Design early. Earlier than that.
I was doing a bit of reading today and came a post on Techcrunch with a breakdown of Twitter's (new) management, when something struck me. Today we have VPs of Operations, VPs of Engineering, but there's no such thing as a VP of Design, or a VP of (User) Experience in 99% of startups. I'll go on a limb and say that design is more important than engineering or ops today, and that as such, companies should adapt and bring designers to management positions now before being overrun by those that do.
Lets face it: engineering is crucial. It is the nuts and bolts of any startup. But it is the Experience that people interact with, and the thing they remember. I'm not going to remember you use a sharded MongoDB infrastructure as your database, but I'm sure as hell going to remember how frustrating (or delightful) your interface is, or how much easier you just made my life. It's probably what'll keep me from jumping ship to something else.
Too often do companies still, in 2010, choose to only bring design and design thinking into the product after they have the product "figured out". And follow that up with failing miserably. Last week there were a few posts about why Wesabe lost to Mint, and I can't help but think it was the Mint experience (pun intended) that won people over.
It is often suggested that any startup should be founded by at least one engineer. I do agree. But I urge you to try and start off not only with at least an engineer, but an experience designer too, or someone whose specific role is to always think about the user (and their experience with your company or service) first. Thank me when you pull off a great exit.
The image in this post is from Tim Brown's post on the definitions of Design Thinking.