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ca1Designers interested in entrepreneurship would be wise to get familiar with Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. In 2004 Anderson coined the phrase “The Long Tail” which describes the niche strategy of businesses that sell a large number of unique items, each in relatively small quantities. The Long Tail phenomenon is being played out a million times over by ambitious entrepreneurs on the web. Related to this, Anderson is a proponent of online advertising as a way for web-based start-up businesses to generate revenue, become viable, and find their place in the “tail.”

The Long Tail actually stems from some pretty complex economic and statistical theories from the mid-twentieth century. Wikipedia has a good overview.

But the best way I’ve found to get a quick primer on Long Tail economics as it pertains to entrepreneurs today is this short video:

This short clip of Chris Anderson at a MediaBistro conference gives a preview of his thinking and energy. lt1

Anderson writes a popular and informative blog called (of course) The Long Tail, which I’ll place in the Merge Blogroll. Also here’s a link to his book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More.

In fairness, there is much debate about how and whether Anderson’s vision will materialize given the light-speed evolution of social networking and the potential ramifications this will bring, but if you are a designer looking for ways to launch a new venture, don’t ignore this guy.

hat_21Here are two items that show the strength and apparent durability of the online social media space as an entrepreneurial frontier:

First, this Fast Company list gives snapshots of 11 top women entrepreneurs in the technology sector (Issue 132, February, 2009). I found this to be a great way to get a feel for where the buzz is in this business category that is evolving at warp speed. Not surprisingly, social media is where it’s at. Designers, check out Rashmi Sinha, founder of SlideShare, the online community for (hold your breath) Powerpoint users…with over a million registered users!

Second, the excellent blog, Groundswell, recently sited a study that found that 95% of interactive marketers plan to maintain or increase their current level of investment in social technology. The study was conducted last December when the economic outlook was at least as gloomy as it is now, demonstrating that the strong growth of social media might carry it through the recession (or at least the next year).

Obviously this is good news for designers who are active in this space, and a big hint for those who are not.

For most designers and creative thinkers, the idea of writing a formal business plan is about as exciting as root canal. I believe this resistance to doing the “heavy lifting” is a big reason why designers struggle to move their entrepreneurial business ideas forward—I know it was a huge task for Lisa and me to hunker down and write our first business plan for HealthSimple.

Ironically—and not surprisingly—that business plan became one of the most valuable tools we had as we grew the business. A detailed and thorough business plan will contain the answers to many questions you will encounter on the journey to grow your business. And of course, business plans are the “language” that is spoken by the business community—the many advisors, collaborators, and funders you will depend on.

I will be using this blog as a repository for great resources on business plan writing. The problem is, most of the resources out there really stink—they’re confusing, redundant, overly detailed (or not detailed enough), and just plain ugly!!!

One exception that I’ve found is the blog written by Guy Kawasaki. Guy is a venture capitalist and one of the original Apple employees in the mid-80’s. He’s become a guru in the world of entrepreneurship and has written many books on the subject. He’s direct, fresh, and inspiring.

More on business plans to come, but in the meantime, check out this post on Guy Kawasaki’s blog .

Please send me your links to great business plan resources.


Designers—especially communication designers—love to talk about “getting a seat at the table,” which has become a favorite buzz phrase at design/business conferences in recent years. After decades of being tacked on to the end of the business process, designers believe that by being involved in business at a deeper level—when strategy is being developed, not just when it’s being implemented—they could have a strong positive influence.

I am a designer and I agree completely with this premise. We are creative thinkers with a set of skills that are desperately lacking within large corporations and institutions. I disagree, however, that designers should be striving only for a seat at the table. In order for designers to truly make change, I believe more of us must sit at the head of the table, not just at the crowded edges. By sitting at the head of the table, designers will lead, we will set the agenda, and we will build organizations in which design methodology and creative problem solving are a vital part of the DNA, not just a clever afterthought.pullquote1

So why are examples of designers leading businesses (other than design firms) so rare? This is a complex question with many possible answers.

My wife Lisa and I had been operating Schwartz Powell Design, a successful small design firm in Minneapolis, for more than 15 years when we created a second business called HealthSimple® to bring a smarter, more intuitive, and better designed approach to the daily experience of living with diabetes. Our journey along the winding road of entrepreneurship was fraught with crushing frustrations, unexpected thrills, torturous delays, and just enough success to keep us going. Ultimately, HealthSimple was acquired in 2007 by McNeil Nutritionals, a division of Johnson & Johnson.

As I reflect on our experience with HealthSimple, I begin to understand why so few designers find themselves leading non-design businesses. The entrepreneurial process is enormously challenging and risky, and most designers—despite our abundance of vision and creativity—simply do not have the information, skills, network, and resources to successfully go from a promising idea to a viable business.

To me the topic of designers and entrepreneurship is a fascinating one that is layered with big dramatic themes and subtle nuances. So, I’ve created Merge as a space to explore the topic further; to collect information, resources, ideas, and bits of inspiration; and to examine design businesses that are having success by doing things differently—all with the hope that  the entrepreneurial road will be a little brighter for more designers to travel.

To be clear, I am NOT an expert in this area and I won’t be playing the role of a guru doling out morsels of wisdom. Instead, think of me as the curator, facilitator, and occasional referee.

Currently the content of Merge is sparse, but it’s growing every day, and with the help of YOU—my friends and colleagues in the business—adding comments and sending me stories, links and contacts, I hope Merge will grow quickly to become a rich and practical resource for design business leaders.

Please join the conversation and tell your friends about Merge!

—Doug Powell

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