The image most people conjure up when they think of a startup founder is that of a lone coder hacking up a storm from their dorm room or tiny San Francisco apartment. While there might be more than a little truth to this notion, it's not always so.
Creatives with little to no engineering background are increasingly building and operating the next big thing in software and cloud-based apps. A prime example is Airbnb, one of the most highly valued private U.S. technology companies. Its founders: two design grads from Rhode Island School of Design.
Building things that people want
Any Silicon Valley investor will tell you that, in order for your product or service to make money, you need to demonstrate that it solves a consumer's problem or fulfils a need or want. This is basic stuff, but it's surprising how often tech entrepreneurs forget to test this when they get caught up with building something they think is a great idea.
But creatives who come at a problem from an agency background are already attuned to the wants and needs of consumers. In an agency, your entire business hinges on the ability to recognize consumer problems and convince them that a given product or service will not only solve it, but make them rock stars in the process. So this key entrepreneurial quality is baked into the creative founder's DNA from the start.
"My way or the highway" approach doesn't work
Tech companies are famous for their "my way or the highway" approach to customer feedback. While this rigid strategy may have served them well in the past, the dynamic is changing fast. Innate customer empathy will be increasingly important to a tech company's longevity and relevance, particularly given how easy it is becoming to switch between cloud-based services.
As more software is now delivered on a subscription basis, or as a tool for delivering services such as Uber or Netflix, a company is only as good as its most recent month of customer service and product quality. Keeping customers happy is the key to success.
Anyone who has worked with clients in an agency setting understands the delicate balance between listening to client feedback and maintaining the integrity of the original vision and project. It's impossible to thrive in a service-based industry if you don't respect and listen to your client's ideas.
You've got to hustle
In the agency world, it's not uncommon to focus on a particular market. Success (and sometimes survival) often boils down to grit and hustle. To grow, you must look beyond what you're comfortable doing right now in order to push yourself to pursue new opportunities.
When the Great Recession hit my agency, which specialized in real estate, we saw revenue shrink dramatically overnight. To fill that gap, we began to look for other opportunities. With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, we founded a company to develop a mobile event platform worthy of powering the first-ever mobile app for the Olympic Games. Our story is hardly unusual: Agencies are continually reinventing their services based on the needs of the market.
As a startup founder, you need the same kind of hustle that helped you thrive in an agency setting. Markets, customer needs and competitors change all the time. The nimble nature of agency work is the perfect for training founders-to-be.
Playing the long game
If you're a creative looking to launch a product startup, the biggest adjustment could be the widely different delivery schedules between startups and agencies. With an agency or consulting company, you can book your first client and start bringing in revenue quickly, and you're in a constant loop of creativity, adrenalin and reward. But when building a product, it can take years before launching your prototype and getting to profitability. You need to adjust your horizon and build for stability and scalability.
With cloud and subscription software, the money and time needed to build a product are cheaper now than ever before, but you still may need to be able to survive for years before turning a profit.
The upside of building a product startup is that it can grow quickly and scale in a way that an agency or service-based business never can. As creatives, we love designing to solve problems and improve the world. A product company lets you make a difference at a much bigger scale.