Designers – you are my heroes. In my lifetime I have had the pleasure of selling the designs (prints, necklaces, handbags, chairs, etc.) of over 20,000 designers. That's a lot of cool people. Designers make the world more beautiful. More functional. Safer. More special.
Many designers choose to work in larger corporations, which can be both rewarding and frustrating. I even wrote an essay on this topic called You're a designer. Not the CEO. A bunch of people read it. Many loved it. Some hated it. But it was meant to be about the need for cooperation between designers and business stakeholders. That designers who work for other people need to be collaborative. And that they should smile.
This essay is about a different type of designer. These designers are those who have chosen not to work within another company's walls, but strike out on their own. So here's my first piece of advice: stop calling yourself a designer! You're more than that. Yes, we know you design. And assuredly you're good. But you started a business. You are a CEO. You are a founder. You're a design entrepreneur, not a designer.
There are many kinds of design business. A lot of them are in the service industry, like branding agencies or graphic design houses. While the four things I write about below are likely to be relatable to those types of design entrepreneurs, in this essay I am mostly talking about designers who make things to be sold.
These are jewellers and print houses and furniture shops and leather goods brands. These are the types of designers I have spent my career promoting and falling in love with and collecting. They're the types of design entrepreneurs who inspire me.
It takes balls to forgo a steady paycheck working for someone else in exchange for founding a business making things that customers may or may not love. Alberto Alessi once said "we do believe that beauty can save the world." My heroes try to make the world more beautiful. But making something beautiful is not enough these days.
There are four things a design entrepreneur needs to succeed:
Yes, I'm looking at you. It feels good to be noticed. That's a no-brainer. Designers create things so others can touch, live with, and wear their creations. It's a boost of energy to any entrepreneur to be celebrated, to be seen.
How does one go about receiving validation? Find partners. Whether working with a new retailer (follow your gut), showing your work with a collective of designers (it's powerful and cathartic to band with others), or passing out samples door-to-door at your favourite boutiques (you have to be your own number-one salesperson) the end goal is the same. You have to make connections with real people and hear what they say about your work. That should inform your designs and approach.
Karrie Kaneda is a wonderful textile designer from Kansas City with a growing brand, Happy Habitat. When we met a couple weeks ago for the first time in person, she told me the story of how she first worked with me years back. She and her family cheered as her first orders came in. It was validation to her designs: it proved that people liked them. Karrie just showed at NY Now, the New York gift show, for the first time. That early exposure, years ago, was a springboard to get her here, with a much more mature business.
2. Access to resources
It's tough at times being a small business. It's also extremely rewarding. But one big hurdle for starting a brand is coming up with capital to buy raw materials to actually make things. Big brands can foot the bill to produce collections in mass quantities. They have giant warehouses to store their goods.
Many designers I work with use their homes as their warehouses. They cannot bear the costs upfront to manufacture deep collections. So real sales really make an impact.
Jessica Rosenkrantz, one of the founders of Nervous System, makes amazing jewellery and freaking awesome 3D-printed dresses. She said to me that the cheque we cut her was the biggest she'd ever received. Her statement stuck with me and since then many other designers have said the exact same thing. Real sales and real money make a difference. Not just in paying the bills but also in the ability to make more.
The number one way to gain access to resources is to make money via sales. I'd strongly advise designers to not raise money from outside investors and to bootstrap their business. More than most, I know the pain of taking too much money from other people. But you do need money coming in. So everything you do, every hour you work, has to be spent focusing on how you're going to scale your business. When you're designing, think about who would buy this and where it could be sold. And schedule time away from designing to make contact with retailers, distributors, journalists, design fairs. Your passion to make has to be matched with a passion to sell your goods.
Being seen is tough. There are a lot of designers in the world, but there is also a myriad of ways to rise above the clutter. You can have an amazing Instagram feed. You can work trade shows and craft fairs. You can make amazing products. But a lot of design entrepreneurs need help getting noticed. Once seen, crazy things can happen.
Jen Murse is founder and designer of Plastique. I found her at the Renegade Craft Fair and hounded her until she allowed me to sell her goods on Fab. The sale was a success and Jen received orders but the bigger part of the story was how Lady Gaga noticed Jen's work, which led to a collaboration between the pop star and the designer. This created news which led to more exposure. Designers need to be their best personal marketer. Sales are more powerful when packed with exposure.
And you gain exposure by making amazing things at great prices and coupling it with a wide web of connections. Patience is key here. You cannot rush. Make connections to the right people. Sell your products and see money coming in. Then it will be time for people to really take notice.
Real business education is missing from design school curriculums. But designers by nature are problem solvers. And design entrepreneurs are true business people.
Many designers stay in their comfort zone and stick to just designing. But you have to start thinking differently. You have to embrace spreadsheets and margins and manufacturing and marketing and sales with the same creative vigor you would designing. It's critical to your success and to the health of your business.
This is about a mindset change for many designers: you must take the time to learn all parts of your business. You must understand how PR works, so ask a journalist you admire to lunch and pick their brain. You can learn to redesign your website by taking a class somewhere like General Assembly. Or you can better your basic accounting skills – many community colleges and local governments have courses for small businesses. Your education must not end at design school. I strongly advise continuing your education, and not your design education. Your business education.
Validation, resources, exposure, and experience. These are four things needed for any design entrepreneur to grow their businesses. If Lady Gaga calls, well that's just icing on the cake.
Bradford Shellhammer is the Founder, CEO and Chief Curator of Bezar, a member's only e-commerce site that offers modern designs from emerging designers. The experienced entrepreneur also created Fab.com and has been a leader at Blu Dot and Design Within Reach along with sitting on the Advisory Board of six companies.