These days there are plenty of incubator programs promising an express ride for founders from fuzzy idea to the promised land of venture capital. But of the options, very few have targeted designers, recognizing the unique skill set that design practitioners bring to the world of entrepreneurship. In 2014, Google Creative Lab set out to change that by setting up 30 Weeks, a hybrid incubator and education program with support from the continuing education organization Hyper Island.
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Leading the charge is Shana Dressler. As Executive Director of 30 Weeks, she has helped shape the curriculum and mission for the program to equip designers with entrepreneurial skills, knowledge and tech know-how to create products and start impactful companies. Dressler came to the program with a deep understanding of the challenges designers face after years championing and nurturing the work of social entrepreneurs.
In the conversation below, we talk to Dressler ahead of her keynote for the 2016 Core77 Designing Here/Now Conference about fundamental skills for design entrepreneurs, solving problems for the real world and how you know when it's "game over."
Core77: You have helped lay a foundation for the business of social entrepreneurship through the Social Innovators Collective and the Social Good Guides. Now you're doing the same for designers as entrepreneurs. What are some of the fundamental skills both of these groups need to succeed?
Shana Dressler: Successful businesses are built on great ideas that solve problems for people (business to consumer or B to C) and businesses (business to business, or B to B). A savvy entrepreneur is looking for their future customer's "pain points." Essentially what people buy are solutions to real problems: I need to get from point A to point B quickly. I need to have prepared ingredients delivered to my door because I don't have time to cook and I want to eat a healthy meal. I need a system to keep track of my money so that I don't get charged 18% on my credit card when I don't have enough money in my checking account to pay my bill. I bike to work and need a shirt that has advanced sweat absorbing technology because I don't walk into the office looking sweaty.
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The problem with most would-be entrepreneurs is that they come up with what they think are great ideas, but they don't test them. They make fatal assumptions. So essential skills in the beginning are learning how to do rapid ideation, prototyping, customer research, marketing, growth hacking, product storytelling. You need to know if you have a viable business before you start to worry about your legal structure, how you'll set up your accounting systems, figure out your brand voice, put up an entire website, etc. If you approach a hundred people who aren't excited about what you want to build you need to change your idea which in business speak is called "pivoting." Basically, to build a business that will support you financially and provide salaries for your team, you need to find a product or service with a sizable enough market of people willing to put down their money. There's something called the entrepreneur's "optimism bias" where founders are blinded by wishful thinking that "if I work hard enough everything will work out." Working hard is only one of the key ingredients to success. It all starts with a great idea that has future customers.
Over the last two years, you've been overseeing the work of the 30 Weeks incubator. What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?
I think the biggest challenge has been figuring out the most effective way to shift the designers' mindset from an employee to that of an entrepreneur. Employees have job descriptions, specific skills they've developed to do their work, managers above them setting the strategy, making sure they do their work effectively, etc. An entrepreneur starts with a white canvas. Like an artist they start with a vision for something they want to create and are then (often reluctantly) auto-tasked with figuring out how to build it.
Prototyping MOTI, a smart companion that helps end users form daily habits.
In the beginning designers going through our program want us to tell them what to do, they expect us to illuminate the pathway to success, to give them the "answers." Because the program is built on learning by doing, they experience a lot of push back from us. We have designed a program to teach them methodologies, give them skills and tools, but it's up to them to try things out, make mistakes, "fail" and then try again. Our goal is to empower them to achieve their goals by teaching them how to think and problem solve.
[More about 30 Weeks alums including MOTI, a smart companion that helps you build daily habits. The project launched on Kickstarter today!]
What should every designer consider before launching into the world of entrepreneurship?
Anyone who is considering becoming an entrepreneur should talk to as many startup entrepreneurs as they can so they know what they are about to get themselves into. Building a business is all consuming. It requires endless skills—both hard and soft. They should dedicate significant time and money to learning how businesses work, how they are financed, how long it takes to get one up and running, etc. However, what almost everyone fails to consider is how much money they'll need to pay for their living expenses until they can draw a full salary from their business. The minute you run out of money it's basically "game over."