A Designer’s Advice to Internet Entrepreneurs
Having been a designer in more than a few web startups, I have a thing or two to say to potential online entrepreneurs. If you think you’ve heard it before, well, hold that thought until you hear it from a designer’s perspective.
1. Ask Yourself: “How Will this Idea Make Money?”
This point does not directly relate to design, but it does affect how your designers will carry out their jobs.
Any entrepreneurial endeavor should begin with this question: “How will this earn money?”
Whatever the answer is, that should be kept as your focus.
You may have the coolest, most original idea for a cloud-based e-commerce social-media dating site, but if you don’t have a detailed, sensible business model to turn that epiphany into dollars and cents, then you will fail before even having begun.
I have seen plenty of really neat ideas fall flat — not because they lacked a one-word name like Crowdscratch or Zomgr, but because making money was an afterthought, not the first thought.
“We’ll just run ads, I guess.”
No, advertising is not a valid answer. In order for you to be profitable through advertisements, thousands upon thousands, if not millions, of unique visitors will need to come to your website each month.
Unless you are planning a content-based site, do not deceive yourself into thinking that a few bucks from banner ads will make your business profitable. It will be a thin piece of thread on which to hang your hope of success on.
2. Start Simple
“Rome was not built in a day,” as the idiom goes. Too many startups never amount to anything because they do not know how to get off the ground.
Simply put, they want to do too much, too soon, and end up going nowhere at all.
For example, one entrepreneur I know of wanted to launch an e-commerce site that enables plumbers, mechanics, electricians and the like to find small parts that are essential to their trade.
Not a bad idea at all — that is, until halfway through the project, when he decided to turn it into a social media site, with a points system, leader boards, badges, the works, all in time for the launch.
Now, nothing is particularly wrong with a social shopping site for plumbers, but timing is critical.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
Come up with a scope for the work, divide it into phases, and stick to the plan.
Your worst enemy is your own brilliance sometimes.
Usually, the simpler the site’s functionality at the time of launch, the better. You will be able to keep costs down, market yourself with less difficulty and keep track of how the site is doing so that you can plan ahead.
You may realize that the plumbers of the world can do without their own social network.
3. Don’t Worry About Things that Don’t Matter
I’ve already talked about a website’s name, but I want to reiterate the relative unimportance of it. I have seen many startup founders devote an insane amount of thought, energy and resources to whether their company is named, say, Catchfark or Catchfork. I have witnessed a company spend three months and great sums of money just on the little dog in its logo.
The same goes for other details that don’t matter in the greater scheme of things; things that distract you from your mission and goals.
Whether the logo is a squirrel or a chipmunk, whether the stock photo on the home page is of a 28-year-old woman instead of a 24-year-old woman, or whether the blue in the header is two shades lighter than the target audience is expecting will not have as big of an impact as working on your core products and services. When you’ve got your core products and services down, then it’s time to investigate minute ways and tweaks to supplement them, not the other way around.
It’s not that these things don’t matter, because they do. But they are not worth your time, energy, and sanity.
You have bigger fish to fry. You have a company to run.
Instead of stressing over tiddlywinks, hire experienced professionals and let them stress. Designers love to stress over minutia. That’s what we are trained and paid to do. In fact, a true designer will care more about the way your company looks than even you do!
Plus, understand that your brand image will evolve over time. You don’t know how people in the real world will respond to your product until they actually start using it. Everything up until that point will be almost purely subjective to you and a handful of people, all of whom have different opinions. Do not spend 12 hours of valuable time debating visual externals that might be irrelevant in 12 days.
4. Design is Not a Substitute for Marketing
Majoring in design is no excuse to minor in marketing. Design turns traffic into customers, but without marketing, you won’t get any traffic. And without traffic, you won’t get any customers. Period.
One client blamed our team of designers for his site’s lack of users, alleging that the brand we had created was not compelling enough and the interface not usable enough.
Meanwhile, he had refused to pay for any marketing at all.
A sharp-looking website backed up by a solid business plan means nothing if no one knows it exists. People will not flock to your site simply because it is there.
“If you build it, they will come” might work for Kevin Costner, but for the rest of us, nothing but good marketing will bring people to anything.
I have seen a year’s worth of planning, design and development go to waste because the startup’s owner thought he could do his own marketing by sharing links on friends’ Facebook walls and tweeting with #hashtags.
Needless to say, his beautiful site sits there to this day, never having made a penny.
5. Hire Specialists, and Then Leave Them Alone
The greatest mistake I have seen startup entrepreneurs make is trying to do it all by themselves.
You have a unique set of strengths, skills and talents.
You may have good communication skills and an amiable personality that make you great at selling things.
Or maybe you have great PR connections, making you perfect to lead the marketing effort.
But do not try to be a one-person rock band. You cannot play guitar, bass, drums, and the keyboards all at the same time.
Hire professionals who can share the workload and “thoughtload.”
Then, leave them alone.
I know, this company is your beloved brain-child, but micromanaging never helped anyone, least of all the micromanager.
You will lose your temper, your sleep and probably your mind in seeking to ensure that everything from that blasted name to the shade of blue is exactly as you envisioned it. I mention visual elements because they pose the greatest temptation to split hairs on and add your own personal touch to.
But, as any designer will tell you, the fastest way to slow productivity and decrease quality is to throw the wrench of “constructive criticism” right in the middle of someone’s workflow.
The designer knows what they are doing. (I’m sure Mona Lisa looked pretty awful while ol’ Leonardo was still painting her.)
If you’ve hired correctly, then your designer will have participated in many projects and will have a sense of professional duty, coupled with a personal drive to see you succeed. They will present you with something that looks awesome.
And, don’t worry, you’ll have the benefit of final approval on everything and be able to give feedback once they have a solid concept to show you. This way, you will no doubt like the work a lot more, get a lot more sleep, and have a lot more time for other cool stuff.
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