The One Investment Most Startup Founders Don’t Make Early Enough

Why is design still such an underappreciated differentiator?

The One Investment Most Startup Founders Don’t Make Early Enough
[Photo: MIND_AND_I/iStock]

“I need a cheap logo for my new business,” read one message I spotted last week in a Facebook group for entrepreneurs. I chuckled to myself and went back to work. I’ve seen hundreds of posts like this from startup founders trying to bootstrap their companies and looking to take care of design issues on the cheap. This used to be me.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, both from working in the marketing world early in my career and by starting my own marketing company, is that design is one of the best investments you can make to get your new business off the ground. It’s also one of the most underappreciated—overlooked in many cases until it’s too late.


Building Credibility—Early And On A Budget

When you’re building a new brand, your credibility is nonexistent. No one has heard of you, which means you have to build trust from the ground up. Although I didn’t have much funding to get my marketing agency started, I knew that my website and business card would be early touchpoints with customers. Since they were just about all I had, both had to convey professionalism and pique interest very early on. Investing in design was an investment in trust and credibility.

Many founders quickly find that out. “In an industry like ours, design was the best way to break through the noise and get the attention of the market,” says Donald DeSantis, cofounder and SVP design at VTS, a real estate leasing platform. “Design is the tip of the spear for customer satisfaction and, ultimately, retention.”

In your new venture’s early days, put whatever funds you can into building a clean, polished website and logo to establish a credible presence. A Google search is often the first thing a potential client or customer will do in order to learn more about your company, so you’ll need to make a lasting (and positive) impression. But new customers aren’t the only people you’ll impress with great design; a strong presence also attracts talent. “Great design attracts strong talent and can help turn your customers into evangelists,” adds DeSantis. “This is crucial in the early days of a startup.”

Related: How To Build Credibility For Your Startup Nobody’s Heard Of Yet


Getting The Right Kind Of Attention

While I was doing the initial business development for my company, I knew our collateral had to stand out from the thousands of other agencies in the marketplace. So I invested all of our early revenue back into design, building polished-looking proposals, invoices, and presentations. This helped us stand out and land our earliest clients.

Your potential customers are inundated with marketing messages every hour of the day. Just scroll through Facebook and you’ll get bombarded with information on companies all hoping to sell you something. Clean, crisp, and visually appealing graphics can help you break through all this noise, says Jason Wachob, founder of the health and wellness site mindbodygreen. “In the age of platforms,” he points out, “you must make an indelible impression by way of a strong design aesthetic and point of view. Otherwise your brand will get lost in the clutter.”

Marcelo Calbucci, chief product officer at Doctor Link, even suggested, on Medium, that web-based startups’ first-ever hire should be a designer—not a developer. Without a well-designed user experience from the get-go, he says, no one’s coming back. Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck agrees. She was dubious when her cofounder suggested hiring a chief design officer for the startup’s founding team but says it’s one of the best pre-launch choices they made. 

This often applies for companies dealing with physical goods and services, too, though. As Hong Quang built his electric bike startup Karmic Bikes, he quickly realized that design was everything right out of the gate. In fact, he says looking back, it “was the only reason we could even compete. If we didn’t invest in design early on, we wouldn’t even exist as a company today.”


Telling Your Story

Think about beloved brands like Apple or Nike. Their customers don’t just want a smartphone or a pair of running shoes; they want products that not only deliver some kind of value themselves but also reflect consumers’ own identities and values in some way.

“‘Chris Sacca summarized it perfectly when he said ‘ideas are cheap, execution is everything’,” says Michael Young, a graphic designer and animator, referring to the tech VC. “When you’re a startup and you’re competing against hundreds of other potential companies with the same idea, execution is crucial.”

In other words, the idea behind your business may not be enough to make it succeed, but the way you convey it might. “If you can tell a story and connect to your users through an illustration or animation rather than a block of text,” Young explains, “it’s going to be a more memorable experience. As the digital landscape has only gotten more cluttered, I’ve noticed an increase in clients asking for an approach where they can tell their story in a visual way.”

It isn’t easy deciding how to invest your limited resources when you’re building a company from the ground up. Design may seem more like a “nice to have” than something essential—but it probably won’t in retrospect, when you’re doing a postmortem on what went wrong. You’ve got to get design right in order to get your startup off the ground.


About the author

Arianna O'Dell is the founder of Airlink Marketing, a digital design and marketing agency helping companies create digital programs that drive results. When she’s not working with clients or traveling, you’ll find her making fun gifts at Ideas By Arianna and songwriting at Outsourced Feelings.


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