Psychological Pitfalls And Lessons of A Designer-Founder
It’s an exceptional time to be a product person and a founder: we are collectively responsible for—and a part of—inventing the future. In the last ten years, design has changed the face of consumer electronics. That change has impacted the way we live, from how we communicate to how we get around.
I started Massive Health as a designer and a founder. These are the most important lessons and psychological pitfalls I learned. They apply to any founder or manager who is also a creative.
Your Job Isn’t To Make A Great Product
As a founder, your job isn’t to make a great product. It’s to build a great team that makes great products. You are who you hire.
If you love doing something, under no condition should you start a VC-backed company to do more of it. You won’t. You are going to spend all of your time recruiting, fundraising, recruiting, aligning team vision, recruiting, and figuring out which fires you can safely ignore.
To maintain your psychological health, you’ll need to learn how to shift the fufillment you get from making to the fufillment of enabling a team to make. You’ll be making vicariously, not making directly. You’ll have to come to terms and internalize it or else your lack of emotional fufillment will trickle down to your team.
Very early on, you’ll be able to make stuff. Enjoy it. It won’t last. In fact, making stuff as your team grows is often more harmful than helpful.
The Dangers of “Helping” & The Power of Words
Because you will spend your time building a great team that builds great product, the moments that you directly work on product will be rare. The rarity will make it insanely tempting—and it will feel insanely good—to get your hands dirty by fixing an interaction flow, pushing around some pixels, doing an information re-architecture, or whatever you may be passionate about. Here’s the thing: that can be insanely disruptive unless handled carefully.
You are a founder, which means each word you say lands like an anvil. Even in a very small company, and especially in a larger one, it takes fortitude and courage for a team member to honestly critique your work. The courage required isn’t a one-time cost. It’s incurred every single time. By nature of being a founder, you are used to saying things with charisma and force and you will undoubtedly be excited by your solution and argue for it. This just makes it worse. A final note: it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how close you are to your team. As a founder, your words are always more powerful than you think.
It’s easy for a brainstorm to be taken as direction. I talked to Tony Fadell of Nest and iPod fame about this topic: To this day, in every conversation he has—every—he tries to reiterate whether he is brainstorming or setting direction. Putting this into practice, you’ll feel like you are repeating yourself. That everyone gets it. Don’t stop. Keep saying it. Get used to saying it.
When you swoop in to help with complex problems, the person working on the problem has all the context and knows the pitfalls. You’ve hired this person because they are amazing at their job. Jumping in and then advocating for your ideas is often interpreted as a lack of trust in their ability. This can be a huge morale drain. Not only that, but your suggestions may be shortsighted. You’re jumping in—they’re living it.
You are a founder because of your vision and ability. Your input is, in fact, critical.
So what should you do? Define the problem and its constraints. Framing the problem is the most important step in helping your team find the right solution. You can and should point out what’s wrong with a design or product (sandwiching it with praise), just don’t prescribe how to fix it. Never give a solution unless a team member comes to you for help.
Hype can be psychologically compromising
Massive Health launched with a fair amount of hype. We were glad for it—it gave us good brand recognition while hiring, which is the most valuable outcome of PR for a pre-launch startup. But, it’ll hurt in ways you aren’t expecting. Think back to Color and how the hype overshadowed their product; it set expectations so high that whatever they made probably wouldn’t be good enough. When their product launched, the market thrashed them. That’s the obvious way hype hurts, and it’s not even the one I’m talking about.
The more subtle (and more damaging) way that hype hurts is psychologically. The hype nestled in the back of your mind is constantly tugging, saying that your product is never good enough to launch. That it isn’t big enough. That it isn’t ground-breaking enough.
The single most important thing a founder has to know is where to focus his team’s energy: what is and isn’t safe to ignore, which shortcuts are helpful or harmful, and where and when to invest in absolute perfection.
Hype compromises that ability.
Looking back, this was a major factor in launching only one of the awesome products we were working on at Massive. As a founder, I let perfect be the enemy of the good.
Ego And Reputation
A corollary to the psychological pressure of hype is ego. All product people learn the painful process of divorcing ideas from ego. That’s how great products are made. As a founder, you’ll have to learn how to divorce your ego from your company’s success.
You’ll live with knowing that you are personally judged based upon your company’s performance. That your reputation is tied to your company’s reputation. You’ll no longer be judged on your own work, but your team’s work. It will make you want to get too directly involved in the design. And, as we know, that’s dangerous.
Early on at Massive Health, I did not articulate these worries clearly or directly. It was just a fuzzy haze of emotion that confused my decision-making. Once I was able to articulate what was going on, it helped me mitigate its effects.
Be aware that ego can and will get in the way and be ready to fight it.
So Being A Designer and A Founder Sucks?
Not at all. It gives you huge strategic advantages. The Designer Fund articulates that well.
I founded Massive Health because there was a storm brewing: just over the horizon health was about to become consumerized; that quantified self would escape its geeky beginings and morph to become mainstream; that the Apples and Googles of consumer health didn’t yet exist but were about to. At the center of it all was design; and that design-focus is enabling us, now as a part of Jawbone, to invent the future.