Business For Designers

Jeff Domke
May 24, 2014 · 3 min read

The elusive business knowledge that designers need for startups…

I received this question from a designer friend who works at a consultancy, and wants to create his own digital product startup:

“You’ve been writing about designers starting companies lately, and you’ve piqued my interest. […] There are plenty of books that purport to teach design thinking to people with a business background. Can you recommend reading for designers interested in getting a better feel for how business decisions are made?”

I had no idea. Are there books like this for designers? Should there be?

I did some asking around, and many of the designers I know agreed: there is a crucial body of business knowledge that eludes them. I remember feeling like this. For my first couple of startups, I wrote 30-page business plans full of tables and charts I didn’t really understand. It was a blast.

So what is all of this business-y knowledge?

Check it out: Harvard Business School MBA Curriculum

I wish I knew that stuff. No doubt, it’s super-valuable knowledge.

But should my friend really take Private Equity Finance or Doing Business In China? Does he really need MBA classes to start his company?

Here’s an explanation from Andrew Ritchie (current hacker-in-residence, TechStars) which sums up my opinion on this pretty well:

“The MBA-type stuff is important, but it’s a waste to think about those concerns before you have customers or product. Companies shouldn’t start thinking about business models until they have customers and product. I can’t stress enough to start with the customer. If you are creating value for customers, you can learn the MBA stuff later. You cannot do the reverse.”

C’mon, Andrew…everyone knows you need a business plan full of spreadsheets…

“You don’t need to think about a business model beyond having an idea of cost of customer acquisition and what a customer’s lifetime value is (because if customers cost more than their lifetime value, you’re not going to have a business).”

Well said, Andrew. Customers and product. Forget the rest at first.

Designers, you may not realize it, but you’ve probably already mastered the most important entrepreneurial skill that exists: observe the ways people struggle with a task, understand how they think and feel, and then imagine a better way…

Reading List

What should designers who want to start their own companies learn about?

Customers and product―or, more specifically, how to rapidly learn about your customers so you can make a product they love.

Here’s my reading list on that subject. It’s nothing radical or secret:

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries. Test your entrepreneurial vision over time, and succeed through innovation and adaptation.

Lean Analytics: Use Data to Build a Better Startup Faster, by Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz. Take your product from initial vision to successful market reality.

The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company, by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf. Explore and utilize key concepts that initiated the “Lean Startup” movement.

Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Ignore your competitors, and attain success without investors or a business model.

Final Thoughts & Tips

To really accelerate your learning, put yourself in the right context. Join an early-stage startup, incubator, or startup co-working space. You’ll be surrounded by designers with similar goals, and their knowledge and enthusiasm will naturally carry over.

If you want to be successful without an MBA, bring in other co-founders, particularly a business or sales person. Let them worry about the business side. They’ll let you worry about the product side. Everybody wins.

No designer has ever been adequately prepared for this leap. We’ve all had lists of doubts in our heads that included “lack of business knowledge.” We got over it, took the leap, and learned on the fly. You can too.

Designers: Go learn about your customers. Make a product they love. You know how to do this.

Design Founders

Designers + Startups.

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