Design Thinking · Design

Is it true that most designers don't want to work for equity in order to be a cofounder?

Victor Jiang Actuarial Analyst intern at Esurance

March 11th, 2015

In an FD blog interview w/ Christina Wodtke (design/PM Zynga, Linkedin, early Yahoo1) Christina said one of the reasons we see fewer design entrepreneurs is because: 

"AIGA and other design organizations have said over and over again 'Never ever do work for free.' A lot of designers have heard this, and when a startup comes to them and says “hey, come work with us, we’ll give you shares; we can’t give you any money but nobody’s taking any money,” they won’t join. They won’t cofound because nobody’s getting paid. " 

Do other entrepreneurs and designers think this is true and is it a problem?

Irene Au Operating Partner at Khosla Ventures; Yoga and meditation teacher; Montessori mom

March 11th, 2015

Designers don't want to work for just equity about as much as engineers don't want to work for just equity.  The number of designers that are willing to work for equity to be a cofounder is considerably smaller because (1) generally, there are fewer designers than engineers; (2) rarely are designers offered cofounder roles; (3) rarely do designers have enough money to be able to afford to work for only equity.

Grace Ng

March 12th, 2015

No, that's not the reason. 

Being a designer and startup founder myself, it's a combination of early-stage entrepreneurs don't understand how to work with designers AND traditionally trained designers don't understand how to operate effectively in early idea stage startups.

Many business entrepreneurs see design as putting lipstick on a pig, thus they only want them to do just that and don't see the value in making them co-founder. The type of designer that's ideal for early startup environments doesn't want to be limited to this. Design is not just about pretty.

Then you have the designers who agree to be founders, but they may be the wrong kind of designers. Many design programs train designers to operate in environments of optimization. That's branding, typography, wireframes, layout design etc. That doesn't matter in the early stages of starting up. And if you're worrying about that, you're focusing on the wrong things. Yet many designer entrepreneurs just want to make things pretty. And many designers just want to be in environments where they can make things pretty, which is a later stage startup. 

The value that designers bring as cofounders/early employees of early startups lie more in customer discovery, empathy, and need-finding. Not just pixels and wireframes. We see a lack of designer entrepreneurs because of this misunderstanding.

Cyndee Sugra CEO & Founder | Creative Entrepreneur | Foodie | Design & Tech Innovator | Musician

March 11th, 2015

I know of a lot of programmers that want to get paid too… But I think the biggest difference I’ve seen in a designer that will take equity over money (or a much smaller salary) is the understanding of how much this designer is contributing towards the product development, combined with the potential for the product’s success. I’ve seen many designers being under valued by executives types and they are expected "just to design something that looks good". Whereas others are finally seeing the true value a designer can bring to the overall product with an enhanced user experience, which is a key differentiator in a product’s success (think Apple). If a designer is truly engrained into the product experience, they matter just as much as a CTO leading development. Designers just need to be given that opportunity. (Some may not agree with me on this).


March 12th, 2015

The problem is not that designers and programmers don't want to work for equity, it's that the "Business Guy" side has often failed to demonstrate any valuable skills. We see equity as "working for free" when we get a sense that the business-man-type side of the relationship is probably not going to be able to pull off making the company successful. Also, they often just want to boss the designer/developer around, which really just makes the relationship more like a client-to-consultant arrangement.

And yes, equity in your company is nothing. It's your job as the sales side to change that. So whereas I have tons of projects that I can show you to prove that I know how to program, do you have anything you can show to prove you know how to find customers, get them to buy, and get them to come back?

Frankly, if you don't bring any hard skills to the table, then the only reason any of us need you sales guys is for your money, because your ideas are often garbage. It's like you're all playing Mad Libs, "It's going to be like the Facebook of _________, like Snapchat with ________". So if you aren't offering money, and you aren't clearly capable of selling, I might as well just go back to working on my own idea for 100% equity.

If designers are *smart*, they will be interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. Equity implies a business partnership, not an employment relationship. And the other partner needs to be able to pull their own weight.

Eric Wold

March 12th, 2015

People are very generous to designers after-the-fact. They (not me) tend to think of the designers work as over-and-done and it really only contributed the one-time value of the labor performed.

It's a little easier for some founders/investors to look at the software being used much later and see that it still has value, and not begrudge the developers their little slice of the pie.  Even if that earlier code got replaced by later upgraded & refactored code.

But who gives a designer credit for a logo & branding that "merely led" to the creation of the shiny final logo or branding still in use?  Sadly I have heard something like this before: "All that gal/guy did was create a temporary logo and site design we already outgrew. Now that we are successful he/she thinks they still deserve to hold equity?!"

I focus on high-tech now, but I won't forget my roots owning two marketing firms.  Designers helped me create many campaigns & brands that got my past ventures off the map and they deserve just as much credit as some of my developers did.

Ariel Jatib Product Designer, UX

March 11th, 2015

I'm a designer / founder. I've worked for equity, put money into the venture and not taken a salary. Everyone has a different risk tolerance, not everyone is interested in a very early stage venture. When it comes to working for free on a startup, it depends on the opportunity. As is the case with many good programmers or engineers, market conditions also factor into the decision. 

One thing that the AIGA and many designers, including myself, vehemently oppose is Spec Work, 

Christina Wodtke Curious Human

March 12th, 2015

I think this is a game of telephone... there is no "most designers" or statistics. It's interesting to watch how this thread wanders from the interview. 

What I've observed is there is a subset of designers who won't work for free, except for formal nonprofits. There are the same folks who don't do open source. They tend to be younger designers who are still operating by rules they learned in school, and more often on the east coast where AIGA has a deeper influence. As well, there are older designers who got burned in the first dotcom boom and won't even consider equity. 

BUT a bigger influence is the way designers are formally educated. Rarely are they educated in business, and so founding is a huge leap of faith-- and a dangerous one. I believe firmly that educating more designers in entrepreneurship will result in more founders and better businesses.

Finally it's true, most designers, engineers or any other professional won't work for free--- but they will found a company they believe in and live on ramen until it finds its feet.  Designers want to make a better world as much as any other discipline, and perhaps more. I hope more founders will seek out cofounders early on, because designers having a ton of skills for finding product-market fit.

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

March 11th, 2015

I've heard way way more engineers say they "won't work for equity"  than designers. So, I am not sure where these statistics are really coming from. However, there is an issue finding co-founders as it is like dating. You have to find people who believe in it enough and can afford to starve a bit for it. 

I am a designer/founder and we have a few designers that work with us. Two of them don't work when there is no cash flow, they can't afford to do it. 

James Sainty Head of Sales & Marketing at Fortecho Solutions Ltd

March 12th, 2015

Hard to speak for 'most designers', but I know of several who have/ or do, though the offer of equity is unusual. Some years ago I founded a venture designed specifically to assist individuals to collaborate on projects in return for an equity stake in said projects; we found that while many loved the concept, most 'designers' requested a simpler revenue sharing system over an agreed time period...

Sean Sauber Principal at Extending Minds, LLC

March 11th, 2015

I have worked with designers, including entrepreneurs, for over a decade and completely support Irene's POV - designers are like anyone else and don't want to work for free.

I think there is something else in play here - the point that designers won't work for free (equity) is not the same as no design entrepreneurs (someone who starts a new business, creates a business model, etc..)

Having worked in design in large corporations, startups, and taught at design school - a real issue is what was mentioned to in the article but I will state more explicitly - Design schools are inadequately preparing designers for the business world today. Many design schools are still operating, as one program head told me "the companies hire our students because they can sketch ideas really fast and really good." 

There is a mindset that can be "activated" in young designers. Yes they have pride in their craft, yes they are learning their discipline first - but they can learn what it means to put that discipline in context of doing good making profit. Those designers that are exposed to this get it very quickly. 

And in fact they can be more open to the idea of fast failure that is necessary for breakthrough innovation. That is one area where the basic design discipline teaches them well - "Give me two hundred sketches by tomorrow that solve this problem." 
They get used to coming up with a lot and feel fine to throw it away.

What would help would be taking that energy and giving it greater business context, greater sense of ownership for outcomes versus "decoration station" - and you have an entrepreneur who just happens to be trained in design.