Did Ray Kroc make a better burger, a better world, or just a bigger profit?
Before we get into whether designers are well or even better-suited to entrepreneurship than others or not, let me first try to define entrepreneurship. It has become one of those words that we seemingly all agree upon, but that is now used in such a sweeping way that it is becoming meaningless. Is someone who opens a flower shop and maintains it for 20 years an entrepreneur? Is the 8-year-old selling lemonade entrepreneurial? The two 13-year-olds offering lawn mowing services? Is every founder an entrepreneur? Does one start as an entrepreneur and then settle into founder and owner? Is a true entrepreneur someone who continually founds businesses, a quasi capitalist-lothario, or is it (also) the spirit within an existing business that continually embraces change, progress and growth? Should this term be reserved for the top tier Richard Branson, Martha Stewart or James-Bond-villains of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? Or does it apply to the unemployed 20-year-old, who lives in his parents’ basement and has a business card with the title ‘Media Disruptor’ and a string of failed launches? Is it Del Boy?
A quick search of the internet, or in any bookstore, and one might think that entrepreneurship’s main output is articles, books, workshops, and classes. Art and design schools are jumping on this bandwagon, offering joint courses with other schools. (e.g. RISD and Brown) or adding entrepreneurship classes.
Entrepreneurs themselves, politicians, journalist all peddle the same myth that entrepreneurs are the engine of an economy; the job-creators, the go-getters, the movers and shakers, the innovators, the disruptors, the creative destroyers, Kalis with an MBA. They are hailed as heroes of capitalism if not society itself. The exponential growth of technology in the last few decades has almost demanded the accelerated founding of businesses. Northern California’s new gold-rush, Silicon Valley, which at the very least is the emotional ground-zero of this tech-start-up mania, has spawned Silicon prefixes all over the world.
At this point among the bro-ing and high-fiving, it should also be mentioned that most agree that entrepreneurship is higher in developing countries. Also mentioned By Chang Ha-Joon in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism
But of course, entrepreneurship existed long before the term itself did, and while the Roman Empire can be considered entrepreneurial, so too can the now unknown traders along the silk road. The scale of an operation or size of a fortune does not make something entrepreneurial. It is the creation of an entity where there was once nothing, and it takes a certain type of individual to want to do that. There is nothing bad about entrepreneurial thinking and acting; however, there is also nothing inherently good either. Too often entrepreneurs can also be exploiters. Exploiters of labour, humans, and resources. If you are driven solely by the establishment of an entity rather than a clearly defined goal, mission, or change to the world, then you have already sacrificed other opportunities. Too often, the goal of entrepreneurship is to benefit the entrepreneur. All progress brings destruction, some times it impossible to predict, but one should consider the impact of one’s creation.
A lot has been made about new businesses with a design focus at their core. Twitter, Instagram, Uber, Airbnb, all of which have had stunningly detrimental effects on the world. It has benefitted some, but it has destroyed communities, given voice to legitimate Nazis, bullies, and stalkers, increased depression, and may have interfered with democracy. These tools – advertised as egalitarian tools for a global audience have really just amplified the voices (and fortunes) of their (white male) founders – but I digress. ish.
For-profit entrepreneurship seldom leads to great discoveries or ones that change society for the better. Success in entrepreneurship is measured solely in money. There are no morals or ethics attached. They are not pioneers, they are profiteers. Entrepreneurs can be both; one could argue that the Darien Scheme was entrepreneurial, also disastrous, and unethical and is responsible for Scotland now looking at an exit from the European Union, which may actually finally undo the 312-year-old Act of Union. This was a badly thought-out plan, I probably needn’t have gone back over three centuries to find one, entrepreneurs are almost proud of failing (once they are successful) maybe it makes for a better biography, but the common thread seems to be learning from failures. Getting better, and getting rich.
I am aware of conscious capitalism and social entrepreneurship, but it feels more like a fig-leaf than an actual desire. Others will point to Dr. Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa as entrepreneurial, and I suppose you can argue that, but both these historical figures and the social entrepreneurship/B-corporation models remain the exceptions.
Ultimately, it seems that entrepreneurship is not just the founding of a business, but starting of something with the goal of constant growth…a bit like cancer.
The case for designers making good entrepreneurs
This is not a brand new development and both the old ‘An MFA is the new MBA‘ and ‘Design Thinking‘ are of part of this. Would designers make great entrepreneurs? Of course, they have been trained to recognise patterns, research in many ways, understand users, be empathetic*, iterate and test, problem solve. These are all things that are needed in an entrepreneurial undertaking. I agree – designers could make could entrepreneurs. Being an entrepreneur is coming up with a design, a plan for a business or venture and iterating and tweaking it as new information becomes available. However, the old adage ‘Spend more time on your business, not in your business‘ is also true. Creating a business means you will be doing little to no visual design. If my goal as a designer is to help people or create better lives and experiences, then only if the creation of a new undertaking is part of the process of that initial goal does creating something from scratch make sense to me.
And the same can be said for scientists and doctors. Doctors are trained to recognise patterns, diagnose problems, iterate solutions, can specialise and be generalists, they observe and are good with people – they also – and this is interesting because designers aren’t and don’t – are licensed and have a code of ethics, so why are more doctors not starting businesses – I don’t know for sure why (or if that is true) but whether I became a doctor to save lives, or walk around feeling like a white-coated demi-god between games of golf, starting a business is going to get in the way of both or either. The same can be said for designers.
Perhaps, to tie this into an analogy, we are asking designers to use their skills to offer preventative care, to step in front of the client. The most common practice puts the designer in a fairly passive role. The client approaches the designer and asks for something somewhat specific (it can vary) and the designer then delivers a visual output. They are seldom in the room when business strategy is being discussed, yes there are strategists in design studios that create the goals and concepts of a project, but they are not normally part of the mission planning stage. Maybe the case should be made for designers not to be entrepreneurs but to be included in think-tanks and policy advising bodies.
Why are we suddenly talking about designers and entrepreneurship so much? Is it
A. We are hoping they will actually be better at it and more responsible, that their entrepreneurship will be rooted in value creation, not merely profit?
B. We know that AI is coming and the gig economy will grow so designers are being asked to create their own businesses, bit like this.
C. We ran out of books to write about design-thinking
Or is it that design is fundamentally misunderstood, undervalued, and not used to its full potential. And encouraging designers to change their clients into customers, i.e. Instead of waiting for a client brief, the designer creates a product or service (that they believe in), puts it out into the world and finds a market.
It also seems to me that while all of the above attributes are true, there is more than goes into being an entrepreneur, and one of the most common pieces of advice shared by entrepreneurs is needing a growth mindset, grit, the ability to forget failures, and the willingness to suffer. Some individuals that are designers might have those attributes, some might not.
I still harbour the suspicion that there is a missing psychological piece, a drive and need to create and destroy.
*I still don’t believe this is really possible
However, ultimately, there are so many types of entrepreneur, so many reasons for the entrepreneurship and elements of timing and luck that go into being successful that it is no wonder there are so many people writing about it. It is impossible to sum up all entrepreneurial activities.
Perhaps entrepreneurship is rooted in an ability to recognise an opportunity.
Sometimes this might be out of necessity. Sometimes it is driven by a desire to create something better, sometimes it may include a narcissistic element. But it is the goal to create something where there was once nothing.
Is it possible that there is a difference between skill, knowledge, ability and experience and the desire to be an entrepreneur? Peter Drucker believes that entrepreneurship is a discipline and that therefore as with all disciplines it can be taught. What we currently teach are business tools – marketing strategies, competitive analysis, financials, TAM, SAM, SOM, Lean start-up, MVP, MMP. Should we though be teaching something else as well, perseverance, determination, grit, ethics, collaboration? and you have to want it. There needs to be a desire; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of greed, sometimes perhaps even out of altruism. It is difficult and it is risky, and it means giving up (partly) your former practice (in this case as a graphic designer), you really have to want it.
Is it not really that designers are not getting the respect of their abilities, that they have been and continued to be treated as human crayons, and not appreciated for their process, of course abandoning this process to start a business entity might imply that it is for those that like seeing their name on something rather being part of that process.
Perhaps what is really going on is that the world is begging designers to be entrepreneurs, but all the others are after profit rather than value
Non-entrepreneurial designers are engaged in creation and seek the aid of those that can deal with the extraneous flotsam od business. like a doctor, whose dealing with the insurance or NHS keeps him from actually helping others, i.e. doing his job
Graphics, diagrammes, animation are best when what they are describing are hard facts or data. When it comes to entrepreneurship models for designers, there are many different types. And different drivers and forces, so I decided to really strip down the diagram to almost its bare minimum (it could have been a bit less) and focus on the change of direction and the transformation from client into customer.
I also thought I should do something a bit more conceptual, based on the idea of a designer being an artist (an auteur). Are Artists that rent their own studio, produce work, exhibit, and then hope to sell not entrepreneurs? It felt right to do something more conceptual than any other option. Especially as I am coming to the conclusion that almost any diagram is an interpretation of the term entrepreneur, not a complete summation of it. Thus it is both meant to be conceptual but does also allude to the way artists work.
In this case, the quote is taken from a performing artist and entrepreneur, ‘when there was nothing, there was always the possibility of something becoming what it is’. Artists, designers and entrepreneurs all imagine something that does not yet exist and seek to create it. They thrive on the empty canvas, or at least one within the boundaries of certain parameters. And yet, while we believe that we create from nothing, there is no nothing. Everything is based on something. Consciously or subconsciously, there was already something there. (which is why there is an almost latent image of text at the very bottom.)
Similarly, successful entrepreneurial activities will need to see actual patterns, connect the dots and see opportunities – when you write it down, it sounds so, so trite and corny, this is mostly due to the fact that it is. It is my corny, lame protest that a diagram of an entrepreneur is like creating a diagram of a human. There are too many differences. Any attempt to capture all or an average is futile and will result in mere anatomy.