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When people talk about timing in relation to startup success, it’s usually about external factors –is the market ready for this? But there are a lot of internal factors that play a huge role too. Design and branding is one of them.

Ask veteran entrepreneurs how a typical early-stage startup roadmap should look, and it usually goes like this: launch MVP, get users, get feedback, validate product-market fit, scale scale scale… As straightforward as this sounds, it does not offer any clues as to where product design and branding should fit in.

As marketers, we’re especially interested in this topic because having a strong sense of design and branding completely changes how we market a product – not just in terms of product value but also how our marketing looks and communicates.

So, we called up a couple of experts and asked, “When should startups focus on design and branding?”

Here’s what they had to say:

#1 Flipping the question

First, we turned to Craig Phillips, Senior Product Designer at Utmost, Co-host of the Opacity podcast on design, and Instructor at Break Into UX. Based in Dublin, Craig is our go-to guy for all things design-related, so we had to get his opinion:

As product designers, we always hear we need to know the business. So let’s flip the question—when should designers start thinking about the business? The answer to both questions, I believe, is the same: the sooner the better.

Successful startups are often born from a clear problem to be solved. Great designers, especially those with human-centered design chops, are armed with a sound mindset and powerful tools for problem solving and sense-making.

In this way, when entrepreneurs are asking “what should this product/service be, and what value can it create for customers”, a great designer can help formulate questions, define problems, translate into tangible artifacts, and help validate your assertions with real, breathing people. When done well, they’ll become a critical member of your core team.

As an entrepreneur, view your relationship with your designer as a partnership, where you’re all invested in answering the fundamental questions of your volatile venture.

The sooner a designer gets involved, the sooner they can become obsessed with the problem you’re solving. Their obsession will make them successful in their role, and directly translate to your product or service having a fighting chance to thrive in the wild.

#2 A question of technology and vision

Our next expert is Jakob Hedlund, Co-founder of Knodd, a fast-growing telemedicine startup in Sweden, providing parents with streamlined access to pediatric nurses.

While a product designer at heart, Jakob’s approach to startups and design is a matter of the startup’s technology and vision. For early-stage startups with deep tech, such as AI and IoT, you may be able to find accurate product/market fit without needing to invest in design and branding from the get-go.

However, if your startup has not-so-deep tech, is in a crowded market, or is selling a grand vision (“Belong Anywhere”, “Increase the GDP of the Internet” etc.), user experience and branding will be everything. That means focusing on visual identity should be a priority from day one.

He left us with this:

If design is important to your customer, then it’s important to you, and you should focus on it early on.

#3 A question of go-to-market strategy

Finally, Sudh Ahuja has a different perspective on design and branding. Based out of Singapore, Sudh has scaled Impress as an HR tech startup, selling into big corporates like DBS Bank, Singtel, Accenture and Asian Development Bank.

When deciding on when to invest in design and branding, Sudh’s advice hinges on the startup’s go-to-market strategy. For entrepreneurs that are able to validate their product/market fit within their network (or trusted referrals), they can wait until they hit the next stage of attracting new users at scale before focusing on design and branding. However, if your startup’s early stages require raising capital or acquiring users outside your network, design and branding will be a deal-breaker.

To Sudh, it all comes down to a matter of trust:

In my experience, the ultimate goal of design and branding is to earn enough trust from strangers. If you don’t have the capital and users to gain early traction, you need an attractive, exciting “packaging” for your startup which will convince people outside your network to engage with you.

That means if you are a first-time entrepreneur with zero track record, you may have to focus on design and branding earlier on to establish credibility and ensure others you are worthy of their time and capital.

Key Takeaways

There’s no arguing against the importance of design and branding, but there’s also no one-size-fits-all solution that can be applied across all startups. Instead of wondering when, it may be easier for early-stage startups to think about the issue in terms why. The above three perspectives demonstrate design as a tool – it can help your startup:

  1. Problem solve and navigate fundamental questions about your product

  2. Differentiate your product and visualize your vision

  3. Earn trust and establish credibility

Understanding why you need design and branding can help you determine when you should invest in it.

Agree or disagree? When do you think startups should focus on and invest in design and branding? What question for early-stage startups should we tackle next? Share your thoughts and stories with us at