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Stuart Karten recently had the pleasure of participating in a startup-focused panel discussion, titled “Product Strategy Real-Time: Learn from Pros How to Make Your Ideas Viable,” where he shared essential tips and key strategies that every startup needs to adopt in order to be successful. The panel, which was hosted by the Make It In LA Coalition, brought together a diverse group of entrepreneurs and business experts to discuss product strategy best practices, specifically the importance of incorporating competitive intelligence, customer insights, and product design into early-stage ventures.

From our 30+ years of experience in working with startups, we’ve found that inserting design as early as possible in the startup process is the differentiating factor in early acquisition. Design is the keystone of any startup, enticing both customers and investors by producing a well-packaged product that truly resonates with its end users. It goes beyond ensuring that a product is aesthetically appealing—it roots the process (and thus the product) in people, creating three elements every startup needs to be successful: deep understanding, vision, and desire.

At the core of design are people. Through utilizing design research, modern design firms have the unique ability to sincerely understand users and their individual physical, cognitive, and emotional motives, behaviors, values, and desires. This is critical for any businesses’ success. In terms of function, design research forces you to think about your product in a more useful and holistic way. Who is your ideal user? What physical or emotional barriers would prevent a user from adopting this product? Could this product better a person’s life and actually contribute to his or her day-to-day wellbeing? We’ve often seen startup teams with an excellent idea, but they lack in understanding human behavior; they worry more about a product’s capabilities than whether or not the user could grow to love their product. Yes, your new technology may work, but if it doesn’t blend with a user’s existing habits and ceremonies, it won’t be adopted.

Vision is the ability of a startup to clearly, consistently, and compellingly communicate the value of its product, all the way from its deck to its logo to its actual product design. No matter how cool your technology is, if the messaging surrounding your product is inconsistent or sloppy, you will drive away VCs. Remember: VCs are looking for products that solve real problems, and if you can’t effectively communicate your solution to a VC, how will you communicate it to a potential customer? Through applying design strategy in the early stages of development, design teams can help startups develop vision in two ways: 1. They can help cultivate a definitive brand, differentiating materials and messaging from those of competitors. 2. They can create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Startups can’t get funding without being able to communicate both the purpose and value of their technology, and design firms have all of the tools—competitive analysis, product roadmapping, market knowledge, etc.—to make this happen. By understanding research, business strategy, and design, design teams can thread all of these elements into a single vision, and can then assist in strategically leveraging that vision.

VCs are looking past run-of-the-mill, single-faceted product ideas. A design firm can separate your product from the pack, helping startups design a product that does more than functionally solve a problem; they can design a product that evokes desire. Through design, firms can connect users with technology and touch them in an emotional way that other messaging can’t. Good design can get people genuinely excited about and differentiate your product, and in turn, catch the eyes of VCs.

The success of a startup can depend on multiple factors, but one thing is for certain: no startup can survive without quality design. By bringing in a sophisticated design team at an early stage, startups can understand their end-user, create value through their vision, and make their product desirable—all in service of making themselves a powerful acquisition target.

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