It’s been one year this month since I left my somewhat cushy job in the LinkedIn Creative Studio to join my friends and co-founders in a risky new venture: building Qwill (and its brand) from the ground up.
In reflection, I’m brought back to the time I first learned of Qwill from Greg Glass, our CEO and Founder. While I’d worked with Greg tangentially for several years, our conversations typically revolved around graphic design and musical jam sessions. So, I was somewhat surprised when he approached me about a new project he was working on with a couple of mutual friends and co-workers.
“So, it’s estate planning for the cloud generation” he described, before walking me through the whole concept. Though immediately intrigued, I can’t say I was exactly excited about estate planning. But I was definitely excited to build a product and company with people I highly respect, and champing at the bit to explore the brand opportunities. I mean, what could be more challenging than convincing millennials to be enthusiastic about planning for their eventual demise?
A few more conversations with Greg and I was sold. The challenge was clear, but where to begin?
Developing a brand from scratch.
Sorting through the documents and files Greg sent me, there was certainly no shortage of ideas on design concepts and brand lines floating around among the team. There were a few opinions on how the messaging should be delivered as far as voice and tone, a fairly clumsy logo mark, plenty of assumptions on our target audiences, but no visual language or concepts to form a foundation. It became quite clear that I was at the starting line.
So, I started where all design projects begin… with competitive research and Pinterest boards! At the early stage, Pinterest should be your best friend — I suggest creating lots of boards to help you organize your thoughts: color, typography, illustration, photography, advertising, etc. Just collect everything you like or find inspiring.
As is to be expected at an early stage, these ideas were all over the map. Through conversations concerning brand feel and style, it was fairly easy to lock down what NOT to do. We clearly wanted to stay away from anything morbid, depressing, dark, serious, or difficult, which you know, should be a piece of cake for estate planning, right? Having established our “Don’ts” definitely helped to define our “Do’s” — key brand values for which I could develop: friendly, simple, casual, colorful, even cheeky.
Don’t hate, iterate!
I started with a color palette, which I then extended into a broader visual language with photography and type, and a dotted line graphical element. After putting together several treatments, I bundled it all into a “lookbook” and shipped it to my fellow Qwillians for their feedback.
Not so fast, buddy. “This looks great, Paul” was the general consensus. But I wasn’t convinced — it didn’t feel right. Still too stuffy, and perhaps a bit generic. In some ways it even felt like I could be telegraphing my brand work for LinkedIn onto this new project for Qwill.
So I started again. And then came round 3. I probably packaged 4 or 5 lookbooks before the direction suddenly became clear — everyone was hankering for something more endearing, charming, probably cute, even.
While identity development was in full swing, our product was beginning to emerge in the form of a working prototype. Playing off successful implementations of some other apps in the FinTech space, we decided to adopt a chatbot as a guide in the creation of the Last Will and Testament document. Aha! Enter the perfect opportunity to create a character — a mascot of sorts — to serve as the chatbot persona and brand concierge.
During a weekend ski trip with the friends and family, I was feeling slightly under the weather. So I stayed inside with my sketchbook, and the first iterations of our chatbot began to emerge. For the first time, Qwill’s design direction was actually starting to feel like my inner expression and not an agency-style brand development in which I have no vested interest other than clean, well executed design. And duh, it makes sense! Qwill is my company, and the brand should reflect my personality. I sent the little guy to the team on Slack, and it was love at first sight.
That original robot has seen many variations, but he soon became our beloved Q, an automated estate planner with a lot of knowledge and an affinity for dad jokes. With Q in place, it wasn’t long before he had a posse of friends, each with unique talents aligned to Qwill’s feature set.
Make no mistake, startups are hard.
This is my 4th startup in my 20+ year career in design, and every single experience has been wildly different. The startup world, and especially the early-stage startup, is not for everyone. Expect a rollercoaster ride, unpredictable twists and turns, and strategy and priorities that will shift in the blink of an eye.
Qwill doesn’t have an office, so we all work remotely. This makes fiscal sense, but can sometimes be challenging in other ways. Working from home requires real grit, focus, dedication, what oldsters used to call “self-starting.” Your work environment is critical so take time to make your space an inspiring one. We try to get together once a week in a co-working space, but that doesn’t always happen. However, we do communicate constantly through Slack and Zoom, which makes having impromptu design reviews and feedback extremely convenient and quick.
The work is scrappy and fast-paced, and you have to allow for a lot of imperfection, something that’s really difficult for designers! But trust your team, and show rough versions while they are still works-in-progress, as early feedback helps the iteration process and accelerates the development cycle.
So, what have I learned?
I’ve learned a lot on this short but jam-packed journey. To sum, this would be my advice to any designer trying to build a brand from scratch:
- Sketch, sketch, sketch!
For me, sketching is a great facilitator for visceral output, a stream of consciousness kind of thing, and an important step in my creative process. It’s visual thinking. I’ve spent most of my career preaching the value of sketching for both individual creative development, but also for group brainstorms in the form of visual note taking. But I’ll save this topic for a future blog post or article. In short, if sketching isn’t part of your process, it should be.
- Iterate, iterate, iterate!
Nothing’s ever quite right the first time, and in truth, it’s not supposed to be. Or at least that shouldn’t be the goal. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. Iteration is the key to working through the design problems, incorporating feedback from your team, and making visual improvements along the way. And even after your designs have launched and become a current part of the product UX, you should still be looking at how to learn and improve. Startups don’t usually have the benefit of deep research and usability analysis, but trust your instincts, and listen to any user feedback.
- Make it an expression of yourself.
At a minimum, designers always put a little of themselves into everything they do. It’s one of the reasons feedback can be really hard on young designers. But designing a brand from scratch for your own company should not be approached in the same way you would approach designing a brand to satisfy a brief. In this case, the brief is your gut instinct – you are the client and the designer. So have that conversation with yourself – and don’t shy away from exposing your inner visceral instincts. Find that internal voice and run with it!
- Early stage startups are hard.
Startup life isn’t for everyone. Obviously they come with a lot of financial risk and definitely lack in job security. But more importantly, startups are best suited for people with an overwhelming curiosity to learn and push their own professional limits, as well as a desire to build something new. Culture, product, brands, tenets and values – if your venture is successful, these make up the foundation on which your company will stand for a long time to come.
- Trusting your team is really important.
Communication and uninhibited feedback is critical for an early stage startup. You need to make sure you and your team are on the same page, and that the goals and objectives are perfectly aligned. And if you’re at an early stage startup, chances are great that you are the only designer, which can make fast moving design decisions a bit of a challenge.
So trust your team! Trust that you’re all working for the same goal, and trust that NOBODY else on your team wants to do your job or thinks they can do it better. Designers are often very insecure, but get over it! Show your work-in-progress early and often. And skip the presentation format and dive right into your sketchbook or art boards. You’ll find the development cycle will speed up dramatically.
So there it is – a roundup of some of my learnings from the first year at Qwill. As it’s difficult to fit a full discussion in a single post, please reach out if you’d like to discuss anything in depth or ask a question. You can also swing by Qwill.io for a continued tour of our brand design.
Balancing between design and music, Paul has spent his entire life as a creative professional, scoring his first paid job at age 16 as a session player on a McDonald’s ad. Since landing his first design gig as a Hitachi web designer in the 1990s, Paul has worked in design leadership at Bizo and LinkedIn, and is now VP of Design and Co-Founder at Qwill. In his free time he can be found restoring old houses, which includes many trips to the lumber yard in his vintage 1964 Ford pickup.