Design × Entrepreneurship

Ever wanted to build a startup — and get a Masters degree for it?

Startup Leadership
By Ferdinand Vogler 08.04.2018 9 min read

“As a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.” Ben Horowitz

Having studied Design Entrepreneurship at Berne University of the Arts, I look back on a turbulent time of self-doubts paired with excitement, frustration and joy. Learning the hard thing about doing hard things. I’d do it again. Read on.

Nobody cares.

First, let me get your motivation amped up. How was your startup idea born? Is it something you thought would be cool? Is it really that much of a problem for other people? Not everything has to be unique, but is your solution at least three-times better than anything that’s out there? Only then will people consider switching from their current habits. Everyone thinks their startup is special — it isn’t. What can be special is your execution of an idea. Designers approach problems with a different perspective. Our tools and methods put people first. Just that increases your chances of success remarkably. Oftentimes, we start fixing something because it annoys us. At the same time you’re the creator and your first customer. Scratching your own itch.

The birth hour of Nutridelta. Coding through the night at a hackathon in Zurich.

You’re running this!

Maybe you pitched your idea at a Hackathon. You found a curious team and after working together for a weekend you decide to keep going with this little idea. You came up with something that’s just too good to die. Without your pitch, this project would have never come to life. You’re the person that started this. That makes you the leader of the tribe, if you want it or not. Don’t try to know everything and have it all planned out. Communicate early and often. Ask for help, you’re not in it alone. A pair of fresh eyes always helps. Leadership doesn’t mean pretending to be free of doubts and the need for feedback. Share articles on your topic, be the driving force.

Your personal Yoda

Every student has two mentors during the development of their startup idea. After my Bachelor thesis, I continued working on Nutridelta (Video in German). In a team of three we built a database of ingredients that are mapped to food intolerances. By connecting your eating profile to various online platforms, those services can adapt to your needs, thereby getting to know you better and improving your experience. Every time I felt stuck, just talking it out with someone got me notes on how to keep going. Plan the next meeting at the end of each session. You’ll then have a list of actionable to-do’s which will also help bring you forward and continuously make progress. No one wants to appear to a meeting having done nothing all week.

All great digital tools aside: nothing beats bringing something to paper and sorting it with your hands.

Find a project buddy

A project buddy is your weekly “kick in the butt.” I met with Kilian of go(geek) to sit in a room at University each Friday. We talked about current challenges and agreed on a task we want to achieve in the next hour. We’d then sit in front of our keyboards silently and check-in after those sixty minutes to see how far we’ve gotten.

Get your pitch right

I attended the Thought For Food conference in Amsterdam and by chance bumped into an investor. He was about to go to a meeting but seemed interested in what I do. My opportunity to secure a seed investment! After 15 seconds you could see his face going from “interested” to a polite “nice try, buddy.” Learn how to spark curiosity and be convincing in thirty seconds. When describing your startup, have a one sentence description. If it’s met with “Wow, that sounds cool. How does that work?” you just earned yourself some extra time. It’s all about exchanging business cards and concluding a memorable pitch with a handshake. Be authentic and on the border to realistic but dare to go a bit over the top with your idea, explain the details later. Yes, every startup is disrupting the status quo. Don’t be too serious about it and let your excitement come through. The shortest distance between two people is a story. What’s yours?

Drawing your why, how and what can often help.

Have something to show

Create a website outlining why and how you do what. Have a company email address. Suddenly things don’t feel like a project anymore. Don’t fool people, but show a realistic version of where you’re going. No one ever had the perfect solution from the beginning. But make it clear to people where you’re heading.

Finding a name isn’t easy.

“If you like it, then you should’ve put a name on it”

Good names take time. Think about where you’ll go with your project. Does it need to be pronouncable in multiple languages? Does it “look” good and type itself well? Can you keep the name if your company changes directions? How memorable is it? WIPO has a global brand database where you can see if someone already registered your name. Register all top-level domains if it’s still available. That initial investment is better than having to pay thousands to someone holding that domain hostage. For some, there’s a real business behind selling good names.

Crunch some numbers

Do some estimations on your business model. See if what you want to do actually works out in hard numbers. Guessing is hard, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to not guess at all. One of the first questions you’ll encounter is how you’re going to make money. How much does your team cost? Who do you need to hire in the future? How big is your market, how many potential customers do you have? Reach out to someone to have a look at this with you for two hours. I got a lot of help from my mentors on this.

Map out your business model

I had problems filling in the Business Model Canvas by Alex Osterwalder. For many fields I simply couldn’t come up with something. It seemed to be made for businesses that are more established already. I favor the Lean Canvas influenced by Ash Maurya because it’s more focused on stating the problem well. Too many fall in love with their solution. What if it’s not even tech-related? Maybe you don’t need an app? That’s entrepreneurship and problem-solving on a holistic level. Dare to challenge yourself in that way. Your solution will have many variations which you will then evaluate until you reach the glorified product-market-fit: somebody actually wants and needs what you have built. Read Ashs article “Why Lean Canvas vs Business Model Canvas?” and learn what model makes sense for you.

Your chances are little

You probably won’t change the world, but on a local level, everyone can make a difference. You know the saying “act local, think global.” Who cares if your product affects 5,000 or 500,000? You’ll leave the world better than you found it. You can influence your surroundings. Creating something that wasn’t there before, the playful enthusiasm and perseverance of building things, that is entrepreneurship.

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