I’m a firm believer that design can be a game changer for businesses. This is especially true for startups. Great strategic design can be the difference between a startup’s success and failure in the early days of hitting the market. I have seen great ideas struggle and fail initially because they missed the connection from idea to consumer.

Strategic Design Investments

I’m always on the lookout for a great idea and the people behind it. For the last several years, Rule29 has been experimenting with the concept of strategic design by investing in startups in return for a piece of the company and/or a share in its success. We decided to do this for several reasons—the main one being that once a project is finished, no matter how we want to frame it, it’s a limited transactional relationship. Often, our design work is a substantial part of helping a company become wildly successful, and we want to share in that success when we can.

When one of our favorite clients, Birddog Inc., came to us with the opportunity to collaborate on a product idea, we quickly realized the partnership potential. As printers, Birddog saw an opportunity to create a beautiful product for a social savvy market. And as creatives, we quickly saw the opportunity to create a strategy and recognizable brand to accompany.

What We Built: InstaThis

The concept? Take Instagram photos and turn them into beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces of art by printing the images on wood or acrylic. The idea itself is not new. There are a number of outlets offering various mediums for your Instagram photos. But being active social media participants and creatives, we loved the opportunity to not only transform digital photography into tangible art, but also to make a splash in a market that we regularly play. This resulted in the creation and launch of InstaThis.

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Birddog trusted us and were confident that we could create something that was not only beautiful, but functional—a solid brand from the get-go that would have us sprinting right out of the gate. We were able to collaborate and evolve both the product and brand to a point where we felt comfortable going to market. Birddog and Rule29 did all the competitive research together, and we collaborated on the: production, fulfillment, naming, key messaging, brand development, and website—the last of which is the main vehicle to bring the product to market.

Partnerships: Trust is Paramount

I could go into detail about each part of that process, but what is more interesting is the trust and openness our two companies shared. They let us do our thing, but provided input and had a say in every decision along the way. The same was true for us. Birddog was the expert on how to produce the prints. We were the experts on the brand and digital delivery. But we continued to operate as one company, one effort–all to make something great for the consumer.

We also talked a lot about what we wanted to see, how we wanted potential customers to experience the site, and how we wanted buyers to feel once they received the product. As our target launch date approached, even though we planned to do more development and testing, we went live to take advantage of holiday traffic and gain some user feedback. From the start, we’ve had great traffic, sales, and feedback. Since November 2012, we have introduced consistent modifications, with some new big functions planned for the second quarter of 2013. So far, Instathis has exceeded our expectations and we look forward to our next project with Birddog.

We have experimented with this investment approach to design at least once a year for the last 13 years. Most have not turned out, but we have learned from each one. Right now we have four similar partnerships, all of which we feel are all positioned to do well in their own right.

5 Key Design Partnership Principles

So what have we learned? Here are the 5 key partnership principles we’ve adopted:

1. Invest in People – My good friend Kevin McConkey once told me that an idea can be great—but without a great person behind it, it won’t go anywhere. So, when assessing an investment possibility, the lion’s share of the decision lies in the people behind it. If they are all in, passionate, and will push the idea, there is a higher chance for success.

2. Value –  Do they value design and see it as a part of their business strategy? If not, why are you there?

3. Protection – Get things in writing, and be prepared at some point to include a lawyer who understands this type of partnership.

4. Trust – Is there a relationship of trust on both sides? Make sure there is.

5. Appealing idea/product – Would you or anyone you know buy the product? As soon as you can personalize the idea, the better you will be able to communicate it.

So, designers: be open, be careful, and take your time. Don’t go into a design investment if you’re doing it just to get rich. Instead, go into this for the satisfaction of helping something become successful, with the potential for an extra payoff at the end. Anything more than that is icing on the cake.