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About the Author
Maria Boustead is the founder and CEO of Po Campo, an internationally-distributed brand of bike bags for people who love using their bike to get around. Since May 2013, Po Campo has partnered with World Bicycle Relief, donating a portion of sales to funding the purchase of bicycles for girls in developing countries so that they can get to school. Maria has presented about her entrepreneurial journey in the bike and outdoor world at the League’s National Bike Summit, the Industrial Designer Society of America (IDSA) National Conference, and the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show, among others. Prior to founding Po Campo, Maria worked as an industrial designer and brand strategist, solving problems for brands as varied as 3M, Pampers, and Yellowtail. A reluctant office dweller, she prefers to spend her time bicycling around town, traveling abroad, reading books and drinking coffee in cafes, all of which can now, thankfully, count as work.

How Design Thinking Helped Me Build the Business of My Dreams

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I was only a few years in to owning my bike bag business, Po Campo, when nearly everything I had built crumbled to nothing.

 

After a few years of slow growth and increasing excitement about our product, stylish and functional bike bags, I thought I finally had my big break. I did the Outdoor Retailer trade show, and like a dream come true I started getting orders from a few nationwide retailers. I had just moved production to China – and borrowed a ton of money – so I knew I could fill all these orders at a price point the companies wanted.

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I was flying high! Until the product began arriving from China.

 

The bags were three months late, which is already awful when you have a seasonal product. And the quality was inconsistent. The retailers who hadn’t already canceled because of delays were now canceling because of product returns.

 

I’d built a business I was proud of from scratch. And at that moment it seemed like everything had fallen apart.

 

Almost six years later, I can see that from the highest highs to the lowest lows, building the business of my dreams has been a journey. As an industrial designer by trade, I learned that my biggest strength was in looking at every business challenge from a design perspective.

 

If I wanted to design a functional, long-lasting product, I knew what to do. Designing a sustainable, successful business turns out to be surprisingly similar – and wildly different.

 

Designing for reality

 

I founded Po Campo after years of working with design agencies as an industrial designer for large clients like Procter & Gamble and Microsoft. I loved the design work but felt disconnected from the final product.

 

When I stepped out on my own and saw the product through from start to finish, I quickly realized that the design process didn’t stop when I handed off my original plans. I had to account for things like how many bags could fit in a carton to get efficiencies on the pallet during shipping, or which details did (and didn’t) need to be in the tech packs handed off to the factory.

 

I gained a lot of respect for people in those roles outside of product design. From my initial sketches to learning how to market our bags to hit our target niche, every part of launching a product was part of the design process.

 

Designing your own rules

 

As an industrial designer, you’re constantly being given limitations. You get used to looking at the problem from a different viewpoint whenever you hit a roadblock.

 

As a business owner, you have to do the exact same thing. People are constantly telling you something can’t be done. You need to approach a business with the design mindset to figure out how you can get to the endpoint in a nontraditional way.

 

No one gives you directions. As a business owner, you need to write your own rules, whether that’s asking a bank for a creative repayment plan or troubleshooting why a deal fell through and putting systems into place to make sure the next deal succeeds.

 

Designing for your customers

 

The longer I’m in business, the more important I realize collaboration is – with my employees, with the factory, with my retailers, and – most importantly – with my customers.

 

Thinking about my customers has kept me going through the hardest time. People have told me they couldn’t figure out how to bike to work until they got a Po Campo bag, which is incredibly humbling. If I packed up and quit, where would they be?

 

When I first started out, I was designing in a vacuum. I was designing a bag for my customers. But I’ve started to realize that our product is more than a bike bag – our company, our lifestyle is the product. Now I’m spending more time thinking about designing with my customers.

 

Designing for you

 

Like almost any business owner, I daydream about being featured in Fast Company, or having a famous person showing off my product (Serena Williams, call me!). Those are the mainstream tokens of success we all know – but as a business owner you quickly realize that those things come at a cost.

 

You have the opportunity to design a business that meets your definition of success.

 

From the beginning, I didn’t want my job to be the only thing in my life – or in the lives of my employees. I’m proud that I’ve built a company where my employees can work reasonable hours and take time off without feeling guilty.

 

One of the success tokens I’ve recently reached is designing what I call “the Maria hour” into my day. It’s an hour of yoga practice, journaling, and reading at the beginning of almost every day, and every day I do it, I honestly can’t believe this is my life.

 

Keep building, brick by brick

 

As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to feel like you’re a charlatan. In that moment when our first shipment from China fell through, I felt exposed as a fraud to the retailers that placed orders, to the friends who loaned me money, and to the employees who were counting on me for their livelihoods.

 

In that darkest moment of my business, I started reading The E Myth by Michael E. Gerber. Even though my impulse was to go back to square one and start over, I listened to his advice to start putting processes and systems in place.

 

Maybe, I thought, I could design my way out of this mess.

 

My two employees and I started writing down every process we had in a manual and turned frequent customer questions into canned responses. We created checklists and structures. We redoubled our focus on consistent customer service, treating each $60 order as important, and nurtured our community.

 

Over time, it made us feel like we were building something again.

 

I’d thought I’d arrived when I had a successful show at Outdoor Retailer – and I thought I’d failed completely when the shipment was a disaster. But by focusing on one process, one order at a time, I began to remember that owning a business is a journey.

 

I found that the only way to truly arrive was to continue putting one step in front of the other, constantly designing a business that was wholly me.