Ditching Design Agencies for a Tech Startup

If I told you I always wanted to work at a startup, or that Venture for America (VFA) was on my radar as my number one post-grad choice, I’d be lying. It was happenstance that my friend chatted me the VFA application link three days before the final deadline...

Hannah White

If I told you I always wanted to work at a startup, or that Venture for America (VFA) was on my radar as my number one post-grad choice, I’d be lying. It was happenstance that my friend chatted me the VFA application link three days before the final deadline. I applied because I was deep in job application season as a second semester senior; to be honest, I wasn’t all that committed to the idea yet. My reason was inconsequential, but I really hate the show Silicon Valley and that clouded my feelings on startups in general. Update: I still hate the show, but I love working at a startup and being a Venture for America fellow. Looking back, I can’t really imagine taking another path.

During the VFA application process, they ask you if in the future you would ever want to start your own company. My response was always yes, but back then I was thinking in terms of becoming a freelance designer and maybe growing that into a little design firm. In my mind, this would have taken place in my late 30s or early 40s, after I felt I had learned as much as possible from working at other companies. Now my response is still yes, but the end goal and timeline are very different. Becoming a freelance designer is a form of entrepreneurship, but VFA showed me how much of a positive social impact the startup community can have through companies like Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program and the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys. There are also product companies that recognize problems and strive to fix them like VersaMe, Pathsensors, and ClassTracks. The main goal of every designer is to identify and solve problems through design. Through VFA, I saw this on a larger scale with startups and admittedly was hooked.

When the VFA match portal opens, all hell breaks loose. There are companies reaching out to you, you’re reaching out to companies, VFA team members are trying to keep up to date with every fellow’s journey, and everyone’s email inbox is overflowing. I found out that I got into VFA the Monday before the portal opened, so the turnaround time was basically non existent. I was still trying to figure out how to write my “pitch” (opening email) to companies when they were already emailing me. I barely had time to decide what I was really looking for before going into interviews, but here’s the list I pulled from my notebook:

  1. Company Size. In a lot of my interviews, I was asked why I wanted to work at a startup as opposed to a more established design firm or product company. It was hard for me to put into words until I thought about how I would draw my explanation. At a bigger company, I would be given a plant that was already grown and told to water and trim it in specific ways. At a startup, I would get to decide which seed to plant, where to plant it, and how to help it grow. (Note: It’s cheesy. I know.)
  2. Diversity in Work. I work best when I have multiple projects that push me in different ways and require different branding and goals. I wanted a job where I wouldn’t always be working with the same branding.
  3. Founder Experience. I wanted a founder who had experience. VFA sells the program as a hands on MBA, and I wanted to make sure my ‘professor’ knew what they were doing.
  4. Company Culture. I was pretty sure I wanted to be at a tech startup, but there are so many articles out there about stigmas about women in tech. According to the Harvard Business Review, 41% of women in tech end up leaving the field. There are countless articles about the daily problems women face. I wanted to work at a company where I knew I wouldn’t be talked over at meetings or skipped over for promotions.
  5. Equity. Equity isn’t the be all end all by any means, but it does mean this company sees the fellow as a real employee. A CEO can only hope that employees always want more equity because it means they believe in the product. Employees can only hope that a CEO will offer it because it means the CEO believes they are an invaluable asset to the team.

At the end of the process I signed on with Leverege. Before they hired fellows, they were a company of 4 and had a founder with a history of multiple successful companies under his belt. They wanted to hear my opinion on various marketing and branding decisions before I signed on, which I took as a good sign (it was). The job description involved marketing, product development, company branding, website design, and more, so I was sure I wouldn’t be ‘creatively bored’. Looking back at all of my pros and cons lists for every VFA partner company I talked to, I still stand by the five factors I considered

VFA Reunion in Cincinnati at Rhinegeist, a local craft brewery and VFA company

Fast forward to present day: I’m sitting at a coffee shop, sipping coffee with two members of the dev team and fellow 2016 VFA fellows (our crew has been dubbed the rat pack by the rest of the team). I just wrapped up designing a user interface for a smart city and am documenting some user interactions on our website using Inspectlet. Later today, I’ll be working on a slide deck with the Director of Sales (who also happens to be a VFA fellow) for his product demos and checking on how our A/B testing for our current ad campaign is going on Google analytics. Each one of our nine team members influences the direction and success of this company. We’re all trying to figure out how to make our company be one of the 10% of startups that succeed and to be honest, I’ve never loved Monday mornings more.

Hannah White

Chief Product Officer

Hannah is passionate about the potential of the Internet of Things and how it will impact society, focusing her energy on crafting IoT experiences that are simple, intuitive, and stunning. When she's not working, she can be found rock climbing at the local gym, slinging clay at the pottery studio, or somewhere out in Shenandoah.

View Profile

Explore More Stories