Start-up Design. A new way to enter the market according to the Israeli experience

Abstract: This article begins with Ely Rozenberg’s personal experience, that led him to move to Italy early in his design career. The thought on his experience leads to some considerations on the difficult integration of young designers in the work market and a look at what is currently characterizing design in Israel: the foundation of numerous design start-ups. Case histories presented can bring valuable advice to young designers.

In 1998, a year after my degree at Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem, some circumstances in my life led me to Rome.
Beside a few personal items, I brought with me a ‘luminous thread’ that had then recently been invented and produced by Elam, an Israeli company. I was looking forward to applying this new invention to design and to exhibit it at FuoriSalone di Milano before other design stars could get hold of it. So, I invited two colleagues for this mission, Alessandro Bianchini and Michael Garelik, one Italian and the other Israeli, and together we started our self-production: from the luminous thread came out, above all, ambient lamps. We were convinced that we needed to go to Milan with a dozen of ready pieces in order to satisfy the requests of the market. One day, while I was exploring the window streets of design in Milan, I found a space in Via Solferino, two metres away from that of the Dutch group Droog Design (when they were at the top of their fame). We did some slides of the lamps, which I personally brought to the editorial offices of the main design magazines and we prepared hundreds of prints and illustrative cards.

The debut was a success, a lot of visitors, positive reactions, but without a term of comparison we did not realize it fully. One night – I remember – we kindly sent away two visitors because we were tired and wanted to go to dinner. On the way out I met a friend from Milan and she told me: «Do you know those two people who have just left your exhibition?» – «No, I don’t» – I answered. «They are Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana!» At that time I didn’t even know who they were. Actually, that week a lot of international design stars visited us, but we couldn’t recognize many of them.

During the exhibition we didn’t sell anything, we took all our stuff back with us and we were quite disappointed. But we collected a lot of journalists, gallery and shop owners’ names and little by little, during the next months, prestigious shops, such as Moss Gallery in New York, ordered the lamps and they started to appear on several magazines. Some time later, a famous firm contacted us with an offer: they wanted us to ‘give’ them one of our lamps, which would then enter their production. We made a quick calculation and it seemed that is was an offer we had to seize immediately, since marketing wasn’t our vocation and the sales barely covered the high costs of the exhibition in Milan. Selling the lamp to that firm would have allowed us to ‘be free’ to look for a new adventure. We came out of that experience aware that in order to charge again as small producers we had to find something really different from the products that already existed, if we wanted to justify our undertaking. And even with a winning idea we knew that in order to be a good producer, having a good design is not enough, in fact, design is only a small part of the organization, whereas communication, logistics and distribution are the big ‘problem’. A product is like a child. After you give birth to it (could be a painful delivery but soon it’s over anyway), you have to look after it for years, and in the meantime you have to think about how to help its growth in this world. Bearing this in mind, you do not feel free to have more ‘children’. My awareness made me really careful up to the present, keeping me from going into self-production again. Since then, many years have gone and I’ve had many other adventures and rewards – prestigious prizes and products that I designed have been ‘adopted’ by the world of production. Nonetheless, the pleasure of opening an exhibition, with innovative products, never seen before, in the heart of FuoriSalone di Milano and give out the price lists to curious and enthusiast shop owners, coming from all over the world, still tempts me. I couldn’t swear I don’t want to repeat this crazy adventure!

Self-production

As for the term self-production, in Italy, I’ve always perceived it as a synonym of something not very serious, when uttered by professionals. None of them thinks it is a concrete and reliable thing. It has always been considered as a moment of fun for those young designers who try to show off and after 1 year or 2 disappear with their stand. The real world belongs to the eminent owners of family firms who have a true, recognized industrial production.
But, who can remember that the golden generation of Italian design numbers several designer-entrepreneurs who at the same time projected their products?
Just to mention some of them: Ernesto Gismondi with Artemide, Paolo Targetti with Targetti Sankey, Enrico Baleri with Baleri Italia, Gino Sarfatti with Arteluce, Riccardo Sarfatti and Paolo Rizzatto with Luceplan, Elio Martinelli with Martinelli Luce, till the most recent ones such as Ingo Maurer, Enzo Catellani with Catellani & Smith and many others. When does a self-producing designer start to be considered an entrepreneur? Where does the thin line between small range production, self-production and proper production stand?

Within the European panorama, I’d like to mention two design dissertation projects that have now become points of reference in their sector. They are www.bugaboo.com, www.ic-berlin.de, www.freitag.ch, the last of which born in a school of art and design. The three of them gave birth to some successful start-ups, which would deserve a separate treatment.

What is a start-up?

From personal experience to the definition of a phenomenon, which is now very wide spread: the attempts to launch a new project, in other words, the start-ups.

Start-up refers to a starting company. In particular we are going to speak about design start-ups. A start-up is an organization with a business-plan that has the aim of growing. A design start-up as any other start-up has to have a starting business plan. This could consist of one’s own savings, private investors (angels), government funding (for example EU funding), crowd funding (such as that coming from a collection like Kick starter) or from family savings.

Unlike what is generally believed in design environment, the start-uppers (the founder of the start-up) are not always designers. Often there is a mixed organization with designers and people with different experiences, and sometimes none of the start-uppers is a designer.

Israel is the country with the highest percentage of start-ups in the world (one in 1844 citizens according to IMD’s World Competitiveness Yearbook, 2011). This spirit of the young entrepreneurs who bet on their own business instead of looking for a regular job, is also affecting the field of design.
The financial investments in the design start-ups in Israel have been low so far, if compared to the fields of Information Technology and biotechnologies. Nonetheless, the designers look for inspiration to the winning models of start-ups and get advice from the ‘castaways’ of the technological field, who try to produce their projects aiming at large consumption products.

The mosaic of the several realities in the world of design start-ups in Israel is manifold. I’ll try to give an idea of what it is by collecting the different reports that offer a picture of the various situations that one can encounter in this sector.

Ely Rozenberg is a design teacher in a number of schools, creator and co-editor of promisedesign

www.promisedesign.org


2 thoughts on “Start-up Design. A new way to enter the market according to the Israeli experience”

  1. Eli!
    well written I am very impressed by your personal story, I never new about it.
    Hope to see you soon sometime.
    Nimrod (Nimi)

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