Design is often seen as waste, especially in the early stages of a startup, but taking some time to consider what you stand for and how you look can save pain, heartache and even get you users, press and that VC funding!

Last month we presented GUM - our app that lets you stick text to products via their barcodes - at TechCrunch Europe. We took a stand in Startup Alley, where we shared space with 90 or so other startups across many different sectors.

The thing that struck me was that there is a distinct lack of design and brand thinking within early startups. Sure, there are services and products where design is considered, but you get a feeling that in the race for validation or simply to fit in, that originality and own-ability got chucked out the window in favour of bootstrap design frameworks or flat UI toolkits.

“We're validating features not making things pretty”

Eric Ries has influenced, if not revolutionised the way in which startups operate. His book Lean Startup took the principles of lean development and manufacture and applied them to product development and startups. His advocation of learning quickly and failing fast changed a mindset that favoured big-bang releases that more often than not failed disastrously to one that placed emphasis on iteration, metrics and aggressively pursuing market validation. Central to this idea is the minimum viable product (MVP) - a version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

I must say I back this idea and I think that Eric is clear that this doesn't mean creating minimal products. However, I think that some proponents of the MVP have perhaps misunderstood or allowed themselves to de-prioritise certain things before they even consider whether they might be useful in fulfilling the aims of the MVP..

What I mean by this is that design is sometimes seen as waste; and even more so when it comes to brand. In some cases this may be true, but it should always be considered as an important weapon in the lean startup's arsenal, and here's why.

Brand saves you time

A brand framework can make prototyping much quicker. Twitter Bootstrap is great in that it lets you mock something up that feels relatively consistent and usable very quickly, because all the elements are there to pull from when you need them. Hire a designer and make your own version. Pull from this pool and you have both the speed and the own-ability.

Design is cheap and fast

Design is relatively cheap. Good designers tend to cost less than good developers and they work quickly (especially if they are pulling from an agreed pool of assets). For example they could mock-up a signup page for your site in a day and you could be running your recruitment campaign that night. A well designed page (i.e. one that engenders trust with the target user) will almost certainly give you a better signup rate (meaning a better ROI on your acquisition costs). You might strike it lucky with an off-the-shelf design template - but most likely you will take something bland and generic and hack it to fit your needs - ruining any kind of design balance it might once have carried. Also, it now looks and feels like every other lame 'sign up here' page they've ever seen.

Brand can encapsulate your vision and energy

It's not all about features. You will be having meetings with potential partners, collaborators, staff and investors, even from very early on. This isn't a side point - presenting yourself at this stage will be vital to your financial ability to continue. A well presented brand and relevant assets needn't cost the earth, but can engender trust and vision. Investor decks will look better, email newsletters will look better, your website will perform better - damn, even your business card might be something worth keeping rather than the job lot you got from

Minimum Lovable Product

One of the reasons I believe in this so strongly is because I have committed the same mistake. I spent many months working on a product that suffered hugely from the sidelining of design. We believed that to validate the idea we needed to be testing features and that investment in UI or brand was superfluous or at the very least hackable (fake it 'till you make it!) However - to put it bluntly - it sucked. We used several frameworks (Bootstrap and Flat UI) and it kind of looked like something you might see from a bona fide startup but frankly it lacked imagination and given that we were trying to persuade people to think differently and move away from some pretty established tools in the same market - we should have sold the story and promise better through its design.

The now infamous Dropbox private beta video may have been very early in terms of their product development, but you can see that their brand is pretty much the same as it is now. It may be subtle, maybe even a little bland, but you can tell it's dropbox and its commitment to simple, utilitarian, always-with-you values comes through.

There is a reason that clichés exist and while it may be hackneyed, the maxim that “You only get one chance to make a first impression” is even more apt in the fast paced world of digital. Form and function are rarely considered in isolation. So in order to sign up someone to use and stick to using your product, you need to spend time and effort on both..



David Rogerson