All startups start with an idea, a founder’s desire to invent something new. They invest time and money into bringing the idea to life, and a series of thoughts become a product. But more often than not, these thoughts are instincts, not insights. And eventually the product fails.
Design turns an invention into a solution. It is an act of problem solving. In order to solve a problem, one must first take the time to understand it. And when a founding team is laser-focused on creation, they routinely neglect to gather intel from the outside world to inform their decisions.
That is why designers are so critical to a startup’s success. A designer’s purpose is to create meaning for the target audience. It takes effective communication, a rigorous process, and a deep capacity for empathy. A product can exist without a business, but a business cannot exist without a product that satisfies customers’ needs.
Unfortunately not every startup can attract or afford the best design talent to work on their product full-time. That’s why I recommend they seek out a design advisor instead.
Benefits of a Design Advisor
Like any startup advisor, a design advisor offers mentorship to help the business grow. But they also help new companies get their feet wet when it comes to design. They can give the founding team a taste of how a designer works, how a designer thinks, and how a designer can shape product decisions that ultimately impact the bottom line.
A design advisor has four key missions: defining the problem, solving the problem, establishing the process, and building a design team.
Defining the Problem
When a startup is hellbent on getting its V1 out the door, it double-downs on talent that knows how to make stuff work. Developers. Engineers. Builders. But unfortunately people who are experts at the how don’t always know the why. They aren’t experts in the market, haven’t done the competitive analysis, and very likely haven’t internalized the needs of the customer.
A design advisor can provide guidance on conducting customer research, hone in on the problem that needs to be solved, encourage empathy for the target audience. They can help narrow the scope of work, prioritize the feature set, and create a product roadmap that simultaneously meets the business objectives and the needs of the customer.
Solving the Problem
When the team inevitably comes to a standstill over a disagreement on the design — due to too much subjective decision-making and/or a lack of data to allow for objectivity — a design advisor can take a step back and help find clarity.
They can draw upon their prior experience, their knowledge of best practices, or their educational background to provide examples of how this particular problem has been solved in the past. They can be a sounding board for the team’s ideas. Or they can facilitate brainstorming sessions to generate new ones.
Establishing the Process
A design advisor can also help a startup to establish a design process that will sustainably turn out high quality, consistent work using the minimal amount of overhead.
They’ll advocate for sketching and prototyping of new ideas, testing those ideas with potential customers, and using those newfound insights to iterate and improve. They’ll oversee the transition from wireframes to mockups to development, and will be adept at noticing when concepts haven’t been accurately carried through. They’ll get the team comfortable with using new tools and terminology, and above all else, help keep the lines of communication open.
Building a Design Team
Once they’ve oiled the wheels, a design advisor can be a huge help in finding a full-time designer to manage a startup’s longer-term, day-to-day needs. They’ll be able to gauge when the startup is ready to hire, provide guidance on the type of designers to look for, and best of all, wield the power of their network to find potential candidates. They can even help interview candidates to find the best match and vouch for the startup’s design culture.
How to Evaluate a Design Advisor
Any startup will want to keep these four benefits in mind when it comes to evaluating a design advisor for their company.
Take a good look at their previous work and have them walk through the process they used to get there. Ask them stories about the meaningful experiences they’ve created for their customers and how they were able to measure their success. Make sure they’ve been around the block a few times and have a wide enough range of experiences that they’ll be poised to provide the best guidance when a new challenge arises on the team.
Most of all, be sure they have worked with other startups before and can appreciate the constraints of a small business with limited resources.
How to Engage a Design Advisor
They are three ways a startup can compensate a design advisor: 1) a flat fee; 2) a monthly retainer; or 3) an equity arrangement.
A flat fee typically accompanies a short-term engagement where a startup brings on a design consultant to resolve a specific, acute problem. After the engagement ends, the designer may agree to periodically check in on progress and maintain the title of design advisor for the mutual brand equity, without further compensation.
Others may request a monthly retainer or other ongoing payment to ensure they can carve out enough of their time to focus on the company’s needs and be actively involved in long-term strategy.
When the business is strapped for cash, they may choose to offer equity in exchange for a discounted monthly rate — which may also be more appealing to a design advisor who sees the startup’s potential for big growth.
Regardless of how the relationship is structured, a design advisor can only be useful to a startup when it is open to help. Members of the team — especially the founders — need to make themselves accessible to the design advisor, be present for ongoing meetings, and be eager to shift strategies as a result of new insights.
Startups that truly care about their customers and want to give them the best may already have a culture of empathy, even if they don’t have design talent on the team yet. They know how they want to change the world, they just might not know how to get there. A design advisor can go a long way to pointing them in the right direction.
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