Estimated reading time: 9 minutes 50 seconds
I traded my life in a small city for the big adventure, which made me being happy and uncomfortable. Leaving my beloved city Zurich and my job was not easy – but then nothing that is worth it is easy, right? I left behind my family, friends and known environment to start a new chapter in London. In this new chapter, the focus was on learning how to build and run a start-up based on design thinking methods.
Have you ever done a large puzzle? The last couple of month felt like solving a huge puzzle. You don’t know how the big picture is going to look like, but the more pieces you connect the clearer your understanding gets. This is not a story about how to build a successful start-up, it is a story about people. Even though I gained a lot of knowledge and expertise about how to run a start-up, it’s the relationships which made the experience. It is not a perfect story. It is a story about mistakes, disappointment and joy.
Where did we start?
We started talking to people and finding a problem in order to make sure that we will create value. Reasonably realistic, the goal was not to have the best idea, because this experience was about the learning process. We developed Homebrella, a convenient opportunity to store a wet umbrella whilst on the go. Homebrella can be attached or placed into a range of handbags, backpacks or carried over the shoulder with the extendable strap. It turns a functional product into a flexible, accessible and stylish accessory (Hugh Manatee, 2017). Building a start-up should be based on solving a problem, which leads to fulfilling a real need and hopefully delighting people. We used Design Thinking principles through the whole start-up experience. As Brown (2009) summarises Design Thinking is a problem-solving approach which focusses on the human needs and creates a good foundation to innovate.
Figure 1: Own representation based on Dorst (2011) Design Thinking Abducation 2
We did not know what (thing) and how (working principle) to solve the problem, but we knew the aspired value (result) we wanted to create. As Dorst (2011) explains working backwards from the things we know to the unknown is the way to solve complex problems. This kind of problem framing with two unknown elements encourages an unconventional way of problem-solving. There is one clear mission: Creating value.
How did we work?
According to d.school (no date) the Design Thinking Process includes the following steps: Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.
Figure 2: Own representation based on d.school Stanford (no date) Design Thinking Process
We tend to assume things – about people on the bus, our neighbours or our potential customers. Our only way to find out if our assumptions were true was to focus on our target audience. The main mission of our team was to devote our whole attention to the user. This promise was reflected in all our actions and concepts. We created a user journey with touch points for feedback and we took the responses seriously. Feedback was a relevant element at any stage of the project because it protected the team from going in the wrong direction. It also allowed us to pivot if necessary. As Ries (2011) explains a pivot is a sharp change, once you realise that some aspects of your product or your strategy is not working.
Figure 3: Own photograph, taken by Batliner (2017) at the Design Museum London
Empathy is one of the crucial skills we developed. Empathy is not only relevant for product development, customer service but also for collaborating with a diverse team. Our aim was not just to produce a product, we wanted to create a lifestyle. Especially, when it came to the use and the material of our product we learned how essential it was to observe, talk, listen and focus on one thing: our customers. This start-up was not about us, it was about the problem of our customer.
“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation – you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person.” (Catmull and Wallace, 2014, p. 94)
We built an authentic business so we also showed the personal side of each team member on our website. As Lundqvist, Liljander, Gummerus, and Van Riel (2013) explain a story behind a company builds positive feelings and helps to build brand trust. Furthermore, storytelling points out the uniqueness of the brand and supports the communication of the company’s value.
Figure 4: Own representation, credits for the creative writing to Michael Smyth
As an example, our vocabulary played a relevant role in the storytelling process. We used personal and humorous language to connect with our target audience. Our content strategy was keeping it short and to the point.
Figure 5: Own representation, credits for the creative writing to Michael Smyth
Once we created our prototype people started playing around, reacted and interacted with it. This gave us valuable insights. It guaranteed that we didn’t lose focus and always had our target group in mind. Furthermore, it eliminated the misunderstandings in the team, which we didn’t even know existed. The process of making a tangible object can not only be a creative experience but it is also a valuable approach to talk about the product and develop it further. We experienced that being makers empowered us. „Show, don’t tell“ as Kelley and Kelley (2013) mention in their book “Creative Confidence”.
Figure 6: Own photograph, taken by Batliner (2017) at Kingston University London
We developed our prototype further to reach the point of creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which we could actually sell and gain feedback from. Everything we did was based on the aspect of iterating. Nothing was carved in stone. At the beginning, I felt this was avoiding decision making, but I learned that iterating gave us the freedom to develop further, adapt and improve. According to Ries (2011) start-ups should be set up as a grand experiment since learning is the quintessence of every start-up to make progress. After my hands-on experience, I could not agree more.
Figure 7: Own photograph, taken by Batliner (2017) at Kingston University London
Besides the product development, we were working on our company strategy. The Lean Canvas is a suitable tool to think in the present and it helped us to brainstorm ideas for different business models. The advantage of the Lean Canvas is a customer-centric approach (Maurya, 2012). We mapped our key information on the chart and added new ideas from time to time. In addition to that, Osterwalder’s (2012) value proposition canvas was a suitable tool to figure out why people would buy our product or why the wouldn’t. It made us think from the customer’s perspective and identify our customer’s wants, needs and fears. The psychological aspect of these factors is relevant for the decision to purchase.
How was the team set up?
Our team of four people had a diverse collective skill set which ensured that we could cover many tasks ourselves. Everyone was involved in the diverse facets of the business – from idea finding, talking to potential customers, prototyping, product development, branding and selling to pitching. I combined one of my strengths with one of my weaknesses. In my role as Creative Director, I was in known territory. Keeping an overview of the financial situation was new to me. I saw it as an opportunity to gain new knowledge. The ability to manage money and understand the financial situation is part of entrepreneurship.
Figure 8 and 9: Own photograph, taken by Batliner (2017) at Kingston University London
Learning that we don’t need to compensate all our entrepreneurial weaknesses because it is teamwork, helped to focus on everyone’s strengths. Being resilient and motivated came to light as my entrepreneurial strengths, especially when the energy level was low towards the end. Through my high self-awareness, I discovered impatience and ambition, as my entrepreneurial weaknesses. Ambition can be my greatest strength or weakness, depending on the circumstances. There will always be weaknesses, but being aware makes it a lot easier to deal with them.
How did we collaborate?
Coward (2015) explains that collaboration starts with yourself. Collaboration is a team working towards the same goal, but it is based on our own individual story. One of the discoveries we made is that communication is the core of every collaboration. This seems obvious, but once you are in a collaboration where this is a vulnerable part, you realise its significance. This puzzle piece is irreplaceable. Openly speaking, in our team communication was a grey area. Absences were not clearly communicated in advance and other responsibilities came in the way. This limitation prevented us from exploiting our full potential. As a consequence, responsibilities for some individual tasks were not taken seriously anymore. The team dynamics, which was very strong at the beginning decreased slowly.
“Two factors form the central foundation to a successful project team and great collaboration– trust and communication.” (Coward, 2015, p. 15)
Communication is the glue between the team members. During times when we couldn’t meet, our communication was weak regarding the frequency. From my personal perspective, the trust was fading due to delayed responses. I probably struggled more with my high expectations of the commitment than with the challenges related to the tasks. The commitment and time management was partly influenced by four completely different university schedules as well as work responsibilities.
Figure 10: Own representation based on Leankit’s (no date) Kanban
For the future, a higher visibility of tasks, absences and timelines will help us to stay on track. Furthermore, it will encourage us to communicate openly, carry more responsibility and have shared ownership of the project. As Coward (2015) explains defining how we work together as a team is a crucial element, which can have a huge impact. It was a collaboration with fun moments, inspiring sessions and generous gestures, but I am focusing on the hard parts of the teamwork because that’s where we get the biggest learnings from.
Which gaps will I mind in the future?
Under the motto “mind the gap” I collected my main lessons learned.
Figure 11: Own photograph, taken and edited by Batliner (2017)
Mind the gap between your and other’s skills, expertise and motivation.
Meaning: Find people who are as passionate and motivated as you are and who can add value to your skill set and expertise.
Mind the gap between what the market offers and what the customers need.
Meaning: Find the niche in the market, where you can solve a real problem and add value.
Mind the gap between your expectations and the actions others.
Meaning: Find people who share the same values with you.
Mind the gap between telling and showing.
Meaning: You can tell a story or you can show it.
Mind the gap between two things that are not related.
Meaning: Connect the dots between unusual areas in an unprecedented manner to create value, that has not existed before.
Mind the gap between what you think you can and what you are capable of.
Meaning: You can more than you think.
Which puzzle piece is missing?
In the end, I think there is only one missing piece. What to do with this know-how? No matter where my way leads me, the knowledge and understanding I gained will be beneficial in any career. I discovered that I want to use my design and entrepreneurial skills to create social change. My future job needs to have a purpose and help to solve relevant problems.
Figure 12: Own photograph, taken by Batliner (2017) at Stanley Picker Gallery
This is not the end, it is just a new beginning.
When I look back, even though it was quite a tough rollercoaster ride, it was an enjoyable one. We overcame the crazy loopings and we will leave Kingston University London pumped with energy and confidence. I know what my team is capable of and I know what I am capable of. Now, it is time to start a new puzzle. Will it be easier? Probably not, but it will be less terrifying.
At the end of the day, it comes down to one thing. As Dweck (2012, p. 244) emphasises growth mindset empowers:
“Mindset change is … about seeing things in a new way. When people…change to a growth mindset, they change from a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework. Their commitment is to growth, and growth takes plenty of time, effort, and mutual support.”
Thank you to everyone who was involved in this wonderful journey.
Figure 13: Photograph, taken by Trueba (2016) at Kingston University London
Batliner, S. (2017). Photography.
Brown, T. (2009). Change by design.
Catmull, E. and Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc: overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. Random House.
Coward, A. (2015). Great teams. A guide to better creative collaboration. Bracket Ltd London.
Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design studies, 32(6), pp.521-532.
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Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Business. Portfolio Penguin, London.
Trueba, F. (2016). Photography. Group picture at Kingston University.