In the era of design renaissance, marked by a growing recognition of design leadership, there’s only one designer CEO in the Fortune 500, and it’s Brian Chesky. He himself explains this lack by the fact that design is fragile and founders and CEOs need to have the nerve to run a company.
Some other opinions on this on Wired ten years ago suggested that designers are dedicated to pixels and details, losing their focus outside of their craft. In contrast, most entrepreneurs tend to be generalists rather than experts in any one specific area.
Being a CEO designer and learning a lot of generalist topics, I don’t think so. I believe there comes a time when designers, equipped with design leadership skills, can be the best founders of digital products. Why?
First, AI will make coding significantly cheaper, resulting in a Venn diagram where the product intertwines the needs of users, business, and technical capabilities. The last two circles, representing business and technical aspects, are overlapping more onto the first one. Hence, a new renaissance awaits us.
Second, the design industry is mature, with many people having 10+ years of experience. If a person has experience in design management and at least a partial understanding of business, they have every chance of success. We rarely hear about designers as co-founders of products, but examples like Melanie Perkins founding Canva, Brian Chesky with AirBnB, and Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Slack and Flickr, demonstrate their potential.
Third, designers stand out as managers with a knack for empathy and grasping user pain points. They validate ideas and conduct diverse research, all without the need for formal training – they already understand and execute these essential processes. This inherent skill set underscores a substantial potential that deserves our attention.
So, all of these indicate that we need to talk about this huge potential, and we can discover how designers can bring more value as founders and CEOs to products globally.
Design leadership lessons from a UX designer turned Founder
My recent guest on Cieden Podcast, Tal Florentin is a UX designer who launched his startup Summurai after designing 250 digital products. This conversation was another proof of designer potential because Tal didn’t reject his commitment to pixels, he actually took it and created a product out of it.
‘I'm not going to skip any pixel. I'm always going to bring a pixel perfect idea,’ Tal loves saying.
So, I invite you to look at his story of transition from designer to founder and lessons learned on this way.
Embracing design leadership in the transition to Founder and CEO roles
Tal Florentin began his journey in the heart of the tech world, nestled among lines of code and logical constructs. For ten years, he navigated the labyrinth of software engineering, not just as a developer but also wearing the hats of a team leader, project manager, and system analyst. This period wasn't just about mastering programming. It was a time of laying the groundwork for what was to come.
‘One of the most important elements in my transition was when I moved into design, I was looking for algorithms to optimize the design and didn't find any. It led me to develop my own design algorithms. I needed to understand the rationale behind my choices – feeling good about a design or following trends wasn't sufficient. I’ve found a logical framework, which eventually formed the basis of my book and lectures. Thanks to it, I was able to discover several business ideas and later started with Summurai,’ shares Tal.
Summurai is the second startup for Tal founded in 2016. This is a platform that creates with AI a full audio version of any content and summarizes it so users can add it to their website or anywhere else through a branded playlist. He’s been working on this project for eight years.
Business skills to become a founder
Many hesitate to launch their own products, daunted by their perceived lack of business, marketing, and sales knowledge. However, Tal didn't share these reservations. His prior experience working alongside marketers and salespeople, before he transitioned into design, equipped him with foundational business knowledge.
‘To be a founder, I believe, requires a personality that thrives on exploration and trying new things, feeling comfortable venturing into uncharted territories.
Throughout my career, I've found myself bored doing something that I already knew. Thus, I was always eager to tackle the next challenge. This attitude extends to areas like sales and marketing, where I continuously learn and improve, often collaborating with freelance experts.
For designers aspiring to be CEOs or founders, my advice is to partner with someone who supplements your skills in areas where you may lack expertise. It's important to focus on what you're passionate about and find a counterpart who can cover other essential aspects of the business,’ says Tal.
Ownership is a lot different from design service
The role of a designer undergoes a significant transformation when switching from providing a design service to owning a product. Tal, experienced in both arenas, sheds light on this shift.
‘As a service provider, I'd contribute to a project from the outside, bringing my perspective, but ultimately, I wasn't the storyteller of the product. My role ended with the delivery of the design.’
However, owning a product changed everything.
‘When leading my own product, every design decision directly impacted me. It was a journey of constant learning and adapting, deeply connected to every outcome,’ he reflects.
This shift from service to ownership, Tal believes, is crucial for designers to experience. It offers a complete understanding of the design process, influencing their approach to both client projects and personal ventures.
Design leadership perspective: rethinking the minimum viable product
When Tal began developing Summurai, he chose a path that defied conventional product development norms. He set aside the widely embraced Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach in favor of creating ‘pixel-perfect’ solutions for every component, from management systems to user interfaces.
Tal shares his perspective, ‘I wasn't keen on the MVP approach. My goal was always to deliver a pixel-perfect product. If it didn’t succeed, I saw it as an opportunity to repurpose our efforts in the future. This approach felt right to me, and, being solo, I didn’t need to convince a co-founder.’
He emphasizes the necessity of offering a complete, high-quality experience from the outset for certain products.
‘In scenarios like mine, you can't just test 10% of a product idea. It needs to be fully fleshed out for people to grasp its value. Take, for example, an audio player that’s white-labeled and branded – it must be fully functional from the start.’
As a result, Tal set out to elevate the audio industry's web players by bringing a level of professionalism typically found in standalone devices. This design approach caught the attention of one of Israel's major radio stations, not initially Summurai's target audience.
‘It opened new doors and taught us a great deal about user engagement and the crucial role of design. It proved that striving for quality, rather than settling for the bare minimum, can lead to unforeseen success and product innovation,’ says Tal.
The B2B segment is a more profitable path
The evolution of Summurai reflects a strategic shift seen in many startups: the transition from B2C to B2B2C.
In its early days, Summurai catered to B2C customers, offering a service where busy people could receive audio summaries of web content.
‘Eight years ago, our service involved manually creating summaries and recording them, often with students doing the audio work. Despite a promising start, this model proved financially unsustainable, as the costs couldn't be adequately covered,’ avows the CEO.
Recognizing the need for a pivot, Summurai team turned their focus to corporate clients, particularly in the context of conferences known for their high content-user ratio. This shift opened a new avenue in content marketing, developing tools for efficient blog consumption targeted at businesses. We realized that audio, which had been somewhat sidelined in favor of video, held unique value,’ recalls Tal.
Over time, they fine-tuned product tools and messaging, aligning with market readiness and technological trends. This adaptability ensured that their offerings remained at the forefront of innovation while being practically valuable for their corporate clients. This strategic pivot not only steered Summurai towards a more profitable business segment but also underscored the evolving nature of content consumption in the digital age.
Final takeaway: the essence of design leadership in entrepreneurship
Tal's journey is a source of inspiration for designers looking to venture into entrepreneurship. His story reiterates Brian Chesky's perspective that ‘design is much more than a department; it's a way of thinking.’
It truly is. We’ve just learned how to leverage design principles not just in product creation but also in shaping business strategies and responding to evolving market dynamics.
This story underscores the importance of design leadership at the intersection of design and entrepreneurship, where innovative thinking and a commitment to quality are key.