Why designers hesitate to take on startup clients

For the past year and a half I was a freelancing UX designer, and all of my clients were startups. I’ve recently decided to put my freelance business on the back burner for awhile to take a full-time position and pursue a few passion projects. This has given me some time to reflect on my experiences with startup clients. I realize that there were some startups that were amazing to work with, and others that had some Issues with a capital ‘I”. And when I’ve talked to other freelancing designers, I found that they encountered many of the same problems with startup clients. So here is a short list of reasons that designers hesitate to take on startup clients.

1. The team isn’t ready

There is nothing worse than having a great, productive conversation with a startup CEO only to show up on the first day and find that the rest of the team hasn’t been sold on me being there. Sometimes team members want to be more scrappy with the startup funds, and feel that great UX is a “nice to have” not a “need to have.” Other times there are team members who have been harboring dreams of taking on the UX challenge themselves, and are unhappy about giving those responsibilities to someone else. Regardless of what the actual issue is, you should make sure that everyone is on board with bringing in someone new to work on UX design.

2. You don’t have time

A better title for a UX Designer would be UX Design Facilitator. UX’ers facilitate the design process – they do not do it all by themselves. That means as soon as you bring them on board they are going to need some of your time. They are going to want to talk to you, and your team, and likely your customers too. They are going to make sure they know as much as they can about the problem, then they are going to want to bring all the decision makers together to start working it. This could include multiple design studios or Sprint-esque design workshops. So don’t bring on a UX designer until you are ready to dedicate some time to the process.

3. You don’t really want your ideas tested after all

Being a founder of a start-up means you have a unique, and ultimately possessive perspective on the underlying business idea. This can mean that you are a little too entrenched to consider any alternatives or conduct any worthwhile testing. Mike Monteiro in his book You’re my favorite client described it best:

“As a design studio, we’re a great place for problem solving. Research. Strategy. User experience design. We found that the biggest problem with startup – and this may apply to you – was they just wanted us to bring the thing that was fully formed in their heads into existence. What they wanted most was someone to extract and design that thing to their specifications. Which I totally understand. They weren’t ready to have their dream questioned, researched, tested, etc. If your idea has legs, it’ll pass all those tests. But if you’re not in the frame of mind to have that happen, don’t waste your money on a design team that works that way.” (p. 42)

He goes on to say:

“The bigger issue is why you’d be afraid to have your idea challenged. Any idea worth its salt survives a good tire kicking, and it only gets better if you expose its flaws when you still have the chance to fix them.” (p. 42)

UX’ers do their best to ideate broadly and consider many alternatives. If you aren’t willing to consider alternative ideas yet, then it might be best to hire someone different.

4. You’re not completely honest about the money situation

This is, by far, the biggest reason why freelance designers hesitate to take on startup clients. For the most part, all the freelancers I know are happy to consider any kind of project to work on. Many designers love to work on a healthy mix of large to small scale projects, and could definitely find room for a startup or two in their schedule. However, they hesitate to do so because of how often startups sign-on for work they really can’t afford. I realize that sometimes the money situation may not be as predictable as you’d like it to be, but that doesn’t mean you can leave your designer hanging with an outstanding invoice. Be honest about your budget, and your designer will make it work. We can always break a project into smaller chunks to be completed (and paid for) when the money is there.

So before you bring in a designer….

…make sure the team is on board, that you have time to devote to the design process, that you’re transparent about what you can afford, and that your are ready to listen to their ideas and, ultimately, help you shape your business for the better.

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