You may have noticed I’ve been a little less prolific around here lately; finally I can tell you why. I’m very excited to say that as of last November, I dropped out of my MFA program and am a cofounder of Firespotter Labs, a startup funded by Google Ventures. As cool as the concept of “stealth mode” sounds to me, I am decidedly *not* used to *not* writing about what I’m doing. Finally my sneakiness is over! In this post I want to talk a little bit about what it’s been like working full time at a startup, as well what went into the decision to drop out of my design program five months away from graduation. I really couldn’t be happier.
Of course all this would be more interesting if you knew exactly what we were doing. I wrote our About Us the other day and it’s spectacularly vague, so if you want to find out a little more, there were nice articles in The New York Times and Techcrunch last week.
I’ve written previously about some of my work for startups, the Plancast Penguin article mainly. After that, I started doing some contract work on the side for Google Ventures’ portfolio companies while at IDEO this last summer. I met Craig Walker through my friend Wesley at Ventures and we started talking about his plan for a new company he was starting with two ex-Googlers. We all started hanging out — kicking it at Craig’s house, brainstorming ideas, and of course, playing a fantastic amount of video games. I was still in school at the time, but I was doing as much design work as I could for Firespotter, mainly just because it was so much fun.
There were four of us in the beginning: two engineers, one CEO/magician, and myself as the designer. When we were going through our funding round, much of my work involved proving out our concepts for the products we’re working on now. Lots of mockups. Lots and lots of mockups. I became really good at working fast and that whole ‘ready, fire, aim’ kind of thing. As is typical for startups, we had no official schedule, just working as much as possible on two or three or a thousand things at once.
These days, now that our round is closed and we are out of stealth, we are all focused on getting our first product out the door. We split our time between Google’s campus and our homes, video Skyping each morning we don’t go into the office. A typical day usually involves designing for the iPhone, the web, and maybe a Powerpoint in case I’m having too much fun. Periodically I do miss the printed page, but there’ve been discussions about our need for a waveable flag, so I think I’ll have my outlet soon enough. Every day is completely different from the next and I love that.
Dropping Out of School
When I started working for Firespotter, I was also completing my second to last semester at the Academy of Art. Balancing the two was really tough and school started to really take a back seat. Somehow I passed my classes but I knew I didn’t want to try and split my time again this spring, especially given that it was going to be my last semester and time to execute my portfolio. Not to mention I was still working with Scott (he can tell you those couple months were rough! Way too busy), writing a book and freelancing. Something would have to go.
I thought a lot about why I was at design school in the first place. Was I there for the MFA? No way. I went to get experience and build a portfolio. The actual graduation and title were never part of my equation. When I thought about it, I had already accomplished what I wanted to at school. I had built a portfolio I was really proud of, learned an incredible amount from absolutely terrific teachers, and I felt ready to get out there. Of course It felt weird to “drop out”, but I know that was just the stigma hammered into me by east coast living. Of course my parents and I had a few (or many) conversations about it haha.
I guess everyone is at design school to get a job in the end. I had found a job — a special job that didn’t feel like work and certainly didn’t feel like it would ever come around again. Given those two aspects, it was a really easy choice to ejector seat out, even though I was so close to finishing. In my mind I had “finished” school already anyway.
As far as my work at ISO50, the wonderful Jon stepped in to take over the in-studio work. It felt very strange to not come through Scott’s regularly — I had gotten really used to it after three years! As I’ve mentioned before, it’s impossible to convey how much I learned from Scott during that time. An incredible experience to be sure.
Design and the Land of Startsups
Basically I can’t imagine a more perfect job. Being a designer at a startup is amazing. I’ve done a lot of design work in many different scenarios and it’s hard to think of a better environment to be creative in. I’ve always wanted to make things (whether music or design) that get seen and used by as many people as possible. At a startup, the relationship between our output and the user, is very pure and direct. The pixel I move today conceivably could be in your hand tomorrow. By contrast, at a design studio for example, you are much farther removed from this exchange. So many more moving parts.
I’m actually surprised I don’t hear more designers, students particularly, aspiring to venture into the land of startups. I suppose I wasn’t even really aware of the possibility when I started, perhaps a result of being from the east coast where most people’s understanding of startup land is entirely acquired from The Social Network. Basically my advice: if you’re a designer looking for work, look for a startup. (That or start your own.)
Off We Go
Anyway! That’s what I’m up to. And also why you haven’t seen as much of me around here as you used to. I will keep trying to write of course, and I’m happy now I can start writing some more process pieces on the crazy things we’re doing at the Lab. I’ve done a bunch of process pieces for school work in the past and I really want to continue that tradition now that I’m out on the lam. In the next post, I’ll talk about the logo design process for Firespotter.