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Picture 21As I was researching last week’s post about Bruce Nussbaum of Business Week, I came across this slideshow on the Small Business section of the BW website featuring 20 Entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter.

I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable new tool for connecting with people who have the same business interests as I do. In fact, many of my Merge topic ideas come from Tweets I receive. But Twitter can also be a massive waste of time if you don’t maintain your “follows” carefully. Of course, there are countless search engines that can aid in this process, but lists like this one are a great starting point. Business Week has added a short description and sample Tweet from each of their recommendations to help you determine if they are going to be worth your valuable time. If you’ve got an interest in entrepreneurship and you’ve been meaning to get into Twitter, this list is a great starting point. If you’ve already got a robust Twitter network, there might be some additions here that will add to the experience. Some of the recommendations are a bit obvious, like @richardbranson who is more fluff than insight. But others, like @chrisgillebeau or @fredwilson (two of my personal faves), and @BusinessDotGov (from the Federal Government site) offer some serious content tips on a daily basis.

One Tweet I just received:
Check out this Fast Company diagram of the “5 Second MBA” which was just Tweeted to me. Clever, and not too far from the truth!

booksI’ve written previously about the emerging (or maybe erupting would be a better word) field of self publishing (Opportunity, or Another Sign of the Apocolypse? March 30, 2009), which is evolving at a mind-boggling pace. Much of the change can be attributed to new technology on both ends of the publishing spectrum. On the output end, e-book reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle and mobile devices like the iPhone and Blackberry are making it easier to access content in an electronic form. A corresponding change is happening on the input end where the new sub-industry of self publishing has spun off from the mother ship of traditional publishing. This transition is being made possible by the availability of on-demand printing which makes it feasible to produce as few as a single copy of a printed book—an unthinkably expensive notion just a short time ago.

While one might think this would mean a swift end to the traditional publishing industry (and, indeed, it still might), an entrepreneurial author with a few hundred newly printed books sitting in her garage is still faced with sizable tasks of promotion, sales, and distribution before those books are in the hands of her readers.

Fast Pencil, a new entrant in the $2 billion+ self publishing industry offers a solution for self publishers that proposes to bundle the services of publishing (printed or electronic), promotion, sales, and distribution into a one-stop user experience. With sales and distribution channels through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Fast Pencil can offer visibility and presence that would be out of reach for most first-time authors.

I see entrepreneurial opportunity all over this story. Obviously, Fast Pencil and other self publishing outfits, like Lulu and MagCloud, make it easier than ever for first-time authors to navigate this process. But I also see opportunity—especially for designers—to fill the need that will undoubtedly arise as design services get cut out of the publishing process. As always, change=opportunity.

Fast Pencil CEO, Steve Wilson, is interviewed in this segment from the Small Business section of The Wall Street Journal website (which, incidentally, is a surprisingly engaging and content-rich resource, check it out).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Picture 17Bruce Nussbaum, contributing editor for Business Week and formerly the publication’s editor of Innovation and Design, is everywhere these days. I am continually getting directed to his blog, Nussbaum on Design on the Business Week site, and I also came across a very good video of Nussbaum at the recent ITT Institute of Design Strategy Conference (a preview of which is embedded below). Nussbaum is one of those freakish “Tom Friedman-esque” characters who has the ability to clearly recognize big trends without the benefit of years or decades of hindsight. He’s particularly tuned in to design thinking and how it is evolving as an area of practice.

In this blog post, he discusses the trend of design thinking and validates that this—rather than the creation of designed artifacts—is where the real activity and movement is happening for designers. And he’s quite bullish about it, pointing to several examples in the public and private sectors—domestically and internationally—where designers are playing increasingly central roles.

One area Nussbaum calls out as not keeping up with the pace is design education. I’ve discussed the immense challenges facing design educators many times on Merge, and Nussbaum’s critique is further evidence of the complex puzzle educators must solve to integrate this new strategic component into a very crowded curricula. Nussbaum cites the example of where businesses are turning to find help bringing design thinking into their organization—they’re turning to the leading design firms, not the leading design schools for guidance.

From the entrepreneurial perspective, there is an intriguing nugget of Nussbaum’s post in which he eludes to a new venture capital model being driven by designers. He highlights Fuseproject, Yves Behar’s amazing firm, as one to whom venture capitalists are turning to help identify new trends and product ideas. This puts the designer in a very influential position.

“A new VCD (Venture Capital Design) model is emerging. Yves Behar’s fuseprojects and others are funding new brands either directly or with partners. Designers are using their talent for spotting new trends and their ability to translate insights into new products and services to directly create new brands, instead of doing it for large companies.Venture Capital firms are turning to Behar and other Designers to bring them brands and concepts. This is a new role for Designers.”

Check out the site for the ITT Institute of Design Strategy Conference for more great videos, including a conversation with outgoing P&G CEO, A.G. Lafley.

kiva_logoOne of my first posts on Merge was about microfinancing or “peer-to-peer” lending and Kiva Microlending, one of the highest profile players in this industry (Microfinancing. A Model That Can Work for Designers? March 28, 2009). Surprisingly, that post is one of the most highly searched topics on the blog—so when I came across an article about Kiva in Business Week’s SmallBiz bimonthly, it seemed like a good time for a follow up.

Kiva, a non-profit which is known for their innovative approach to facilitating loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world, is making news again because they have now created an operation here in the U.S. for domestic entrepreneurs. U.S. loans will not exceed $10,000 and the total value of U.S. loans will be capped at $800,000. Despite loaning to the smallest of businesses in the remotest of locales (a cobbler in Mongolia was featured on their homepage as I was writing this), Kiva has had remarkable success with their international lending operation, with more than $80 million loaned and a stunning repayment rate of 98.5%.

Of course, there are many other players in this growing field. Prosper is the largest U.S. peer-to-peer lender and Accion and Opportunity Fund are also prominent operations. Ironically, in the same issue of SmallBiz, there are a couple articles about the gloomy state of the traditional small business loaning process which has completely dried up in the last year. Despite efforts by the Small Business Administration to stimulate activity at this level, the recovery has been slow and sluggish. Hence, I see peer-to-peer lending as an encouraging trend for designers who are exploring ways to launch a new venture. If your new business vision has stalled out because ytou don’t have the cash for an initial run of products or prototypes, this could be an opportunity worth exploring.

Merge Workshop at Kane Mini-Camp

I will be presenting a workshop on Entrepreneurship for Creative Professionals at the Kane Consulting Summer Camps this Tuesday, August 18, 6:00PM at Aloft in downtown Minneapolis. Spots are still available.

PrintI was planning to write about funding options for small businesses today (fascinating stuff, really), but that will have to wait until next week because I just returned from the half-price sale at the Aesthetic Apparatus studio in Minneapolis. As an indie music fan, I’ve been a follower of AA for many years—founders Dan Ibarra and Michael Byzewski met in the late ’90s while working at Madison, WI agency, Propoganda. While still working their day job, Dan and Michael began creating limited edition hand-printed concert posters for shows, and before long the demand for these eccentric gems of visual ephemera grew to the point where it became the day job.

DD44D5_fullsizeD5641C_fullsizeVisually and conceptually, the Aesthetic Apparatus portfolio has a unique and eccentric vibe. It tends to lean heavily on retro-ish found imagery and exquisitely rendered typographic treatments. Many posters have a dark, comic book feel and seem to be after a tongue-in-cheek shock value, while others are elegant and stark.

The success of AA defies all conventional wisdom, and is an absolute tribute to the power of awesome design. As the Aesthetic Apparatus legend has grown, they’ve begun to pick up more traditional design clients—many of whom are in the music biz, but Burton Snowboards, Harper Collins, and Minnesota Public Radio all appear on the AA client list, as do some pretty impressive agency partners with whom AA has collaborated. But the core poster business is still an essential part of their operation. The studio in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, triples as print shop/gallery/store. Likewise, AA posters and merch are available on their website (until they sell out, which many do).

I’m impressed by the seemingly fearless way Dan and Michael have built this side gig into a distinctive and thriving creative business. They’ve broken a lot of rules along the way and demonstrated that serving the almighty client is ONE way to run a design business, but not the ONLY way.

Picture 4Back in June, I wrote about the startup media service, Boxee (Boxee CEO Avner Ronen on Funding in a Challenging Economy, June 17, 2009), and today the news is buzzing with the story that Boxee has secured $6 million in a second round of fundraising from venture capital firm General Catalyst Partners. Boxee has become a darling—and a demon—of the tech/media world as it has developed. Brad Stone from NY Times’ Bits blog describes Boxee as “a free service that draws in a wide variety of video from the Web and presents it in an interface designed for viewing on a TV screen and navigating with a remote control. The company is perhaps best known for its cat-and-mouse struggle to add to its lineup, which also includes the Netflix streaming service, YouTube and” The open source format that Boxee uses is considered a threat to the traditional mainstream media outlets who are in a struggle to control their content.

Another Merge favorite, venture capitalist Fred Wilson, has been heavily involved in the earlier round of funding for Boxee and continues to serve on the company’s board. Check out the post Wilson wrote on his blog about the funding news in which he lays out the strategic priorities for Boxee in the next stage of growth.

While there is certainly much to celebrate here with a positive bit of news around an innovative startup venture, the interesting piece of this item to me is how BIG a story it apparently is over such a relatively small amount of money. In the pre-recession days, news of $6miilion in funding for a business with this potential would have been underwhelming to say the least. But venture capital has dried up so much in the last year that even this relatively modest sum is now drawing a disproportionate amount of scrutiny. Indeed, CEO Avner Ronen has gone out of his way to explain how lean an operation he is running in these early days (he must hold a record for the use of the term “bootstraps” in a single interview).

Without a doubt, Boxee has massive potential. I strongly believe that the next wave of important tech/media breakthroughs will come in the form of products and services that allow us to aggregate and organize the overwhelming flow of content we are currently drowning in, which is exactly what Boxee proposes to do. Boxee is currently in Alpha testing, with a Beta release due very soon. It will be fun to watch this story develop in the months ahead.

Here’s a promotional video about Boxee that gives a pretty good overview of the offering:

Here are links to a few other postings on this story:
Washington Post TechCrunch
CNet News Digital Media column

Picture 3As the writer of a blog that focuses, in part, on design and designers, I would be remiss by not acknowledging the recent redesign of the great uncle (or aunt) of all design blogs, Design Observer. Founded in 2003 by Bill Drenttel, Jessica Helfand, Michael Beirut, and Rick Poynor, Design Observer established itself as the online bellweather for serious critical writing about design, design history, and design thinking. Through a steady stream of long form essays by the founders—and, over time, a growing posse of notable guest contributors—D.O. has bridged the gap between the traditional design publications of past generations and today’s mostly scattershot design blogosphere.

In 2008, Design Observer, under Drenttel’s leadership, was awarded a $1.5 million grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to develop collective action and collaboration for social impact across the design industries. Hence, a sister entity called Change Observer was born and the Design Observer media empire began to expand. Indeed, the new website, on which Change Observer is prominently featured, begins to feel like a mainstream media site (albeit with very tidy typography). A new audio channel has been added which features the complete archive of Design Matters podcasts—the pioneering design “talk show” by Debbie Millman—and video content has been promised soon.

Of course, like any popular brand that undertakes an image overhaul (think: Tropicana, Pepsi, AT&T), the critics are howling about this transition (it’s interesting to me that designers, who like to consider ourselves forward-thinking and change-friendly, would get so wound up about this). But I congratulate the founders for all the steps they’ve taken to push this vision forward. Design Observer could certainly have continued in it’s tried and true form for quite some time and still have been the undisputed industry leader, and now the bar has been raised (and the rules of the game have been changed). Click here to read the announcement posted by the D.O. founders and the associated reader comments.

The entrepreneurship angle here is a bit oblique, but bear with me. Design Observer began as a side project for the four founders—each of whom had a strong career in design, and/or design education when it was launched. I’m fairly certain that, leading up to the 2003 launch of the site, none of them envisioned the type of success, reach, and prominence they have achieved with D.O. But somewhere along the line, they found themselves at the front of the pack, and some serious entrepreneurial planning took place. I applaud Drenttel, Helfand, Beirut, and Poynor for their continued leadership, vision and strong, loud, opinionated voice.

Picture 7When I started writing this blog, I did so under the premise that there is a scarcity of entrepreneurial activity among designers and creative professionals. Well, in fact, I still think that—but I’ve also been consistently surprised and impressed by the new ventures I see popping up from our industry. This was the case when I got the announcement a couple months ago that Grant Design Collaborative—the fantastic Canton, Georgia-based firm, founded and led by Bill Grant—would be opening something called The Store at Grant Design Collaborative.

I’ve known Bill since we were both involved in AIGA chapter leadership a decade ago, after which we served together on the AIGA national board when Bill was the organizations national president. The main thrust of the Grant Design Collaborative business has focused on the commercial interiors industry—developing brand strategy, marketing, collateral, and trade show and showroom materials for clients like Herman Miller, Steelcase, and Geiger.

Picture 11A few years ago GDC began to make a shift from communication design toward product design by seizing the opportunity to create rug designs for a floor-covering client. This experience led to a gradual transformation of the firm, which culminated in the launch of the award-winning commercial wall covering line, Set.

So, the seeds of entrepreneurship were sprouting at Grant Design Collaborative long before the economy tanked. While GDC’s business has remained relatively stable through the downturn, there has certainly been an increase in idle hours in the studio. Coincidentally, a small street-level space had become available in the historic office building owned by GDC on the main drag of small town Canton. Rather than seeking a new tenant to fill this space, the concept for The Store began to take hold as a venue to sell GDC-designed area rugs, wall coverings, and furniture, as well as gift items designed by the GDC team and created from recycled and remnant materials.

Picture 10Bill humbly describes The Store as a “retail stream-of-consciousness for cockeyed optimists,” but I see it as a savvy business move in a time of extraordinary challenging and change. In addition to the obvious potential presented by The Store of adding a new revenue stream to the GDC business, I see a number of other upsides to this concept. At a time when the overall industry is sluggish and staff morale could easily sag, the GDC team have been put to work on a wildly creative and adventurous project—not only designing the retail experience, but creating the merchandise too. The PR angle is also pretty juicy; the retail space is obviously exquisitely designed and the opening comes just as the Canton main street area is experiencing a resurgence. Additionally, The Store has become a laboratory providing real-time data on sales activity and customer tendencies that can then feed back into the product design projects GDC is working on.

Thus far, all indications are that The Store at Grant Design Collaborative is fulfilling it’s promise. 100 people filled the tiny space on opening night in late June and the comments on the Facebook group page have been glowing. Best of luck to Bill and his team for continued success on this exciting project!

Here’s a podcast of a chat I recently had with Bill Grant about the design biz and The Store.

Picture 6I had the pleasure of speaking at the launch of the AIGA Minnesota MNtor Program on Monday night, where roughly 40 designer mentors and mentees began (at least) a 4-month process of sharing experiences and helping each other make sense out of the design profession. I had participated as a mentor in two previous incarnations of this program, and have built lasting relationships with the mentees I met then.

I have always seen the design profession as having a particularly strong and unique culture of mentorship—even without the structure of an excellent program like this one. There is an unspoken understanding among designers that we work in a young, growing profession and that giving entry-level designers the best possible chance at a successful career will ultimately make our profession stronger—benefiting us all in the long run.

But the mentoring relationship is not just a “top down” contract—the best relationships will have an equal exchange in both directions, and benefit both parties. Now more than ever, we all—regardless of where we are in our career—need to be expanding our networks. Indeed, with the rapid pace of technological evolution, including new opportunities/challenges in social media, one could make the case that the mentor has as much to learn from the mentee as the other way around.

So how does mentorship relate to entrepreneurship? The same principals I describe above apply to designers becoming entrepreneurs. We need to seek out key people who have skills and knowledge that we don’t yet have—in finances, strategy, operations—in order to build truly viable businesses (that’s what Merge is all about).

Incidentally, AIGA—if you’re not aware of it—is the largest association of design professionals in the country, with more than 20,000 members in more than 50 local chapters, including AIGA Minnesota, one of the largest and most active chapters. I’ve found AIGA to be a remarkable vehicle for building my professional network and for growing as a designer. Special thanks to Seth Johnson and the MNtor committee for including me in this great event!

Picture 15I’ve sited INC. Magazine in the past as a reliable resource for entrepreneurial info, and I was pleased to see that they seem to have refreshed their web presence recently with a variety of content and media upgrades. I particularly enjoy the Slideshows section, which is a collection of top 10 (or 20 or 30) lists with a refreshingly cool visual presentation using, of all things, illustration (remember when we used to hire illustrators to make cool art???). One Slideshow that intrigued me was this list of 18 Best Industries for Starting a Business Right Now. While some of the industries are predictable, and others are simply not a great opportunity for the creative set (medical technology, accounting services), others are surprising, intriguing, and very much in need of design thinking: education technology (we know how void of design the average classroom is), candy (who knew the confectionery industry grew 3.7 percent in the last year?), and yoga products and services (as a yoga beginner myself, I can attest to the dire need for innovation here).

Picture 22Energy and Green Construction also appear on the INC. Slideshow and I’ve always considered communication designers to be ahead of the curve in incorporating green strategies into our work through a sensitivity to the materials we use. While breezing through the Alltop directory recently, I came across this dizzying (but really amazing) list of 200 Green Business Ideas compiled by blogger Meredith Gossland from the Green Business website. A few minutes of editing could probably have trimmed Meredith’s list in half, or so, nonetheless, it’s a thought-provoking overview and worth checking out.

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