards consumer brand accelerator weekend that happened at the beginning of June.

This article was birthed in my head as a juxtaposition piece between the perceived value of a hundred thousand dollar MBA experience for a designer at an art school in San Francisco, verses a sixty dollar, 3-day accelerator weekend hack. My background in the corporate world, receiving my MBA, attending weekend accelerators, and trying to give legs to my own ideas have led to strong opinions on why there are not more designers with entrepreneurial spirit. Furthermore, why the DMBA program let me down, and why three days at the Switchyards accelerator may have been one of the best choices that I have made in my professional career.

Despite my feelings about the DMBA program, I still have no regrets about attending.. Entering its seventh year, it continues to be one of the best business degrees for innovation in the world. It allowed me to attend a top tier graduate school as a full time student while working full time. My cohort was comprised of like-mined working professionals, some of them commuting to San Francisco on a monthly basis like I did. The program allowed me to meet and foster relationships, not only with my cohort of fifty amazing classmates but also with an esteemed faculty. Traditional MBA courses were peppered into a curriculum revolving around design thinking, innovation and user experience. My classmates had backgrounds that ranged from traditional design to finance and economics. Brilliant ideas were produced in the program regularly, but it is hard to find examples of what these ideas were or if any of these ideas moved passed the stage of conception. Design thinking and problem solving are the cornerstones of our program; outputs and tangibles fall second hand. Design thinking can only go so far, though. There is a point when a minimum viable product (MVP) has to be produced and the DMBA program didn’t push us regularly to move from an idea to an MVP.

The capstone experience for the program is the final semester in which the cohort is broken into teams and asked to create ventures. From ideation to pitch, teams work on their projects for approximately five months, culminating in what the program calls the Venture Show. The Venture Show is a day of presentations that is supposed to replicate pitching to venture capital firms and investors. My cohort, along with the previous cohorts, have been filled with amazing ideas but the majority of what is produced in Venture is just that—ideas. Since graduating in May, I have talked to three teams from the 2014 cohort whose projects have flatlined after graduation:

Canary- An intelligent database of vocalized name pronunciations, spoken by the person themselves. (canarycorp.com)
Tero- On demand local package delivery in Latin America. (tero.mx)
Delightly- Convenient & genuine mobile gift giving. (Delight.ly)

Most of the pitches at the Venture Show are comprised of ideas without minimum viable products, working prototypes, or beta versions. These ideas are well researched, have proven pain points, and have pivoted many times before the final pitches. They have been through the design thinking process, whatever that might mean to you. It’s interesting that while writing this article, a tweet from Aza Raskin popped up in my feed: “There is no design think, only design make.” This was an aha moment for me: what was missing from the ideas was the doing. The ideas conceived in the DMBA program were missing development and production. The problem with the Venture Show and the Venture experience is the lack of developers within the cohort and the program.

Post DMBA, my venture project has also flatlined, as the majority of them have. I was part of a team with a great idea, but little to show for it. We didn’t have a developer, so we didn’t have a working prototype or beta version. We were a team comprised of a visual designer, a user experience researcher, an HR specialist and an art historian. We spent a lot of time looking to add a developer or a coder to our team, but we found that with just an idea, it’s hard to convince someone to give up their free time and take an equity-only plunge for something they were not part of from the start. This is a prime example of designers desiring to be in an entrepreneurial space, but failing.

This brings me to a month ago, when I was sitting in a coffee shop in Atlanta. I was informed about Switchyards, a consumer brand incubator focused on design, that was founded by Michael Tavani, a co-founder of Scoutmob. I was told that Switchyards was holding a three-day accelerator weekend and that I should participate. At first I was hesitant and skeptical; I wasn’t excited to spend a weekend incubating an idea that had the ability to flatline like my venture project. Realizing that my network in Atlanta was rather small post graduation, and looking for the next career step, I saw it as an opportunity to add breadth to my network. I signed up, paid my sixty dollars and proceeded to have one of the best weekends in my professional career.

Over the course of three days, Switchyards was able to bring together approximately sixty people and incubate eleven ideas. I had the pleasure to be on a team of three that consisted of a developer, a visual designer and a growth hacker. We were working towards solving the pain point of ordering on-demand custom printed shirts online. By the end of the weekend, we had identified the pain points, defined the competition (or lack there of), established a brand, partnered with a fulfillment vendor, and launched a fully working version of our website. Our brand, Sweet Tees (www.getsweettees.com), looked great, the social media campaign was launched, and you could order the shirts online. In three days, three people were able to launch a consumer brand, something that a team of four wasn’t able to do over the course of five months in the DMBA program, all because Sweet Tees had a developer on board. It’s been eleven days since the Sweet Tees team was been able to incubate an idea, launch a brand at the Switchyards demo night, and move to revenue status.

The question that pushed me down this rabbit hole was why do designers fail in entrepreneurial endeavors? And why are there not more designers with entrepreneurial spirit?

I think designers are too disconnected from developers. Granted, some designers can do front end development and play with HTML and CSS, and there are some developers who have a strong knack for design. But, on the whole, designers fail beyond the point of design thinking with an inability for design making. Jessica Alter talked about a similarity between designers and entrepreneurs being the ability to problem solve, and I think this is true.. The difference between entrepreneurs succeeding and designers trying to be entrepreneurs and failing, is that successful entrepreneurs get developers involved in the process early. For designers to convert their ideas from ideas to successes, they have to partner with developers. If the DMBA program had a wider breadth of developers in the program, or would take the steps to build partnerships with other academic institutions with an abundance of developers, venture projects would have the ability to move from an idea, to company, to a product or service.


Shameless plug for all the teams that came out of the weekend

  1. @get_dibs — reserve your life!
  2. @WeAreMagi — We’re giftwise. Personalized subscription service for sophisticated gift giving. Beautiful, curated gifts on the go
  3. @talisto_ — Talisto is an Atlanta-based community of top creative talent who make awesome stuff for people with great ideas.
  4. @LaunchKitten — LaunchKitten is a free service for collecting signups, emails and payment. Great for charity events, concerts, weddings and birthdays.
  5. @GratitudePress — A beautiful and simple way to thank you
  6. @GetSweetTees — awesome shirts + sweet hospitality; on-demand online custom shirts.
  7. @vacayway — Finding the perfect vacation home rental shouldn’t feel like work. Start your vacay before you leave home. Search. Share. Relax.
  8. @roostup — Beautifully simple real estate listings.
  9. @sidekickfc — Soccer Simplified. Our goals are to keep you updated, get you talking and maybe even laugh! Sign up for our newsletter on our site!


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