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trophybBusiness competitions can be a great way to jumpstart your entrepreneurial aspirations. Regardless of whether you win the competition or not, there are many potential benefits to participating in the process (although winning doesn’t hurt either). For those of us with the tendency to procrastinate, a competition deadline can be a hidden gift—a way to force us to knuckle down and crank out that business plan or executive summary that has been bouncing around in our head. Additionally, some competitions can provide an introduction to resources that are outside of your existing network. At the very least, this is a low-risk way to test-drive your pitch.

A couple competitions I have been following on Merge have recently announced winners. The Minnesota Cup is an annual business competition that Lisa and I participated in back in 2005 with HealthSimple. 2009 brought an expansion of the Cup with newly created divisions to categorize the more than 800 entrants. The Cup requires entrants who progress to the second round to submit a complete business plan—which in our case was one of those hidden gifts. We did not have a business plan until then and it proved to be a valuable document that contained the answers to many questions we encountered as we built our business. Here are the 2009 Minnesota Cup winners:

CoreSpine Technologies received the 4th Annual Minnesota Cup first prize package, which includes $50,000 in seed capital, consulting by Wells Fargo and professionals from area law firms, accounting firms, PR & marketing, business organization services from the Maslon law firm, one year of access to “HillSearch” from the James J. Hill Reference Library, a scholarship to attend The Collaborative’s upcoming Minnesota Venture Finance Conference and a national news story over the ARA Content Network.

The second-place winner,, receives $10,000. The third-place winner, Klodas Foods: Fibre and Beyond, receives $5,000. The second and third place winners also will receive business support services from contest sponsors. The student winner, Zipnosis, will receive $5,000. was co-founded by Sue Kruskopf, a principal at Minneapolis agency Kruskopf Coontz, who also created the site.

For ten years, the Sappi Paper Ideas That Matter competition has been a way for designers with big (or just really good) ideas to get seed money to bring their idea to life. I don’t have much detail about the 2009 recipients, but the list looks intriguing. Included are design industry big-shots Winterhouse and Pentagram, and an entrant from the AIGA San Francisco chapter.

Picture 24I hate to sound like a broken record (or like I’m on the McGraw Hill payroll), but the BusinessWeek website continues to impress me with their depth and variety of content for entrepreneurs. The Small Biz section of the BW website—companion to the quarterly printed edition—is loaded with a range of useful pieces, from quick hit video clips and blog posts, to deeper dives on important topics like financing and operations.

In particular, I appreciated their recent two-part series in by John Tozzi in The New Entrepreneur column on the topic of risk (part one Entrepreneurs and Risk, and part two Two Risk Profiles of Entrepreneurs). I’ve written about this in the past, but I think it is one of the most critical principals for would-be entrepreneurs to understand. One of the most common reasons for not pursuing that start up dream is that it is “just too risky,” but these articles do an excellent job of illuminating the truth about risk. In fact, the first article sites a recent survey by Small Business Labs indicating that in today’s economy most entrepreneurs actually feel they are less at risk leading their own venture than they would be working for someone else.

The second article in the series analyzes two risk profiles: the first is of the business funded completely by the personal wealth of the entrepreneur; and the second of the investor-funded start-up. Tozzi points out that investor funding—while filled with potential downsides, can provide a freedom that can be critical to visionary entrepreneurs. “The VC model lets start-ups swing for the fences, with the understanding that a lot of times they’ll strike out, but that won’t leave the founder flat broke.”

Be sure to read the comments on each of these posts for some excellent anecdotal reporting.

Picture 25A new report on the AdMob blog estimates that there are $200 million worth of iPhone apps sold on the App Store every month and that the average iPhone user downloads 18 new apps every month. The AdMob report compares iPhone app trends to Android, the upstart mobile device operating system developed by Google. Some of the other surprising numbers from the report include:

  • More than 90 percent of Android and iPhone OS users browse and search for apps directly on their mobile device instead of their computer
  • Upgrading from the lite version was the top reason given when users were asked what drives them to purchase a paid app
  • iPhone and iPod touch users are twice as likely to purchase paid apps than Android users.
  • Users who regularly download paid apps spend approximately $9 on an average of five paid downloads per month

These astounding numbers continue to validate why this exploding new market is such a ripe opportunity for design entrepreneurs and I’m hearing from an increasing number of communication designers who are testing the waters. My friends at the Minneapolis-based design agency HartungKemp are among the latest to bring an iPhone app to market with their drinking game WASTED? which is getting rave reviews from the app blogosphere. Without question, WASTED? fits firmly in the “novelty” game category of apps, but it distinguishes itself with cool graphics and fun copy to create a user experience not common in this genre.

In my conversation with HK co-founder and creative director, Stefan Hartung (audio podcast below), we discuss the impetus for delving into the app game, along with some of the practical challenges involved in the development process.

Here’s a video demo of WASTED?

Picture 34Since my post earlier this week about Service Design, I’ve been bombarded with content on this topic. Here are a few follow up notes to continue the conversation. Have a spectacular Labor Day weekend!

More on the INDEX Winners
In her post for the Fast Company design blog, Gadi Amit continues the conversation about the recent INDEX award winners that I wrote about earlier this week. Amit adds some interesting analysis by asking “Is any idea, whether it’s an initiative for social progress or a clever way to market movies, enough to be declared a work of design?”

And Still More on Service Design

Earlier in the summer I wrote about Winterhouse and Project M coming together on a collaborative summer program (May 22, 2009). These two organizations are among the emerging forces who are challenging the parameters of design, and I speculated in my post that their union would result in some surprising and exciting results. Click here and judge for yourself (I must admit, I was hoping for something more than a well-intentioned pizza party).

Yep, You Guessed It…
The Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia was established in 1978 and has experienced phenomenal growth and expansion over the last three decades as Alissa Walker describes in her recent Fast Company post introducing SCAD president Paula Wallace. Now with more than 9,300 students and 1,500 faculty and staff, SCAD is gaining prominence nationally and internationally, as a leading force in design education. In her guest blog for FC, Wallace jumps right into the Service Design conversation with her excellent post entitled “The Architect of Experience: Conversation With a Service Designer” which profiles SCAD instructor Peter Fossick.

Picture 31My colleague Seth Johnson tipped me off to LiveSurface Image Template Library recently and I must admit, I’ve become a bit obsessed. Aside from the fact that it is a classic example of “why didn’t I think of that?!?,”  LiveSurface is an extremely user-friendly and engaging tool for designers working on a variety of projects and media. After all, how many hundreds of hours have we all spent rendering and manipulating 3D graphics for presentations, only to be disappointed by the results (or just too exasperated to care). LiveSurface image templates are high-res, pre-masked, multi-layered files with built-in 3D surfaces—dramatically simplifying this process and improving the end result in a big way. When I discovered that it is the brainchild of an entrepreneurial designer, my interest reached a new level.

Joshua Distler, Brooklyn-based founder of LiveSurface, is indeed a designer with an entrepreneurial itch. Currently in private practice, Josh cut his teeth with such renowned studios as IDEO, Metadesign, Studio Dumbar, and Wolff Olins, after which he spent time working at Apple where he was involved in the design of packaging for a number of generations of iPod, Macintosh and iMac. Also the founder of font foundry Shift, Josh is clearly thinking beyond the walls of the design studio.

Josh and I discussed the development of LiveSurface in this recent email exchange:

DP: What was the original inspiration for LiveSurface? Was it born out of necessity, or was the initial vision to grow a new venture?
JD: LiveSurface happened because in my own design projects it was something I needed and I felt that other designers would feel the same way. To be more specific, its origin was in a packaging project that I was involved in while I was traveling. Showing flat vector art didn’t communicate the concept well and I didn’t have the means to show physical mock-ups. I began to build images for this project using many of the methods used to build LiveSurface images today.

DP: Were there factors in your core creative business–or in the marketplace in general–that lead you to think of a different business model?
JD: Considering the tough schedules we all work as designers and the tight budgets usually associated with the more interesting projects, a motivating factor in building LiveSurface was to create a supplemental income source to my design services and consulting work so that I could take on more of these creative projects.

Picture 32

DP: How much business planning did you do before launching LiveSurface (no wrong answer here)?
JD: A lot of work went into the practical aspects of the launch, such as patents on the methods and image files, creation of the website and building the image library itself. While I was confident that the concept was sound, the site was launched as a bit of an experiment. Despite that fact that I am a customer myself, I figured I would learn a lot more than I could ever plan for from the customers and we have.

DP: The patent process is something most designers aren’t familiar with. Can you tell me more about that? Complicated? Expensive? Time-consuming? But I suppose it’s necessary if you’ve got ownable I.P.
JD: Yes to all of those. It’s complicated, expensive and time-consuming. This is mostly because you’re essentially creating an instruction book for building your invention down to the last tiny detail. Filing a provisional (the more descriptive and less legal specifications document that is filed ahead of the final document) is slightly easier but filing the final patent in multiple countries can be very pricey. Since the first, I’ve filed a second for other aspects of the I.P.; it doesn’t get any cheaper, easier, or less painful. But, I think it is well worth the effort.

DP: What types of experts from outside the design/creative field have you relied on as you’ve built LiveSurface?
JD: A variety of ongoing consultants and advisors: web site developers, lawyers, Photoshop/imaging experts and business/finance advisors.

DP: LiveSurface seems like the type of business that would connect with the social media movement. Are you finding this to be the case? Do you have a social media plan?
JD: It does indeed. There are some things that are happening on the LiveSurface site itself and some things that are being done to utilize larger existing social networking sites. And, of course, we have some things that we’re working on…

DP: Do you have other entrepreneurial ventures in the works? Any new aspects of LiveSurface that you are planning for?
JD: LiveSurface is only the very beginning; I can’t say much more than that. 😉

Here’s a short video that shows the capabilities of LiveSurface:

Picture 30Will Powers, the widely respected designer, printer, and book maker who lead the design and production department at the Minnesota Historical Society died unexpectedly while vacationing in Canada last week. I met Will in the mid-nineties when we were both teaching typography at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. Will had a passion for typography and fine printing, and he helped develop the typography curriculum at CVA along with Visual Communications department director John DuFresne, who shared these words about Will:

“Will contributed greatly to the development of a curriculum that featured his love of fine printing and book design. He often taught the second of a unique three course sequence on typography and helped establish the high level of expectation that has led to CVA graphic design students being universally recognized for their advanced skill in the art and craft of using type. Will influenced many lives and will be sorely missed. Yet his legacy will live on in the spirit of the enthusiasm he shared and in the students and associates he touched.”

Reporter Mary Ann Grossman of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed this obituary.

Picture 27A couple weeks ago I had an enlightening conversation with designer and strategist Sylvia Harris. Sylvia and I were comparing notes and sharing our experiences in the area of design for the health care industry—her work in wayfinding for hospitals and medical centers has led her into a consulting practice that focuses on user experience issues in health care (click here for a list of articles Sylvia Harris has written on these topics).

As we discovered the common professional ground we have traveled, our conversation began to focus on the emerging category of “service design.” Actually, this is a term that is more commonly used in Europe—here we might call it “design thinking”—but I actually think service design is a more accurate moniker. While both Sylvia and I share a background in communication design (or graphic design), we are both working in areas in which “graphic” design is only a fraction of what we actually do anymore. We’re working on complex projects that involve not the professional network that designers have traditionally worked with—photographers, writers, printers—but rather experts from a vast array of professional disciplines—psychologists, ethnographers, physicians, even policy makers. Likewise, the outcome of these projects is very different from what we might have delivered earlier in our careers—not a logo, brochure, or signage system, but rather a new nomenclature for a medical device, a new financial system, or health care procedure. Of course, this is a transformation that is happening throughout design as the value of what we do and how we do it is more recognized and accepted.

The memory of my conversation with Sylvia was refreshed yesterday when I read Alice Rawsthorn’s essay in the NY Times entitled “Winning Ways of Making a Better World,” which focused on the recently announced winners of the INDEX: Award 2009, the biennial design prize funded by the Danish government to celebrate examples of “design to improve life” (note: our Type1Tools product designs were included in the 2007 INDEX award kiva_logoexhibition). Ms. Rawsthorn pointed out one surprising recipient among the five impressive winners: Kiva, the micro-financing institution which has lent more than $86 million to entrepreneurs in the developing world in the last four years (which I blogged about recently).

As Alice Rawsthorn writes, “By any definition, it is a fantastic project, which undoubtedly helps ‘to improve life’ by raising money for people who desperately need it. But what does it have to do with design?”

I’m equally as surprised by this announcement as Ms. Rawsthorn, but I must say I’m thrilled to see INDEX, a leading force in the design world, making such a strong statement about what constitutes “design.” The definition of design has been morphing incrementally for generations, and I think we are on the cusp of a major transformation of what designers do and for whom we do it. This new way of designing is being exposed through the pioneering work of the London firm Participle, John Bielenberg’s Project M, Design for Democracy and designers like Sylvia Harris.

Ultimately, this change will mean huge opportunity for designers who are ready to seize it.

Check out this video about Kiva from the INDEX site:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “INDEX:DESIGN TO IMPROVE LIFE“, posted with vodpod

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