Welcome to our newest series spotlighting Designlab team members!
To kick things off, we’re chatting with our CEO, Harish Venkatesan, who started the company 6 years ago with his co-founder Daniel Shapiro.
He’s a Sagittarius, an optimist, and a big fan of Bruce Lee. Read on to find out more.
Hey, Harish! What does a normal day look like for you?
These days, most of my time goes into keeping the internal team aligned and focused on solving the right problems for our community, making sure we’re operating with a strong culture and clear sense of values, and helping set direction for how we can build a better product for our users.
That does sound like fun. What did you do before starting Designlab?
I was always interested in building things for people, so I held various roles in product management and front-end engineering to build my skill-set. Tinkering around with side projects in college helped connect me to an early role with the Venmo team working on marketing and iOS development.
Then, I moved on to a PM role in the Bay Area, and then a front-end role at a startup called Grubwithus in LA (which ended up pivoting into GOAT, the sneaker app.)
It’s been fun to work on a variety of different products with some really talented people; I love that environment when you have a small, passionate group of folks driven to make something new.
Other than that urge to work with a small, passionate group, why did you decide to start Designlab?
The short story is that I wanted to scratch an itch—a problem that I had for myself.
I graduated college with a lot of student loan debt, so thinking about the education system was top-of-mind for me early in my career. In tinkering with various side projects in the space with my now co-founder Daniel, I found myself wanting to learn more about branding and visual/UI design.
The struggle was real, and in picking up some books about design we thought about what it could look like to build an online product dedicated to teaching those skills.
We wanted to see if other people were interested as well, so we put up a landing page to gauge interest and got 10,000 sign ups overnight...
6 years later, and the experiment continues!
What a great story. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since starting Designlab?
This is literally the most cliché truism, but it’s still the most important lesson in the book—the value of surrounding yourself with the best people you can find.
Every good thing we’ve done has come from the great people on our team, our mentors, and our advisors who buy into our culture and mission.
Other than that, most of us have a tendency to always look ahead and think about the next milestone or goalpost, and while that’s inevitable and healthy to a degree, our work is just a collection of the day-to-day moments summed up.
So taking time to cherish the grind, the “boring” moments, has been a great change of perspective for me.
“Take the time to cherish the grind”—love it. What’s the best part of working at Designlab?
The best part is seeing the student success stories.
It’s hard to describe how awesome it is to hear about how someone conquered not just their external challenges (carving out time for the course, learning an immense amount of new skills in a short period, etc.) but also their internal battles (self-doubt, imposter syndrome, fear of leaping into a new career).
These are things we all struggle with as we move through our careers, so I’m always bowled over and inspired when seeing people face these fears head on and slay their dragons.
Slay those dragons! 🐉 What do you think makes an employee successful at Designlab?
We try to push each other and debate ideas in service of making the best possible product, so a core skill would be the willingness to collaborate, challenge each other, and give and receive feedback.
This doesn’t work for everyone, but especially in a remote team, having the ability (and the desire) to over-communicate and be vocal is pretty important.
Apart from that, curiosity, growth mindset, and empathy/care for the team and our community are all things that make someone successful here.
Empathy is key. What makes a good Designlab student?
Much of the same!
Students who are willing to push themselves out of their comfort zone to learn and grow, and bring a strong work ethic to the table, are the ones who find the greatest success in our courses.
Because our courses are remote and relatively flexible, it’s also important for students to know how to self-manage—meaning that they can carve out successful routines and workflows in their lives that put them in a position to do their best work.
It’s pretty cool to hear stories of students who balance a full-time job, social obligations, and a Designlab course load at the same time…
A level of planning and diligence goes a long way in making those things possible.
Are there any great books would you recommend? 📚
Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio has some valuable insights on systems thinking.
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard helped me hone my values around creating products in the pursuit of quality.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu may be the only [management] book you ever need to actually read; the paradoxical/counterintuitive wisdom here is refreshing.
Freedom from the Known by Jiddu Krishnamurti pushes you to sharpen your mindfulness and accountability in thinking independently.
Great recommendations. How would you describe yourself in one word?
I think you can choose to see the world around you as either a series of problems, or a series of opportunities for personal and communal growth. You get to pick your frame, and the latter one serves me best.
You’re definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy. What’s your favorite quote?
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.” —Bruce Lee
This is a simple statement that applies to learning and growth in basically any field.
In general, I love adopting models of the world that other people have already shaped. But it’s critical not to blindly ape these models, because your context is unique and differentiated by your own perspective and situation. There’s a healthy dose of experimentation and iteration that leads to self-discovery and finding the right approach for you.
An example would be in learning design: when you first get into the field, study the masters deeply. Understand what works, master the principles and foundations of the craft, and get a sense of how others choose to think about the craft. Then, make it your own—figure out which rules apply to you and which don’t, and find your own unique voice and approach on the topic.
This applies at a meta level as well, when it comes to process. When thinking about building a startup, for example, there are a ton of different frameworks and methodologies that can help you get off the ground and learn about your customers.
Then, there are operating frameworks that help you set a cadence for how to run the business on a day-to-day, and many more to guide you on a scaling up a business and team.
In each of these situations, it’s valuable to read widely to get a sense of best practices… which you can then apply, modify, and tweak to arrive at your own approach that uniquely fits your worldview and what you’re trying to achieve.
What do you think is a key virtue in life?
Probably humor… I think you’re in for an uphill battle if you can’t find joy and humor in the many absurdities of daily life. Humility and a healthy detachment go pretty hand-in-hand with this.
What’s your astrological sign?
FWIW, I’m a Sagittarius. ♐️
They’re said to be curious and into traveling and seeking novelty in their lives, which describes me pretty well.
That said, the Barnum effect is real, and I think there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at play in astrology and horoscopes—early in our lives, we read about what our personalities are like, and I’m sure that unconsciously (and consciously), we mold ourselves to fit that narrative.
What would you most likely be doing on a normal Saturday afternoon in your free time?
There’s a high likelihood I’m taking a nap (I’m a true believer). But if I am awake, I’m probably playing basketball, finding good coffee, reading a book, exploring the city, or watching a movie (RIP MoviePass).
If you weren’t a CEO, what would you be doing?
I don't think the Lakers are signing me anytime soon, but apart from that there’s a pretty wide range here. I could see myself doing anything that involves creatively solving problems, working with a team, and telling stories in some capacity.
Team Cat or Team Dog?
Team Dog 🐶
What’s an everyday design that has changed your life?
It's obviously changed all of our lives, but I’m still in awe at the iPhone some days… the fact that we can access basically the sum total of human knowledge and creativity in the palm of our hands. 🤯
Of course, it’s basically ended up being just a meme sharing machine for many of us, which is also pretty great.
⚡️ Lightning Round ⚡️
Tool you can’t live without:
TextEdit on Mac. Sometimes the simplest tool is the best one—I take notes and draft everything in TextEdit, and probably have amassed thousands of files over the years.
And while I love Asana for coordinating group work, I have my own project management setup using TextEdit files where I keep track of my tasks and efforts daily/weekly. It's nice to be able to look back at any point over the past 5 years and know how my areas of focus have shifted.
I start each week by detailing the main areas of focus...
...then map that into daily tasks, and keeps it updated throughout the day/week as I complete items:
Over the years, this has built into a nice archive of my areas of focus at different points in time:
Food that makes you nostalgic for childhood:
Dosas. If you haven’t tried them, do yourself a favor and go to the nearest South Indian restaurant to order one of these crepes. I could probably eat a million of these in one sitting. 😍
Your natural habitat:
Exploring a new trail in Yosemite, camera in hand.
Read more about the team over on our About page!