Design Museum Boston: A Museum as a Startup 0

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our series of posts from startups participating in the MassChallenge accelerator program. Learn more about MassChallenge or see all the posts in this series.

“How the hell do you start a design museum?”

That was the question one of my students asked me three years ago when I quietly told him my plan to start a design museum in Boston with my friend and business partner, Derek Cascio. My reply to him: “I have no idea.”

What followed is an incredible entrepreneurial journey — more like a roller coaster ride — and much like any visit I make to an amusement park, it has been incredibly challenging, fun, and rewarding. (Yes… I find roller coasters challenging and ice cream cones rewarding.)

Before we get too deep, a little bit about me: my name is Sam Aquillano and I’m the Director of Design Museum Boston. With a true passion for design, creativity, and continuous learning, I create a long term vision for the museum while leading a dedicated team and managing day-to-day operations — in essence I’m a designer and an entrepreneur. I teach design and entrepreneurship to undergraduates at Wentworth Institute of Technology and graduate students at Babson College; and I keep my head/skills in the game by taking on the occasional freelance design project.

Derek and I co-founded Design Museum Boston in 2009 to educate the public about the role of design in our lives. Design is a ubiquitous human activity. One of my favorite quotes comes from renowned architect, William Mcdonough, who said, “Design is the first sign of human intention.” (This quote graced our first designmuseumboston.org landing page for many months leading up to our official launch.)

It is design’s ubiquity that causes us to take a very broad view of what design is — to us design is simply a planning process that involves high levels of empathy, divergent thinking, and visualization. This process effects every single aspect of our lives and when it’s done well it has the power to make our lives more comfortable, more efficient, more exciting, more rewarding, more… better.

The design process is most well known for the creative fields which apply it: advertising, architecture, entertainment, fashion, landscape architecture, urban planning, video game design, web design, graphic design, industrial design, interaction design and interior design, etc.

I often tell my students that design is a process for seeing the future: If you want to know how something will effect thousands/millions of people, I recommend you design it first. If you want to know what something is going to look like or how it will be received by people — before you spend thousands/millions of dollars/hours to produce it — I recommend you design it first.  And I’d argue that, in one way or another, the last two sentences apply to every single human activity.

Which leads to the other part of our mission: we want to unite people, as well as companies, around design in ways that enrich our collective work, make businesses more competitive, and help us all solve real-world problems more creatively. The design process can be applied to any problem or activity we come across, it can be used by designers and accountants alike.

Derek and I share the belief that good design can make the world a better place, especially if it is applied as broadly as I suggest. So when it came to the point where we said, “how can we educate the public about good design and the design process?” The idea of creating a design museum seemed like an effective way to create immersive design learning experiences for the public. And we quickly asked, “why isn’t there already a design museum in Boston?”

The fact is Greater Boston is a hub for design activity. There are over 60,000 designers working in Massachusetts alone — the state is well past the national average when it comes to professional designers. Couple that with the various high-impact design professional organizations in Boston and we knew we’d have a base of support for our little endeavor.

So we started in 2009 with the goal of creating a brick-and-mortar museum. Remember 2008/2009? It wasn’t the best time to raise money for any idea, let alone a nonprofit design museum — too much uncertainty, constrained budgets, and an overall sense of gloom created a poor fundraising environment. It wasn’t that people/companies weren’t giving: they just weren’t giving to anything new.

The stubborn pair that we are, we powered through. We knew we had a great idea for a museum, one that filled a niche in the Boston cultural landscape; but how the hell do you start a design museum without funding or a space?

While I had just finished an approximately year long quest to see as many design museums as possible — in New York, Miami, Atlanta, London, and Essen, Germany — Derek had just visited New York City and experienced some pop-up retail stores. Pop-up retail is a great model: you find an empty space — preferably one with high foot-traffic and probably one you couldn’t normally open in — you transform it, and you stay open for a limited time while creating and capturing value.

Derek and I noticed back in 2009 that there was a lot of unused retail space and under-utilized public space in Boston, and it hit us: we would launch Design Museum Boston as a pop-up museum. In lieu of a physical space we’d launch a website that would link the design community and our audience with our network of exhibitions and events across the city.

Looking back now I can’t imagine a better approach. Design is everywhere, so are we. Instead of one space, we have many spaces. Instead of trying to bring people to us, we put design exhibitions in places where people already go. Instead of locking all that amazing creativity into a single building, we turn the museum inside out and turn the entire city into Design Museum Boston.

It’s a unique approach to a museum that is perfectly aligned with the way content is consumed in the new economy. Content is distributed across devices, locations, and experiences; content is mobile, with us wherever we go, both physically and digitally; and content is incredibly accessible. And that’s what we are.

You may never go to a design museum, but I bet you go to City Hall and the mall — that’s where we put our first two exhibitions. We now have an incredible network of spaces, partners, and supporters. And the most amazing thing I’ll write in the post is: we’re just getting started. We’re about to take our unique approach to the next level and truly embody our distributed, mobile, and accessible nature. (Stay tuned!)

So why are we at MassChallenge?

MassChallenge is the world’s largest startup accelerator program. Finalists receive (beautiful) free office space, access to top-notch mentors, special events, and a chance to win the big novelty check at the end of the program. It is an amazing opportunity — I’m proud and honored that Design Museum Boston was chosen to take part.

We applied for a few reasons: to increase our exposure, overcome obstacles, build capacity, and for a chance at some much needed investment. Like any startup, we thrive on visiblity. Every time a new person learns about Design Museum Boston it opens up new opportunities for programs, partnership, and/or support. We have a small marketing budget ($0), so our best marketing is meeting as many people as possible, earning mentions online, on social media, and in traditional media. MassChallenge provides a platform for many more people to learn about the cool work we’re doing.

As you can probably imagine, we have many obstacles to overcome — some normal startup challenges, and some challenges unique to our business model and approach. MassChallenge identifies, trains, and brings mentors to our doorstep to help overcome specific obstacles. We identified challenges in nonprofit management, legal, marketing, and fundraising activities; I’m happy to report we have four excellent mentors, one to address each area of need.

Having space at MassChallenge has allowed us to increase our capacity — we have four interns this summer, and they have a place to sit! That increased our team from three to seven. We have interns for marketing, design, content development, and fundraising. A bigger team means we can accomplish bigger things, and we are.

Finally there’s a chance for the money. Funding a nonprofit design museum isn’t easy. Much of our funding is tied to the programs we produce, however we can never produce enough programs to sustainably grow, the margins just aren’t there (yet). That’s where grants come in. We’re currently funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts which we received last summer.

A select number of MassChallenge finalists will be chosen to receive $50k-$100k. For Design Museum Boston, that represents a significant opportunity. I mentioned our team of three (plus four); only two of us are paid, and paid is a strong word to use in this case. However we’re operating as if we’re a fully paid, full-time staff of 20. It’s not a sustainable model, but my entrepreneurial philosophy is that you need to have an early, amplified presence to succeed long-term. That presence doesn’t come cheap, it requires loads of time, sweat, hard work, and help. We have an amazing board of directors as well as a network of volunteers that is second to none. To us, the MassChallenge prize money represents a massive kickstart for our sustainable growth.

So why are we at MassChallenge? Put simply, we’re here to win.

I look forward to checking in periodically throughout the MassChallenge experience to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the program and our process. To learn more about Design Museum Boston visit www.designmuseumboston.org, follow me on twitter @samaquillano, follow the museum @designmuseumbos, and feel free to reach out: sam [at] designmuseumboston.org.

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