From Airbnb To Warby Parker: 7 Tips From Leading Design Entrepreneurs

In Kern and Burn, two designers compile pearls of wisdom from the biggest players in the field.

From Airbnb To Warby Parker: 7 Tips From Leading Design Entrepreneurs

For the modern-era business to succeed, design has to be built in from the ground up. It’s a tall order for designers, who now–more than ever–need to nourish their inner CEO. Graphic designers Jessica Karle Heltzel and Tim Hoover set out to anthologize exactly how today’s designers can navigate startup and business culture. The consensus? A textbook understanding of the designer’s role might stifle good work. By embracing the unknown–boardrooms, the language of the Internet, or even tawdry television–along with the principles of graphic or industrial design, designers can create the pathbreaking products with the potential to define an era.


In Kern and Burn: Conversations with Designer Entrepreneurs, they’ve cataloged stories, reflections, and lessons-learned from the creative minds shaping the business landscape. Here, we’ve collected words and some tough love from nine of those designers.


1. Bite the bullet: Learn how coding and web analytics work.

“Learn how to code a web application, learn how to print a design you’re designing for print, and not be limited to renderings and mock-ups. By learning ‘how to build’ a few things happen: You learn what it takes to build things, and can therefore better empathize with and appreciate those who are expert builders. You extend the potential influence of design. You can kick-start a building process, learn about the challenges your design decisions impose on the building process, and otherwise iterate on design throughout the building process.”
–Randy J. Hunt, Creative Director at Etsy

“The day that I started sitting in on meetings with the CEO and talked about things such as conversion metrics and the lifetime of a customer as it relates to our product, it definitely changed the way I think about what I was working on and how I solve certain problems.”
–Josh Brewer, designer at Twitter

2. Never underestimate how important designers are to businesses…

“We’ve definitely crossed over a threshold in the startup world, where it’s an assumption that it’s a good idea to pay attention to design from the very beginning. But there’s still a big gap in understanding what that means and how to find designers who can contribute in a meaningful way to the early stage of product design. We have a responsibility as designers to step up to the plate here. We’re invited to the table now–we need to bring something to it.”
–Wilson Miner, designer at Facebook


3. …but don’t allow that to damage your focus.

“If you want to be the best UX designer in the world, then concentrate on that. Don’t let your ego and your thirst for experience distract you into thinking your opinion needs to be heard at the same level as your cofounder’s on all topic, such as hiring, copywriting, product scheduling, business relationships, etc. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are a poison in this regard.”
–Ben Pieratt, cofounder of Svpply

4. Keep a side project–they clear the cobwebs out.

“I worked as an art director at The New York Times, but I always worked on side projects to maintain my sanity. Something I try to instill in the students and young designers whom I meet is this idea of doing a side project. No matter how small, it is always important. I think when you go to the corporation, and when you’re entry level and just starting out, a lot is asked of you, and you can lose yourself and get washed up in it.”
–Peter Buchanan-Smith, founder of Best Made

5. Read everything. A diverse media diet will lead to random sparks of inspiration.

“Droog is invariably witty and socially on point. Fine artists would probably be the other inspiration category. I also really appreciate reading about the experiences and approaches of other businesspeople. One column I love is the Corner Office series in The New York Times. There’s also a collected book—The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed. Reality TV is my friend. I mean, where else would you hear a Real Housewife of Atlanta say, ‘Irony is so ironic?’ “
–Jen Bilik, founder of Knock Knock


6. A prototype is worth a thousand words.

“No matter how well you visualize, until you see that first hyper-real rendering of the product or the prototype, it’s just an idea—it sits around, and it gestates in your head, but it doesn’t become tangible until you make it real…IDEO’s Tom Hulme said, ‘Talk – Action = Shit.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in meetings where people just talk, talk, talk and show renderings that just don’t sell the idea until they put this physical thing on the table.”
–Scott Wilson, founder of MINIMAL

7. Most importantly, continue to think with the unfettered imagination of a student. The role of a designer is to rethink how the world works.

“We’re offering a $95 product for something that is typically sold at $500, and that question automatically is well, ‘Why?’ And ‘How?’ The why is because we personally experienced the effects of overpriced glasses, and we want to change the world. We want to transfer billions of dollars from these big multinational corporations to normal people. The how is that we’re able to design the frames ourselves and produce them under our own brand. We’ve made relationships with the suppliers that make the hinges and the screws, and then custom-acetate and assemble the frames, and cut and etch the lenses so we’re able to bypass the middleman by having those direct-to-supplier relationships, and by filling orders online, we have direct-to-consumer relationships.”
–Neil Blumenthal, cofounder of Warby Parker

“The Internet startup world’s convention of thinking is that you need to solve problems in a scalable way. You need to solve problems with lines of code, and the Internet allows you to do that. The same line of code can touch one user or 10,000 users. But, as soon as we started to do things that didn’t scale, everything started to click…We traveled to New York City; we talked to hosts; we did unofficial ethnographic research. We observed people using Airbnb. We experienced all of the pain points firsthand it for ourselves…We came back to our roots and applied the industrial design process to the Internet—merging customer feedback with our obsession for good design. Once we did that, everything clicked, and we began making money rapidly.”
–Joe Gebbia, cofounder of Airbnb


Buy Kern and Burn: Conversations with Designer Entrepreneurs for $30 here.

[Illustration: Joe Gebbia and Warby Parker, Kelly Rakowski/Co.Design]


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.


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