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3 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Designers

Successful entrepreneurs have an additional role they play: that of a chief designer.
3 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Designers
Image credit: Shutterstock

Any successful entrepreneur knows that in order to get a new venture off the ground, it’s important to be a jack-of-all trades. The early-stage businesses I’ve worked with needed their leaders to be equally comfortable playing the role of a business-savvy chief executive, a customer service guru, a manager extraordinaire and a chief marketing officer -- all at the same time. And still, that’s not always enough. I’d argue that the most successful entrepreneurs have one additional role they play: that of a chief designer. 

We hear a lot about “design thinking” from successful founders and business leaders in technology companies. As a culture, tech companies know that taking a design-driven mindset shapes the vision for successful products and businesses.

Related: Airbnb's Brian Chesky Shares His Childhood Obsessions for Design

Today it’s not good enough to simply have great technology, or to automate the impossible. In order to succeed, a product must first foundationally meet a customer's basic expectations, and then exceed those expectations with an excellent user experience. And based on my time as a product design manager at Betterment -- a company with design in its DNA -- helping to build our platform from the ground up, I’ve learned that growing a company requires that same mindset.

Here are three lessons every entrepreneur can learn by thinking like a designer.

Talk to customers early and often.

Data analytics should play an important role in decision making -- but don’t make the mistake of letting numbers replace actual, human conversation with your customers. Many startups do not talk to customers until a product is in beta, instead assuming they know what users want. Often, this is the root cause of bringing a flawed product or service to market.

Designers serve as the conduit for ensuring that the voice of the customer is represented in each stage of development; more than anyone else around the table, designers are tasked with imagining how a customer will interface with a product or platform and making that end process as easy as possible. My team is always wary of our personal assumptions around what users want, and we test these theories early and often in the field.  

Remember: It doesn’t matter how great a product or service might seem to you; it won’t get anywhere if a customer won’t commit to using it. Getting input from customers in the early stages of your company won’t just inform the product, it will be a compass for your go-to-market strategy. In the end, if you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business.  

Related: How Thinking Like a Designer Can Unlock Organic Growth

Keep your focus on solving customers’ actual pain points.

Usability expert Jared Spool likes to talk about how companies will never excite customers by meeting their basic expectations; likewise, they’ll never cover up unmet expectations with elements of delight. You’re not impressed when you check into a hotel and there’s hot running water. Conversely, if there were no hot water, no number of free cookies in the lobby would make up for it.

A few years ago, I was tasked with building an “application guide.” Our data team analyzed user behavior and pinpointed the things that users weren’t doing that would make them more successful. The project came baked with a delightful idea for a completeness meter, a checklist and so forth. But, my first question was, if these things will make users successful, why aren’t they doing them now? Where were we missing the mark? What was the unmet need?

It turned out that we weren’t meeting basic expectations; our customers showed up on Day One looking to solve problems that we didn’t think they wanted until later in the engagement. Merely adding the delight of a completeness meter would not have solved the problem -- a little like cookies without any hot water.

As part of the “early and often” conversations, make sure the problems you’re solving for are the same ones that spur your users to come to you. Quantitative data can tell you what’s happening, but qualitative data will put you in your users’ shoes and tell you why, giving you the insight you need to stay focused.

Related: Design Vs. Function: How Should You Start Prototyping?

Always be iterating.

When it comes to product design, today’s exciting features become tomorrow’s expectations; to be successful, designers need to be agile and adapt quickly to an evolving marketplace. As an entrepreneur, so do you. My team stays focused on gathering input and feedback from customers once the product is already in use to ensure that future iterations will keep up with changing needs and technology.

Just as a good user experience can set the tone for a customer’s entire impression of the product, a strong company culture can do the same. Good employees are among a young venture’s most valuable assets; they’re the ones on the front lines with you as you work to build your startup idea into a brand. Use their insights as you iterate. As the company finds its footing and begins to scale, it’s important to stay attuned to employee feedback as the company culture scales, too.

Putting on a design hat from the starting line requires you to think of the customer above all else: Rather than creating a product or platform, you are working to help a person fix a problem. More than anything else, thinking like a designer will unite your business with the person you are serving.