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Tailoring Your Design Services for Startups

By:   Date posted: August 13, 2013

startup blocksThe startup industry is booming at an exponential rate, and the need for creative talent is strong. There is a huge opportunity to grow your design business by learning and adapting to this new client’s needs.

Launching a startup has become much easier thanks to lower startup costs and avenues such as the “Lean Startup” approach. Everyone is rushing to push products out and capitalize on the next big thing. In this haste, startups run to design agencies and development companies, often simultaneously, without their ideas completely fleshed out. They are worried about whether their product will be profitable, if they can beat their competitors and how they will gain investors. Sometimes, they have no business plan, their functionality isn’t sorted out, and they don’t even have a name; all they have is an idea and the anxiousness to make it tangible.

Traditional design agencies work against a lot of these concerns. The scope often needs to be very refined and rigid with a very tight time line. It can be intimidating for a startup to approach these agencies because they often ask for brand guidelines, mockups, user flows and much more documentation than the startup might have prepared. And this is just to receive a proposal.

Once the project is initiated, the amount of time speaking in person or giving feedback is minimal, and the amount of revisions allowed is limited. Some of the agencies also offer development, which might seem convenient for a company wanting to get off the ground quickly, but many agencies that offer both design and development usually excel at one over the other. When it leans more toward development, design often isn’t executed at the level it should be for the money spent.

This work model is hard for startups because a lot of problems don’t arise until the UX is being drafted. Added functionality, revisions to the site flow and changes in branding can cost hundreds of dollars extra if it is considered out of scope.

Time is also money for startups. There is often competition to see who can capture a niche market first, and it’s usually whichever product launched first. Working with a design agency for months on end hinders your ability to have that advantage, and the average cost of working with a traditional agency is often much too expensive for startups to afford. Some agencies won’t even take on a smaller startup project.

When taking on a startup client, here are some things to consider:

1. Offer a flexible scope.

A startup client might come in and describe how a product works, only to realize further into the project that certain features make more sense or that he or she might want to target a different audience. By keeping the scope more vague, the client can experience the trial and error of creating a new product. This will also lead to a better-developed idea and a more successful product that will reflect well on your agency later on.

2. Contribute to the idea.

As a designer, you have a lot of insight into the user’s point of view, and using that information to contribute to product development and marketing ideas not only benefits the client immensely, but also helps develop additional skills for you and your team. During the UX stage of production, you are as much a graphic designer as you are a product designer. Even if you are hired on to design UI only, UI and UX are so closely intertwined that your decisions design-wise can help influence and mold the user experience. Make suggestions to improve the product, and view yourself as a collaborator more than just the designer. This process also makes it incredibly easy for clients to return to you for future adaptations for other platforms.

3. Charge a flat fee.

Startups often do not make money for a long time. By offering a flat fee, clients can feel more secure in hiring you because there will be no surprises at the end of the project. A lot of startup clients have very little or no funding and come to agencies for designs to pitch to investors. Charging on an hourly basis may put a strain on your startup clients’ budgets — especially with the amount of revisions back and forth — and stress on you, the person who needs to be paid.

4. Create documentation for developers.

Providing detailed user flows and guidelines to the client will allow them to save time and money in the development phase and preserve the integrity of your designs. You can design the most beautiful and enjoyable experience known to man, but if the developer who is implementing it is unsure of certain aspects and has to guess or fill in blanks, your design can end up muddled and confused.  If you don’t offer proper documentation or guidelines, you are taking a risk.

5. Offer additional services.

Offering services such as investor pitching and writing business plans will not only greatly benefit you and your relationship with your client, but it could also be the differentiating factor between you and your competitor. By focusing all of your talents and energy toward startups, you or your agency could be one of a few serving this niche market and benefiting from it. The startup world is very small, and word of mouth travels fast. Having one great client experience can gain you several referred clients.

At Awesome, we work exclusively with startups. This business model has proven fruitful, and startup clients come to us specifically knowing that what they will receive from us will be beautiful, well-documented designs that they can use to advance their companies and gain investors. Our clients, Udemy, DateMySchool and Wanderfly, have collectively raised over $10 million in funding after working with our agency.

Incorporating these tips into your business practices will create a work relationship where innovation and creativity can flourish. Not only does the client receive an amazing product, but as a designer, you can have more pride in your work knowing this was something you helped cultivate from the ground up.

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Kim Capers is a designer at Awesome, a startup design agency which specializes in creating UI and UX for other startup companies and provides branding, product development, investor pitching and business plan writing services.

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