This is going to be a very long post on design and startups in India and in particular the questions we have about design as a important discipline in India.
Speak to any investor and mentor / advisor in India and you will constantly hear the refrain “Indian companies need to get better at design” or “We dont design our applications very well and that’s the reason we dont have world-beating companies”.
Speak to an entrepreneur in India and they will state that “getting designers in India is very hard” and “hiring a design firm in India is very expensive”.
Over the last 1.5 years, we have been trying to solve the “design” problem for startups at the Microsoft accelerator and met with limited to no success.
The first part is to frame the “problem” correctly. Let us focus on the stages a startup goes through and look for opportunities and the needs for a designer. Then we will try to outline the solutions we offered and why (I think) they failed.
We’d love some advice on where we are going wrong and what we can do to solve this problem first for us in a small scale and then largely for the community in general.
In the very early stages the entrepreneur has an “idea” and they want to solve a problem. At this stage, they end up “napkin-ing” a solution and then trying to find ways to build a solution. Most entrepreneurs in India already believe they have a solution, so they do think they would be best at “designing” a solution as well. So the designers role is largely relegated to “give me some good color options” or “make me a kick-ass logo”, or “build a sexy website”. Most of this work is either done by friends or colleagues who moonlight and help the entrepreneur by offering a design.
In most hackathons (over the last year I have judged and attended over 30 of them), the designer is the only role that is very hard to find in teams. You will get 20+ hack teams and only 4 designers. The teams that have convinced the designers that their idea will “win” the hackathon have designers. The rest of the teams end up largely having engineers perform “minimal” design.
The next stage is when the company is beyond the wireframe stage and actually building an application – mobile or web. At this stage, most folks would like to “hire” a designer, but complain that design talent at $8000 – $10,000 per year (4L to 6L INR) is too expensive. The entrepreneur believes the role of the designer at this stage is to take the “wireframes” they have designed and put together psd files, do a few revisions and then create the HTML and CSS files. Most entrepreneurs use inexpensive agencies or freelance consultants at this stage since they can’t afford to hire a full time designer. They also believe that hiring a full time designer is not something they can afford, since once the design is “complete”, they dont think there’s any work left for the designer. They’d rather hire a developer full time to keep adding features.
The stage beyond this is when they get some customer feedback and actually have users who are working with their application. This results in feedback that entrepreneurs are surprised with – things like – “It is not easy to use your application” or “I dont think the application is very nicely designed”. The other indirect way they get this feedback is when they tell me “I am not able to charge a premium for my product even though it has the same features as a US clone because my customers know that my app is designed in India”. At this point they do take design somewhat seriously and try to hire a designer. If they have gotten to this stage it is very likely that they have some funding so they can afford the designer who charges $10K per year we mentioned before.
Finally when a company is growing and scaling, new products, new features and new capabilities force them to think about design more seriously and they do end up hiring a design team – think of companies like Zomato, Cleartrip etc.
That is the background of the problem we encountered, which we have tried to solve in different ways.
Version 1 of our solution was to hire a seasoned design firm to do a 2 day (shortened from 5 days) workshop on design for entrepreneurs. While very well received initially, most entrepreneurs felt they liked the content, but they needed a person to implement the learning from the workshop. In other words – do it for me, don’t just tell me.
Our version 2 of the solution was to offer a design mentor for each of our startups who would spend 1/2 day or 4 hours each month helping the company with design. These mentors were seasoned practitioners at other companies who took time to help startups. The feedback we received after 3 months was there was too much “advice – gyan in India” and too little “action”. The entrepreneurs felt that the design mentors were able to point out issues that needed fixing but they were not willing (or more likely did not have time, since they were in a full time role already) actually implement the changes. Given that most entrepreneur teams did not have a full time design person on staff, the “advice” was useful and obvious, but they could not be implemented.
Version 3 of the solution was to hire a full time design staff of 4 resources (including a project manager) who will work with the companies to help them with the user experience, design and development of their application. These resources were available to all our companies, and they could very easily sign up to use these services, by just speaking to the project manager and outlining their design requirements, which could be as small as a new logo to as involved as a new website design or as complicated as redesigning a new application user experience.
After 4 months we abandoned the program, for 3 reasons. First, the resource utilization was less than 25% by our startups. Second, the design firm came to the conclusion that requirements from several teams were too vague and simple and third, many companies did not value the design team enough to give them quick turnaround (i.e they took 4 weeks to respond to the designer) on their design which they requested in the first place be done “in a week”.
Now we are back to the drawing board. While the high level problem “Indian startups need design help” gets visceral reactions including furious head-nodding and shaking of the head from investors, entrepreneurs and others, we still dont know what the solution to this problem is.
If you are an Indian entrepreneur who is in one of these stages, I’d love some advice and comments on what would be the ideal way to help you solve the “design” problem.
Or just let me know if I am barking up the wrong tree and let me know if there’s really no problem.
This post touched a nerve with over 20+ comments in the first hour of posting. There are a few clarifications to make. The design firm we used was excellent, because the same team is used by our accelerator at Israel and they LOVE working with the team. Second, I am looking for some suggestions on what do you think we should do to help, instead of just comments like “Founders should do design”. They don’t help us understand what we should do to help our founders.