This is part of the Startup Spotlight series, where we introduce a different startup and its founders. Meet Sam Aquillano and Derek Cascio. They are the cofounders of Design Museum Boston, a 2012 MassChallenge Semi-finalist on a mission to educate and unite the Boston community through design with a variety of pop-up exhibitions and events like UNITE and Creative Mornings Boston.
Top Tips for startups from Design Museum Boston:
- Always think about design! It’s all around you and affects customers’ UX.
- Don’t hesitate to meet with someone to explore opportunities.
- Use a flexible collaboration tool, like Google docs, that can grow with you.
- Surround yourself with others that create and implement new ideas.
- Create a marketing plan; don’t let it be an afterthought.
Listen to the whole podcast on SoundCloud or check out the highlights, below.
How would you describe Design Museum Boston? What problem does it solve?
Derek Cascio (DC): Our mission is to teach the public about design. We want to help show them that design is all around them, so these exhibitions are where they already are.
Sam Aquillano (SA): There is kind of a ubiquitous problem of bad design. That’s what people usually notice when they walk around. They think, “Oh this doesn’t work, this is really uncomfortable, this space doesn’t help me be productive.” When design is good, people don’t really notice. It just works and things move smoothly. What we’re trying to show is that Boston is a hub for design, but nobody really knows it. We want to show the wealth of talent here and that the design process can work on any problem, visual or business, with divergent thinking, empathy, and visualization.
DC: One of the things we hope comes out of this is that people think more about design when they spend their money, when they use a service, or when they take a trip to make their lives better, make the lives of people around them better, and demand better design from people doing design work.
What does a normal day look like for the two of you?
DC: There is no normal day for Design Museum Boston. It’s pretty much a 24/7 gig, so there’s really no standard schedule.
SA: It’s like you wake up and you’re already thinking about it. We’re in constant contact. We might have a pitch with a funder and hopefully we have everything we need at home because we go right there. Then we come here and our interns are already working.
DC: We may be installing an exhibition that day, which means we devote [the day] completely to the exhibition. We might be teaching, Sam and I both teach a design exhibit class and some other design courses at Wentworth [Institute of Technology]. Every day is different.
What drives you to participate in the startup world?
SA: We’re all about not doing the same thing every day. I think one thing that excites me about the startup world is that every minute and every second I put in pushes us forward. Even our stumbling blocks, we learn from them, and we’re constantly moving forward. That’s innate to both of us. Any energy or time we’re putting in, we want to see a result
DC: Every conversation we have results in something.
What advice do you have for those new to startups?
DC: The most important piece of advice I can give is to take an opportunity, especially if it is low impact on you, because a lot of the time, it’s just a conversation. Don’t be afraid to talk with somebody or ask for something. We’ve found that if you ask for something, people usually say okay. Being at a place like MassChallenge, where you’re surrounded by a bunch of startups, everybody is trying to do something new or what they think is new.
SA: I’ll be talking to someone who is doing gene sequencing…
DC: …and they say how design relates to gene sequencing, and it [does]. That’s the cool thing about design; it pulls all these things together.
How do you generate ideas for Design Museum Boston?
SA: Design is so ubiquitous we can do anything. So how do we stay focused? We want [ideas to be] philanthropic, we want community, and to have that education piece.
DC: You have to focus on the stuff that’s going to be worthwhile. We’ve had so many projects that we started doing and decided it may not [be] the best way to do this. But, when you’re running a startup that’s what you learn. You learn how to focus on the things that will make you successful.
SA: We’ve done that with funding. How do you fund this [project]? I always liken it to a brick wall and we’re hitting the wall trying to find a weak spot. Behind that wall I know there is a bucket of cash. So we have a very diverse funding strategy, and see what works.
How do you prioritize opportunities?
SA: We always have our mission in mind: educating about the design process, enriching our collective work, and solving problems more creatively.
DC: Those three things, while broad, act as a filter.
SA: We’re always looking for [opportunities], like Street Seats in Fort Point Channel, multifaceted projects that get people involved before they even realize they’re involved [with] great locations.
What tips or tools do you recommend?
SA: Google docs, without a doubt.
DC: Our iPads, iPhones, and the Adobe Creative Suite.
SA: We do all our project management on Google docs. And we have gone through a few [options]. Packaged ones like Basecamp and Collabtive. We just found that we outgrow them instantly. It gets kind of stuffy. When you have a lot of stuff going on and you can only do certain things, it’s constraining.
DC: I think we’ve gone through about 8 million different to-do apps. It’s gotten to the point where we started designing our own.
What are your favorite marketing outlets?
DC: Programs like our UNITE events and Creative Mornings are two immediate, very direct channels of marketing. We can talk directly to people about what we’re doing and that type of thing [generates] word of mouth.
SA: They’ll hear about an event on Design Museum Boston, Twitter or Facebook. Our budget for marketing is tiny, so we definitely rely on social media and the web. But Derek’s absolutely right, if we can get people to come to an event our best marketing is by teaching them about designers in Boston and pointing them to the rest of our stuff.
DC: We’ve really been pushing social media and we’ve seen a very direct benefit from that, like our article in the [Boston] Herald.
SA: One piece of advice is to focus on that stuff. When it’s personal you can tweet, “Oh my cat just jumped on me,” but when you want it to have an impact you really need to plan. For us, [that] meant hiring somebody, having a consistent message, always having more content, and responding to people. We started to tweet out quotes from great designers every week and people love it.
What do you do to identify opportunities for your team? Let us know in the comments.
Did you miss the full podcast version of this interview?
About Sara Sigel
Sara is a contributor at GrowthNinja.com and in the marketing track at Boston Startup School. She migrated to Boston from DC in 2007. Her varied experience in finance, life sciences, and administration gives her a unique perspective when it comes to marketing projects. She believes you can accomplish anything if you target your audience, impute your message in everything you do, and build a supportive community.