How Starting Ugly has Saved us Time & Effort

Originally published at

It’s been over a year since we started The Determined and our Backstage writing experiment, with “Starting Ugly” as our mantra.

During this year we’ve put a bunch of stuff out into the world. We:

Every experiment gave us new iterations

We put together a website with consulting packages, then learned more about our audience, changed our packages, changed our website, changed our offerings again, switched audiences, and switched audiences again.

Or helped us refine who we were talking to

We weren’t switching audiences because we’re flighty or bored or have short attention spans. We would put something out in the world and learn from who was drawn to it.

Are we just a design shop?

Sometimes the people we attracted wanted us to just take their specs and create a website for them. So we’d go back and make sure we emphasized that what we bring to the table is the strategy — coming up with unique ways to share your message and promote your business.

If you want someone to create a basic website that looks like everyone else’s website, or jump to the obvious choice in a brand logo & style guide, that’s not what we’re about.

Will we work for free?

Sometimes we found the people who responded would want us to do design work for them, but weren’t willing or able to invest actual money into our work.

We want to put our skills and talents towards positive change, but we still need to pay our rent and buy food and support ourselves with the work we do.

So we would take this as a sign that our messaging was too damn idealistic, maybe, and we’d change it to something more practical and see what that brought in. Or we’d do some networking to talk to more corporate clients or investors, see if we can create a package to solve their needs.

Opening ourselves up to criticism

We had some smart friends come over and look honestly at our site, our sales deck, our messaging, and tell us the truth about where we could improve. We opened ourselves up for criticism and came up with stronger, more direct, impactful messaging together.


 Read our updated  manifesto

Read our updated manifesto

Keep on iterating

When we were writing often, we weren’t talking to potential clients, and when we were talking with potential clients, we weren’t writing much. Either way was fine. We learned from both.

And that’s what starting a business is like.

In our heads, we think we come up with a business plan, a name, put up a website, and start working with clients.

We think starting this business will be done in a linear way, checking tasks down a page. If we just keep our heads down and hustle, we’ll get through it.

But thinking of it that way is dangerous.

You could spend a month creating that business plan, another designing a logo, and another month putting up a website. By the time you’re finally ready to work with clients, you’ve put 3 months into this project, and the first time you finally talk with a potential client, what happens if you learn your messaging isn’t right?


The cost of going back to the drawing board after 3 months of trying to get things perfect is too great. We don’t believe the world has time for this old-fashioned nonsense.

Ship something small. Learn. Improve. Repeat.

So we went through the steps of creating a business in the scrappiest, most vulnerable, DIY way possible.

Each time we took a step forward, we learned information that helped us iterate and change what we’d already created for the better.

Thank goodness our first iteration of the website was just two pages we whipped together quickly, since we ended up changing them two weeks later.

Was our website perfect?

Nope. Still isn’t, in fact.

We’re still experimenting. We’ve got a sketchpad & sticky notes of the next round of iterations we plan to make as soon as we have a few hours to mess with Wordpress.

Not because we’re perfectionists. But because we want to experiment with new opportunities to see if we can find a good fit between what we can offer and what the world truly needs.

That’s Starting Ugly

And I think that’s the difference the “Starting Ugly” mantra gives you. Many designers will iterate and iterate on their websites or projects out of an internal sense of “I don’t like this, it doesn’t feel right.”

We put our rough iterations out into the world, talk to potential clients, get their impressions and feedback, learn more about our market, then iterate based on what we learned.

We have plenty of “I don’t like this, it doesn’t feel right” moments, but we just shrug and say “We’re starting ugly.”

And we keep hearing from clients and partners that they love our website. They love our look and feel. (It helps that Marc has a strong design sense and love for the punk rock aesthetic!) So we’ve learned not to fuss more than we have been.

I would love for anyone reading this, if you’re thinking of starting a project, to stop thinking and start doing. Just put something small out into the world, and tell that part of you that cringes because it’s not perfect yet, “the world doesn’t have time to wait for perfect — we’re starting ugly.”

Get the guide:

To go deeper into this process, I’ve created a checklist, DIY Launch Plan: How to Start a World-Changing Business The Determined Way. Download it now to keep it by your side as you go through this process.

BusinessSarah Harrison