Illustration: Leona Hu Hudelson

How Being an Entrepreneur Made me a Better Designer

Today marks the tenth month since I left my comfortable job at a large technology company to enter the scrappy startup world and start my own company, Airgora. We launched our platform last month aiming to build a marketplace that empowers designers and emerging companies to easily promote their conceptual work and physical products to people who care about good design.

Building a company is by far the most difficult and rewarding experiences I have had as a designer. I want to offer some thoughts on how my entrepreneurial journey has actually made me a better designer.

Using Financial Stress to Become More Creative

I didn’t need to think too much about finances while working for a large tech company with plenty of capital. Now that I’m running my own company, every penny matters.

To save money, I cafe hop for free wi-fi and end up discovering many beautiful new “work” spaces. Instead of paying for an expensive tradeshow booth at CES this year, I handed out stickers and Muji notebooks printed with bold messages related to my company. This guerilla marketing worked so well that we had a spike in user signups without spending more than a few bucks.

At one point, finances got so low that I had to work on a couple of design consultancy projects to pay rent. With the added stress of additional deadlines, I figured out new ways to alleviate my stress by trying out meditation, using Pomodoro timers, and jogging regularly (I ran my first half marathon after I started my company). Experimenting with different methods has boosted my productivity and helped me cope with working under intense pressure.

Think Beyond Pixels by Wearing All the Hats

Before founding Airgora, I was sheltered behind a team of engineering, marketing, and product experts. I didn’t have to go too much beyond my responsibilities.

However, running my own company has forced me to learn exponentially. I’ve learned Ruby on Rails so I could work on our web app when our engineers are gone. I’ve taught myself the basics of financial accounting. I’ve learned the legal complexities of starting a company and having employees. I’ve learned the basics of data analytics to make more informed decisions in our platform growth.

Understanding the larger context is critical to a successful designer. By going behind the scene of the nuts and bolts in a business and talking directly to customers, I start to focus on a bigger picture rather than icons and typography while working on our product features.

Becoming a Master Communicator and Storyteller

I thought I was good at communicating because I am generally outgoing and I speak four languages. I was wrong.

Entrepreneurs live by passion and belief. We are the optimists with the hope that people will share the same passion toward our products. But most people don’t. Customers and users are often unaware of the products at the beginning. Friends and family offer support because that’s what friends and family do.

Without employing a PR, marketing, or sales team, my daily communication is no longer just about presenting, critiquing and defending my design. I promote Airgora to nearly every person I meet. I send dozens of emails daily to users and partners.

Being an entrepreneur requires me to be especially eloquent when I write and speak. Before I ran my own company, I used to be more focused on working with graphics. For the thousands of emails I have sent out, hundreds of hours of pitching I have made, my writings become more approachable and personal, my thoughts are more structured.

Now I truly grasp what design visionary Michael Beruit once stated, “writing is as important as designing.” So much of a good design is about conveying a message, simplifying a process, and evoking an action. Writing and speaking more effectively have directly benefited my design process with better clarity and structure. Being a better storyteller also helps me focus on designing joyful experiences for our users.

Embrace Rejection and Go With Your Gut

After years of training in design school and working in technology, I am accustomed to receiving critiques. It’s part of the design process. Unlike design critiques that are often given by designers or the team, as an entrepreneur, rejections happen much more frequently by everyone else.

Similar to receiving critiques in design, a good designer incorporate the criticism and justify every design moves she makes. User testing, research and validations are all part of the iterative process to create better products.

However, being an entrepreneur also teaches me sometimes to listen to my intuition. One of most popular motivational speakers Simon Sinek stated in his book Start with Why, that leaders need to have a core belief of why they do what they do. Once this belief is firmly grasped, the features, interfaces, colors, animations and everything else all become secondary. Yet with a open mind to rejections and criticisms, I design better products with my firm belief that Airgora will make our world a little better place by educating everyone what is good design.

Being an entrepreneur allows me to think and work beyond pixels. I don’t spend much time nudging vector graphics to get things perfect rather focusing on how the entire system runs. I learned about business processes that I was never exposed to. I am much more effective on planning and managing finances. I am a more fluent storyteller. Most of all, I’ve learned how to learn again.

Founding an internet company is an arduous endeavor for anyone, not just designers. Ten months in, we shipped our public-beta, published an online & print magazine, and we are working hard toward our new features. It has been a path full of risks and uncertainty but that’s what gets me out of bed every morning.

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Special thanks to Blake Hudelson and Gavin Johns !
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