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Many designers have made the leap from employee to employer, often taking the side hustle highway along the way. We spoke with two designers who are no longer designing just products, but also a culture, a company and a future for themselves and the people they now employ.

Both Josh Zac of Turtle Inc. and Mona Patel of Motivate Design are experience designers turned entrepreneurs. They took time to answer our questions about how having an entrepreneurial mindset gave them the courage to take a big risk and successfully branch out on their own. In both cases, it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t even necessarily their end game. But as they worked their way through their careers and experimented with entrepreneurial projects on the side, they eventually found themselves fully bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

Below they share some of the advantages and challenges that having a background in design presented to them as entrepreneurs. Here’s how you can use their early lessons to begin creating a career of your own design.

Josh Zak, Experience Designer (UX/UI), Partner at Turtle Inc.

Why did you decide to launch your own business? 

My business partner and I met as young designers working for a large digital agency. We soon began working on business ideas on the side as a way to learn and test our ideas. After years of experimenting with side projects we decided to commit to running Turtle Design full-time.

How did your background as a designer help you as an entrepreneur?

As a designer, I could create and validate ideas for very minimal costs. Where non-designers may have needed investment funds the only cost to me was my time. Working at agencies helped me build a strong network of developers, strategists, and advisors that I could collaborate with in business.

Did your background as a designer present any challenges? 

Yes, there are a few challenges. One of them is I found it difficult to delegate work as my default is to always do it myself. This is fine as a freelancer, but isn’t ideal for building a business that can scale.

What did you do to overcome them?

I think of the structure and operations of our business as the ultimate design project. I try to focus on the parts of our business where I can have the greatest impact, and empower others to lead in other areas.

What was an early lesson you received as an entrepreneur?

I made the common mistake of not validating my ideas before fully creating them. I was comfortable with testing designs with users, but I didn’t know much about validating business ideas. Looking back, I could have saved myself a lot of time by testing early and not designing features no one wanted.

What advice do you have for other designers who are thinking about starting their own business? 

  • Start by working for an established design company, for a few years, to build up the skills and connections you will need for your business.
  • Build relationships with people from various disciplines. Not just other designers.
  • Have side projects to test your ideas and grow in areas of interest. Even if your idea doesn’t succeed as a business it will help your portfolio stand out from the crowd.
  • Choose an area to specialize, and learn how to craft your positioning statement. As an expert, you will be able to create more value for your clients and make more money.
  • Validate your business ideas and don’t be afraid to make the leap when you find the right one to pursue.


Mona Patel, CEO of Motivate Design and author of Reframe

Why did you decide to launch your own business?

I actually never decided to launch it. I started freelancing and the work led to more work. Before I knew it, I needed people on the team to handle everything from accounting to some detail level design and research work. I was so inspired by the people I’ve met I felt compelled to start a business to give them a place where they could thrive (and drive).

How did your background as a designer help you as an entrepreneur?

Designers are all about solving problems. Period. To me it goes hand-in-hand with being an entrepreneur because really, I’m just designing a company versus an interface. Everything from HR to onboarding to client experience all gets designed at this company. That means we’re constantly asking each other what works, what doesn’t work, and where we need to innovate. Design also allows us to iterate. The company is constantly evolving and we’re making sure that we stay in tune with what both our employees and clients need.

Did your background as a designer present any challenges? What did you do to overcome them?

The only one I can think of is that sometimes designers like to get into the zone and really hone in on what they’re designing. Headphones are on and we’re focused on creating. In terms of my current role as CEO, it feels (in a good way) like I’m always interacting with and serving other people. There are a lot of meetings and networking events, and unless I block it off, I don’t have time to think deeply I like I did when I was a designer. Now I do block hours per day, a day per week and a week per quarter to do just that, but when I wasn’t blocking off time, it was a challenge for me.

What was an early lesson you received as an entrepreneur?

We all have parts of us that are amazing and draw others to us, and parts of us that drive people a bit batty. Entrepreneurship has made me keenly aware of the areas in my working style and personality that I need to work on so that it’s easier for other types of people to work with me. For example, I’m direct. I like it because I get things done quickly and am a huge fan of efficiency. But I quickly learned that if other people don’t like my directness, it can turn them off and cause more work for me, negating the very thing I’m going after (efficiency!).

What advice do you have for other designers who are thinking about starting their own business?

I’m a huge fan of designers thinking about stale, antiquated business models and redesigning them so that they better serve customers. So my advice would be just to do it. Get out of your own way and try it!

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais

Sheena Lyonnais is a Toronto-based writer, editor and digital specialist. She works in content marketing by day, studies digital strategy by night, and practices yoga somewhere in between. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.


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