Left School, Joined a Startup

Posted by Alex

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

My wee little office room

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

Spent a lot of time in hotels last year

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.

31 Comments Leave A Comment


Jarson says:

May 9, 2011 at 1:37 am

That’s really exciting and inspiring. I want to transfer (for completely different reasons) and it really bums me out to know that I’ve had terrible teachers and haven’t gained anything from school, only my own ventures, as narcissistic as that may sound…
I’ve always been a fan of your design work and I’m looking foreword to what will come of this.


Kjell-Roger says:

May 9, 2011 at 2:50 am

I’ll have to agree with Jarson on this one Alex, inspiring and exciting. I’m happy you got the chance to go out and do this!

I’m currently working in a dreamjob myself, and at the same working on my own company, hopefully when my contract ends at my “dayjob” I can continue a dreamjob in my own company!

Good luck!


Michael Faber says:

May 9, 2011 at 10:00 am


Glad to see you’ve made the move into startup land. I’ve come to more or less the same conclusion you have regarding designing for startups. We should catch up sometime – I’d love to hear more.



Patrick Branigan says:

May 9, 2011 at 10:24 am

Very happy for you! I had a similar mindset when I approached graduation from my undergraduate. I was lucky enough to have professors who supported my decision to focus solely on my personal progression and work, and apply that to ‘grades’ and ‘graduation.’ I feel you’ve made the correct decision, and obviously it has already begun to pay off! Congratulations again, and good luck!


nils says:

May 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm

hi. i really like your work and your music. just wanted to tell you. very inspiring! i added you to my blog. have a look! i postet a mix that you might like. greetings from cologne, germany


Dan says:

May 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Good on ya Alex, really inspiring stuff and I look forward to seeing what comes out of ‘the lab’!

Are you still going to blog on ISO50 occasionally?

See ya round!


Alex says:

May 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm

@ Dan – Thanks! Yep planning to blog like I used to, just maybe not as often because I’m super busy. I’d like to focus more on these long form articles rather than the short little inspiration bursts I used to do. Planning to do more design related process posts, as well as some music ones. We’ll see!


ben says:

May 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I’m a visual effects artist and I think there’s a huge difference between this and design, but my experience with startups (/self funded studios) was the fear of suddenly not getting paid.

It sounds like you landed a sure-fire deal with Google Ventures, but isn’t this exceptional in a business model where everything thinks they’ve got the next big thing, but doesn’t necessarily have the cash flow to make it happen?


Alex says:

May 9, 2011 at 2:50 pm

@ Ben – An excellent point. Jumping into the startup world assumes you are A) not risk averse, and B) OK with a non-standard (and perhaps periodically shaky) financial situation. It’s not for everyone, absolutely.


mike says:

May 9, 2011 at 4:56 pm

congrats, sounds excellent.

fyi, i think there’s a typo, 3rd paragraph, last line.


Fallspring says:

May 9, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Hey Alex, I was wondering if you could post your take on the evolution of electronic music from when the select majority of people started paying attention to it in the early 90s’ to the gritty bass driven songs we hear today.


Tree Sloth says:

May 9, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Looks like you really lucked out with the startup you are involved with. I would caution against advising young designers to seek out startup work right out of school however. Take it from someone who has been burned—never, ever, EVER, work for free and never ever take anyone’s word for anything—get everything in writing.


Tim says:

May 12, 2011 at 12:54 am

This is awesome and really fills me with optimism. I think so many designers that are studying or just leaving college have an attitude that there are so many things they “can’t do”. This sounds like a really exciting ‘can do’ project, and instantly makes it seem like we can do anything we set our minds to. Please keep us updated with how it goes!


John says:

May 12, 2011 at 11:38 am

Alex, congrats on the new adventure. Sounds exciting and I wish you the best. One thing you might consider regarding school, are your instructors. I support and I am sure they do, you current ambitions. I teach design at a small community college. I must say that when i have students drop out to pursue other opportunities, I am always hopeful and proud of them, but it also feels like a slap in the face. Most instructors pour themselves into their students and to have them complete is an honor. That is the biggest gift a student can ever do to show their gratitude, is to finish. But when a student does leave, they leave with our full support and admiration for their ambitious qualities. I am sure your faculty are proud of you, but you might make sure they know how grateful you are to soften the blow.

Good luck.


Alex says:

May 12, 2011 at 11:54 am

@ John- Absolutely. I tried to touch on that but perhaps didn’t fully convey how amazing my time at school was. I was wary about writing the article, in a way, because I really didn’t want it to seem like I was leaving school because I was unhappy there. I think I will write another article in time about my experience at school and how much I got from it. I agree that it’s very important.

I was actually thinking about it yesterday…”did I gloss over the school section of that article too quickly?” Your comment indicates to me that I probably did. Have thought about it a lot since and will soon discuss my experience there, in a way that should properly convey my gratitude.


David says:

May 14, 2011 at 11:12 am

Glad to see you venture out Alex. I made the same decision while in art school. Only I was one semester in after I dropped out to join Beatport as a designer.

It was a great call. You are set.