When I tell someone that I work for a startup, the response is usually, “That’s so cool!” followed by, “But why?”
For nine years, I pitched, designed, and helped execute hundreds of websites, social media contests, and endless banner ads for giants like General Motors, Mattel, Kraft, Adidas, and Unilever. I worked with some insanely talented copywriters and developers, made peace with client service (“suits”), and co-existed with project managers. So you can see how it came as a surprise to everyone when I decided to apply for an opening at a small tech startup.
At the time, I didn’t know any art directors who made the switch from agency to startup, but I thought it would be fun. Yes, fun! I didn’t ask for any advice, nor did I think it would be so life-changing that it needed such input. I was a fairly decent designer armed with a good reputation and socially acceptable communication skills. All good, right? Well, I guess I should have known it wouldn’t be so easy, but the past nine months have led me to four eye-openers:
1. Carry Over 15% of Your Agency Life
I learned quickly that starting a conversation with, “At X agency, we used to…” has little to no meaning for a startup because it's a different culture. Everyone is interested in finding new, risky, and unorthodox ways to do things because that’s how innovation happens. You simply can’t bring over previous creative processes that were designed for large-scale growth into a budding business. Being nimble is important because you constantly have to break the rules. Just be careful not to cut too many corners; running in circles is no fun.
You simply can’t bring over previous creative processes that were designed for large-scale growth into a budding business.
2. Work-in-Progress Is Acceptable
This is different from unfinished work because WIPs allow for iterations to test and improve. In my past life, I’d present work to a client who asked for final website designs but didn’t understand they were FINAL final. “I thought the finished website would look different.” Point is: You can certainly launch something that’s still in progress if you set the expectation that it’s something to build on. Unfinished work is just… not done.
You can certainly launch something that’s still in progress if you set the expectation that it’s something to build on.
3. Have a Real Purpose
That is, have a real purpose to create something. In the agency world, it’s acceptable to stretch the truth to sell a product because people expect that emotional connection. You don’t need anything, but you should want everything, right? Not so for the startup world, where being cool and clever fades fast and being useless is quickly exposed. Often this will take weeks, months, maybe even half a year to discover. It’s not easy to exist for a reason, but that’s what makes it worth finding.
You don’t need anything, but you should want everything, right? Not so for the startup world, where being cool and clever fades fast and being useless is quickly exposed.
4. Don’t Be a Loner
I’ll admit that being the only creative on the team is a bit of lonely experience and not something I anticipated. Some days, I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle in a storm with no army — the creative weight is all on my shoulders. In a startup, the key is to not isolate your team just because they don’t share a creative background. Learn to share your work with an open mind and don’t discredit feedback that appears irrelevant. Getting input beyond the aesthetic is just as important and will likely be something you never thought about.
Learn to share your work with an open mind and don’t discredit feedback that appears irrelevant.
These are my top four tips, but let’s be honest, it’s the startup world so it’s all about diving in headfirst and letting your agency life experience act as your water wings. No matter how deep you go into startup culture, as a designer to the core, you’ll always feel the pull to produce great design that makes an impact.
Photography by Erika Donovan