From Designer to Founder: Two Entrepreneurs Share Lessons From Building their Businesses



From Airbnb to Pinterest, more and more designers are launching and leading companies, and many are doing it without traditional business experience or backgrounds. Instead, they’re learning how to build a business while building their businesses. Two such entrepreneurs are Design Army co-founder Pum Lefebure and Jesse Genet, the CEO of product packaging company Lumi, who will share their experiences during an October 15 Adobe MAX session hosted by 99U.

Ahead of the panel, we’re reflecting on the lessons Lefebure and Genet have shared with us about becoming savvier entrepreneurs.

Don’t quit your day job too soon.

Lefebure started Design Army with her husband Jake at their kitchen table with Lefebure also working her full-time job, so they could maintain their health insurance. Both regularly stayed up until 3 a.m. to get Design Army off the ground. They anticipated it would be two years before Design Army took off enough for Lefebure to leave her day job. It took four months. The takeaway? Even if your company takes off at the rocket speed that Design Army did, that still means you’d have four months without a consistent income and the related benefits. Get your business up and running before making the jump to it full-time.

Pum Lefebure; Design Army; At Yolk

Lefebure and her fellow creators are photographed at Design Army’s new creative space, At Yolk, in greater Washington D.C. Image courtesy of Design Army.

Your first idea might not be your actual business idea.

In 2009, Genet met her co-founder Stephan Ango and they launched Inkodye, a fabric dye they invented that develops its color in the sun. Through selling their product via e-commerce, they soon realized how difficult it was for start-ups to find high quality product packaging in the smaller sizes they needed. “That planted the seed to launch Lumi,” says Genet.

Lumi CEO Jesse Genet

Genet photographed in front of her Airstream trailer where she lives just steps from the Lumi office in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Lumi.

“Business” isn’t a scary word.

“I think that designers often put business in this separate category,” says Genet. “There is creativity, and then somewhere off in the distance there is business. I never viewed it that way. My mindset is that business is this tool for getting my work out in the world. For getting people to use it, see it, and pay for it. If you think of business as a tool for your creative effort, it becomes less intimidating. It leads to a healthier relationship that you have with the business side, as opposed to something you dread. I would encourage people to start there, your mindset.”

Don’t just create revenue opportunities; create reoccurring revenue opportunities.

How does Design Army stand out against world competition to win contracts with clients like The Ritz-Carlton, Bloomingdale’s, JW Marriott, and Pepsi? Lefebure says it’s the mix of strategy and execution that her firm brings to their design packages. Once, a real estate developer came to her to rebrand an emerging D.C. neighborhood and asked Lefebure to create a full page ad to put in the local magazine, The Washingtonian.” To which she replied, “I think you can make a better use of time creating your own Washingtonian.”

Get a client hooked on the benefits of producing good content.

Lefebure pitched the developer a recurring print periodical called D/CITY. The publication features mom and pop shops, lists community events, and surfaces local creatives for sartorial spreads. The back page? An ad for the developer’s condos. And Lefebure’s team runs the editorial and social media operations. D/CITY illustrates one Lefebure’s business strategies: get a client hooked on the benefits of producing good content.

Pum Lefebure Design Army; Hong Kong Ballet

Design Army provided design and art direction to the Hong Kong Ballet. Image courtesy of Design Army.

Ask for the order.

“I have a pet peeve when I watch a Kickstater video, and the person tells me how incredible everything they’re doing is, but at no time in the video do they say, ‘Here’s why I need this money, and I hope you contribute,’” says Genet. “Just endlessly talking about why your heart is in this is important, but it’s only half of it. If you spend 100% of you time talking about that, you will find yourself having great conversations and no one will give you money.”

Choose your clients wisely.

When you’re launching your business, you might need to take on anyone who wants to give you money; that’s understandable. But as you grow, the types of clients you take on can have a direct impact on the work you produce, so Design Army avoids ones who are risk-averse. Cosmetic fixes don’t interest Design Army. They takes aim at the underlying psychology of their clients’ problems.

My theory is you cannot do epic stuff with basic people.

If a client came to Lefebure to redecorate a bedroom, Lefebure says to illustrate her approach, Design Army would not repaint the colors in the room. “I’m going to knock down the whole wall,” she says. “We are about architecture. We are not a painter.” “My theory is you cannot do epic stuff with basic people,” says Lefebure. “You are only as good as your client allows.”

Lumi and Cotton Bureau

Lumi’s client list includes Cotton Bureau. Image courtesy of Lumi.

Spot “hidden in plain sight” entrepreneurial openings.

“A powerful question to ask yourself when you’re about to start a business is ‘What do other people find unsexy?’” says Genet. “Usually, people starting businesses, and entrepreneurs in general, are very interested in looking cool and being cool people. There are not a lot of entrepreneurs gravitating towards packing tape and boxes. What doesn’t sound cool at first blush is a good way to uncover opportunities.”

Diversify your investments.

Lefebure has a thriving business in Design Army, but she has also invested beyond it. She and Jake now own four Washington D.C.-area properties, including the Design Army office and their new 10,000 square-foot studio “At Yolk” a 10-minute drive from downtown. As Washington D.C.-area real estate prices rise, this allows them to develop stable, long-term passive income.

Catch Pum and Jesse’s session on building their businesses at Adobe MAX on October 15 at 5:15 p.m.





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