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Picture 42In Alan Webber’s new book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self, the Fast Company co-founder probes broad, profound concepts like, strengths, weaknesses, change and failure in short, digestible chapters, all with a design-friendly tone. The “rules of thumb” actually are derived from a stack of note cards Webber carried around with him to document pivotal life and business lessons. I’m a big fan of Fast Company and have been since its early days, and I find that the fresh, conversational vibe of that publication comes through in this very readable book. At times, though, I wish that he would actually dive a bit deeper on certain topics, and one of these topics is the theme of Rules #9 and #37: Money.

I’ve written many times about my frustration with the queezyness designers seem to feel whenever the subject of money is raised in a serious business context. Frankly, I haven’t quite figured out why this is the case, but the plain reality is that whether your motives are blatantly capitalistic or purely humanitarian, you must find a way to raise enough money to make your vision viable. In Rule #9, “Nothing Happens Until Money Changes Hands,” Webber hits the topic of money head on and reveals “one fundamental fact of life that every entrepreneur needs to internalize: nothing is real until somebody hands you a check.” He goes on to state, “that money isn’t the be-all and end-all for entrepreneurs. But it is the start-all.” Refreshing candor about a touchy subject.

Webber revisits the topic of money later in Rule #37: “All Money is not Created Equal,” which expands on the process he and his partners went through in the original round of funding for Fast Company with some practical advice about whom you should ask to invest in your concept and why. “We wanted people who had more than financial capital; we wanted people with reputational capital—people whose credibility would give us credibility.”

The book is a quick read that occasionally strikes a resonant tone; certainly worth adding to your summer reading list. Here’s a clip of a presentation Alan Webber recently gave at Google HQ (which is part of a series of videos from Google that are quite insightful).

I’ve been gradually re-reading Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start, which is an absolute bible for creative professionals who are pondering a new business venture. It’s written in the same fresh, vibrant voice in which Kawasaki delivers his wildly popular live presentations, and contains a boatload of surprising, compelling, almost defiant, nuggets of advice (ie: “Don’t write a mission statement, write a mantra”).

Guy Kawasaki, of course, is a venture capitalist, avid blogger, and Tweeter (avid doesn’t begin to describe his blinding Twitter pace), and developer of the web content aggregator, AllTop.

One topic that I have not written much about yet on Merge is strategy, and specifically answering the critical question: “What is my business model?” Kawasaki masterfully boils this complicated and intimidating question down to three basic steps: “You make something, you sell it, you collect the money.” Easy enough, huh?

This “keep it simple” approach comes through in the video below from Stanford’s online Entrepreneurship Corner. Admittedly it’s a few years old (2004), but it still resonates clearly in our current business climate. Incidentally, this is just a single slice of the overall lecture (the rest of which is available on eCorner)which appears to cover most of the key points in The Art of the Start.

Thanks for the great response!
My last post about redesigning the patient experience generated lot’s of input, including this interesting link from Deedy Mullins.

Picture 36A couple weeks ago, my 14 year-old daughter had her wisdom teeth pulled—a routine procedure with, thankfully, routine results. But it illuminated for me, once again, the dire lack of design in our health care system. Even with the fairly simple care instructions my wife Lisa and I were given as Maya left the office of the oral surgeon, we found ourselves furiously scratching notes, staring in confusion at medication labels, and questioning each others interpretation of those instructions over the next few days. Where was the cool deck of cards, or customized downloadable PDF, or (for goodness sakes) iPhone app with the care instructions in colorful graphics, and plain-spoken copy??!!

Of course, this scenario—the lack of empathy-infused communication design in healthcare—was the impetus for our business HealthSimple when we originally launched it in 2004. As I’ve stated many times before in this space, I still believe the category of healthcare offers a vast opportunity for designers with innovative vision.

Here’s a fantastic example of design thinking being applied to the healthcare experience in a refreshing way: Bridget Duffy is the Chief Experience Officer at Cleveland Clinic, and in this video—from the Gel 2008, “a conference and community exploring good experience in all its forms—in business, art, society, technology, and life,” she tells the story of the design of a new hospital gown, among other innovative experiences she is creating. Under her leadership Cleveland Clinic is working to “redesign and transform the patient experience,” and to “humanize the way we deliver medical technology.” Go Bridget!

In a follow up to my last post about Necessity Entrepreneurs
I came across this article from BusinessWeek.com that expands on the topic through a wide range of profiles from a variety of industries, including food, financial services, and technology.

axeYou can add “necessity entrepreneur” to the list of new terms that have seeped into our vernacular over the last year. A necessity entrepreneur is someone who, rather than starting a new business as the result of methodical strategic planning, does so in reaction to a career jolt (like unexpectedly being laid off from their design job, for instance). I know, here in Minneapolis, the last few months have been particularly harsh—after hanging on through the first quarter of ‘09, many firms have finally been forced to cut staff in order to survive—hence, the ranks of potential necessity entrepreneurs is swelling. I’m guessing Minneapolis is not unique in this regard, so I’ve been searching for resources that address this circumstance.

The temptation for most designers when they are laid off in a harsh job market is to start their own design practice. After all, this is the business they know best and where, most likely, they have developed a solid network. The problem in today’s market is that we’ve already reached (and probably surpassed) the saturation point for small start-up design practices. Regardless of your past accomplishments as a designer, if you are just starting out on your own right now, you are joining an outrageously crowded field.

This article from Wall Street Journal, via MSN, does a good job of profiling necessity entrepreneurs who have chosen a field based on a hobby or personal interest, which is an excellent way of approaching this process. Blogger Steve King points out some good news in this post from Small Business Labs, “the cost of starting a small business, and especially a small business based at home, is lower than ever before. Technology has become inexpensive and in many cases even free.”

As I’ve written many times in Merge, a down economy provides a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurs, and the chorus of believers in this idea continues to grow. Innovation and small business growth will be as important as any other factor in our eventual recovery.

Picture 31When you read about “what’s next” in the online media space, there is much discussion about convergence. How will the many innovative social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn—come together and begin to speak to each other, rather than existing in separate silos as they mostly do now? Likewise, how will the fractured media environment—network TV, online video, gaming, etc.—converge into a single primary stream? And ultimately, how will it all blend into an easily accessible platform?

Thankfully, there are smart people like Avner Ronen pondering these questions. Ronen is the CEO of Boxee, an online portal and aggregator of media, which seems to be at least slightly ahead of the pack in the race to develop a common platform that will facilitate the “holy grail” of cross-functionality.

Boxee recently received $2 million in VC funding from Fred Wilson’s Union Square Ventures (see my earlier post on Wilson), which is an impressive accomplishment in itself given the outrageously tight economy and correspondingly tight funding environment. Avner Ronen speaks candidly in the video below from TheDeal.com about the challenges of securing funding in today’s market, and specifically about the early stage of funding. Ronen describes how “angel” investors may previously have been a realistic resource for that $50,000-200,000 needed to build a concept through the prototype or beta development stages. Now, however, it is important for entrepreneurs to be able to “bootstrap it” through that process without external financing, and show some signs of growth and momentum before funders will be willing to take a risk.

While many designers considering entrepreneurial ventures are playing on a different field than Avner Ronen and Fred Wilson, I think it’s extremely useful for us to be aware of how this process happens on the broader scale as we build our business vision.

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Picture 30I had the pleasure of spending some time last week with Tom Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. We had a wide ranging conversation touching on many aspects of design. Graphic design is one of the seven programs within the College which also includes the highly regarded architecture program. While Tom’s background is in architecture, he displays a fluid knowledge of the full design spectrum and how they relate to each other, “I see a lot of blurry edges in the design world,” he said, referring to the overlap between the design disciplines. “With that said, it’s vitally important for a young designer to establish an area of focus and expertise before they begin to branch out.”

One area I was particularly pleased to hear Tom address is the amount of collaboration between the College of Design and other academic areas, like the medical school and the humanities. “The leaders of these programs are seeing design as integral to preparing a student to go out into the world. What’s really exciting is that they are the ones initiating the dialogue.” He spoke at length about the possibilities for cross-programming with the Carlson School of Management, another U of M program with a national profile. “Alison Davis-Blake, the dean of the Carlson School, and I have had some very exciting conversations about bringing design into that program. She really sees design as a way to distinguish the Carlson School nationally and I think we’ll be able to play a key role in helping her fulfill that vision.”

Kern2AiPhone Games for Designers
In a follow up to last week’s post about iPhone app development, I noticed a link on the @Issue blog (which is beginning to come together after a slow start) for iPhone Games for Designers which sent me to the site for FORMation Alliance. They’ve got a few cool game concepts with a graphic design theme, like KERN, a mindless but fun game for type geeks which I had previously downloaded on my iPhone. Frankly their site is written in such indecipherable design-speak that I couldn’t get a very good grasp of what FORMation is all about, but it’s worth a look nonetheless.

Picture 27As discussed previously in this space, iPhone app development is whipping through the creative industry like a wildfire. Apple just announced that the 1 billionth app had been downloaded, and with the upcoming release of the new iPhone 3Gs, this trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. The relative simplicity of the programming process and the “plug & play” merchant functionality of the Apple store, makes this a tantalizing opportunity for entrepreneurs in the creative world. Even in the last few weeks I’m coming across more and more designers who are taking the plunge into this market with their own app concepts.

But how are designers actually accomplishing the development work on these apps? Even as simple as Apple has made it, this process is still way beyond my ability—and I’m guessing most communication designers are in a similar boat. What I’m seeing is the emergence of a sub-specialty of web development focused on iPhone app work, and I’m seeing more developers promoting themselves in this way. One firm that is building a strong presence in this area is The Nerdery (formerly known as Sierra Bravo) based in Minneapolis, who are producing a series of educational events and resources to help designers, developers, and…really anyone with a cool app concept, get their ideas off the ground. I recently sat in on The Nerdery’s Agency iPhone Primer webinar and found it to be an excellent intro to the process. Here’s the presentation deck for that session:

Follow Up to my Government Policy Post
Bruce Nussbaum of BusinessWeek had an intriguing response to the announcement that A.G. Lafley will be stepping down as CEO of Proctor & Gamble: “President Obama, make Lafley Chief Innovation Officer.” Lafley is regarded as one of the pioneers of corporate innovation in the consumer goods category.

Picture 26The public radio show, Marketplace provided a great lead the other day with an interview with Paul Kedrosky, the author of the first in an excellent series of five articles in the Washington Monthly entitled How Washington Can Jumpstart The Economy. In this age of blogs and tweets, the series provides some refreshingly thorough journalism on the topic of how entrepreneurship will be one of the keys to economic recovery, and how the government can help encourage this activity.

Kedrosky’s article sets the tone for the series with the observation that the answer does not lies in whether entrepreneurship or government policy will be the primary force in the recover, but rather how the two can compliment each other toward this end. Kedrosky poses some intriguing ideas for how fundamental reform in energy, banking, and health care can stimulate innovation. But the surprising addition to this list, for me, was that of immigration reform, Paul Kedrosky writes:

“Perhaps the most straightforward action government could take to boost innovation and entrepreneurship is to reform its immigration laws. Foreign-born entrepreneurs are responsible for many of the fastest-growing companies in America, from Google on outward. Studies have shown that skilled immigrants, in particular, account for a high percentage of the founders of Silicon Valley start-ups.”

He continues: “The U.S. should be doing everything it can to facilitate their arrival and permanent addition to the U.S. workforce, whether through expanded visa programs, the attachment of green cards to U.S. graduate degrees, or the outright purchase of skilled immigrant status as is the case in Canada and elsewhere. (See T. A. Frank, “Green Cards for Grads.”) It is crucial in this downturn to fight back anti-immigration sentiment, as well as the predictable xenophobia.”

In the final article of the series, A Shot In The Arm, Jonathan Gruber discusses one of my favorite topics: entrepreneurship in the health care industry.

Who’s in the Social Entrepreneurship club – and who isn’t?
In another intriguing article, Ashni Mohnot writes rather critically about her experiences in the world of social entrepreneurship in this post on the Pop!Tech blog. You would think this would be a category of the entrepreneurial world filled with the creative, the virtuous, and the idealistic, right? Not so, according to Ashni Mohnot.

Picture 22Since launching Merge a few months back, I have felt compelled to investigate the business publishing genre, which I had mostly avoided until then except for the occasional Malcolm Gladwell offering. With the rare exception, I find these books to be mind-numbingly boring, often having only a few salient points to make, but dragging the reader through hundreds of pages of redundancy. Can’t they just distribute a one-page summary via PDF and save us all a lot of time?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Dan Pink’s new book, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, which breaks out of this category with vigor by using the format of a graphic novel to convey the otherwise stale message of how to how to revive your career (I just found the video below for a Hollywood-style “trailer” for the book, kinda cool). By blending the fresh and sassy attitude of the graphic novel with the practical nuts and bolts of the business book, Pink has hit on a winning formula.

Another resource that applies a creative storytelling approach is the website Lateral Action which discusses the creative economy and veers into some interesting entrepreneurial topics geared toward creative professionals. Developed by a collaborative team of Mark McGuinness, Tony Clark, and Brian Clark, three veteran creative pros, they haven’t quite pulled the whole online experience together from the visual perspective, but the site is rich with content and the writing is very engaging, often using fictional characters and narrative storytelling to convey their message. One of my favorite posts, entitled The Kurt Cobain Guide to Startup Success, analyzes the late indie rock icon as an entrepreneurial visionary. An animated video series follows the fictional character of Lou through a career makeover.

Thanks to Dan Wallace of Ideafood for the tip on Lateral Action.

Picture 21As I’ve written previously in Merge, the issue of how design educators address entrepreneurship is a real puzzle. Aside from the requisite “professional practice” course that most designers endure, there is little-to-no discussion of the core elements of building a business. We’re seeing some truly innovative graduate-level programs emerging especially in the industrial design area, such as the much-heralded Stanford D School and lower profile entries, like the University of Cincinnati, Design, Architecture, Art & Planning Program, and California College of the Arts. The Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts is one of the only programs I’ve found that has roots in communication design.

At the undergraduate level, the picture is even more bleak. With the exception of bright spots like the University of Illinois Chicago, I’m not seeing a whole lot of emphasis on innovative business thinking in communication design programs (please, tell me if I’m missing something obvious). One encouraging sign is the increasing number of programs that offer collaborative programs either within a school or between schools, like the split major that a student in the Washington University in St. Louis School of Art can achieve with the WU Olin School of Business.

There was a recent flurry of Twitter activity around a blog post by Ryan Jacoby, a business designer and one of the leaders of the IDEO New York studio, who has created an experimental curriculum for an advanced degree in Business Design. It seems to be built on the framework of an MBA curriculum, but implemented through the lens of design thinking. It’s a very fresh approach infused with a surprisingly playful attitude with courses like Organizational Design and Culture (Charts & Farts). Check out the extensive commentary on Ryan’s post, which really extends the conversation nicely.

bwlogo_255x54Here’s a helpful reference from BusinessWeek of top D-Schools (which seems to have a mostly industrial design focus).

This is a significant challenge for communication design programs. The successful designer of 2015 and beyond will not be able to rely solely on her ability to help solve her client’s creative or strategic problems. The landscape for designers will be dramatically changed by then and the design success stories will be about designers bringing innovative products to market. Thus far, however, there simply aren’t enough places for designers to learn the skills that will prepare us for this reality.

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