Let’s Talk about Business Empathy

Janis Yee  

Business Empathy, defined by my experience, is the art of understanding other businesses, sorted by size. This will help in determining motives for company decisions whether they are your client or you are their employee.

Business Empathy, in this article as defined by my experience, is the art of understanding other businesses from their perspective. As a designer, this is valuable in determining motives for company decisions whether they are your client or you are their employee.

My experience with each size of business charted by:

  1. Business size
  2. Person appointed as the Hiring Manager
  3. Employment type (Free Labour, Work for Equity, Freelance, Contract, and Full-Time)
  4. High and Low Points for Each Business Size

Startups (1-5 People), Grassroots Level

With the attraction of shows like Dragons Den, there is a lot of attraction to leaving an old job to start the dream. If Global Entrepreneur week was any indication, you will find lots of support for companies at this level from many investors and consulting firms. This breed of business will tend to require design assistance in visual branding and new websites. They can also place high value on the advice of other professionals as well. You can take a chance to approach them as a mentor and there is a chance they may hire you when they grow.

Hiring: Often you are dealing with the business owner or one of the founders directly.

Employment Type: Free Labour, Work for Equity, Freelance, Contract.

  • Often very little money in the bank therefore the value of each dollar is higher
  • Need to make big decisions on how they wish to spend the cash in order for growth
  • High reliance on a lot of assistance and support from others in order to function

High Points:

  • Great place to start in order to be in an excellent position of importance as the company grows.
  • Expect to learn a lot, great for new professionals

Low Points:

  • Depending on the exact monetary situation, don’t expect to be paid or for them to have a lot of funds as most of these startups begin with almost no business equity. It’s usually real cool people putting down their own money to start something.
  • High risk, unstable work environment

Small Business (10-50 People), Evolves from Grassroots or Investors

This tends to be the growing trend in Toronto now in recent years so there are lots of these cropping up. From a design perspective, they tend to require assistance with marketing their business and will tend to drop everything for their customer.

Hiring: You will be dealing with either the business owner directly or a first manager.

Employment Type: Freelance, Contract, Part-Time

  • Defined as a business that has experienced their first bit of success
  • Breaking Even point has occurred but cash-flow is still limited
  • Growth is apparent

High Points:

  • High value is placed on each employee
  • Lots of opportunity for personal growth but takes a lot of self-initiative

Low Points:

  • Change can occur quickly
  • Prefers a flexible workforce to remain adaptable depending on economic landscape
  • Still tight on money and limited number of employees are expected to work high hours in order to meet demands

Medium Sized Business (50-100 People)

These are businesses who have been around the block. They can be anywhere from 3-15 years old. From a design perspective, they will want assistance with customer loyalty and depending on their strategy and culture may prefer to staff their team in-house and outsource any extraneous projects.

Hiring: You will usually be dealing with a dedicated Manager or someone wearing multiple Hats

Employment Type: Freelance, Part-Time, Full-Time.

  • Team turn-over can be high as they establish their culture.

High Points:

  • Some element of stability in exchange for high effort
  • Ability to diversify personal skill set

Low Points:

  • Expect to wear multiple hats
  • Company may be experiencing many growing pains as they transition to corporate infrastructure
  • May drop everything to support their investors, if any

Corporate (100+)

This is the biggest beast of them all. Some of these corporations are large enough to require dedicated call centres for their employees. From a design perspective, they will often choose to have a design team in-house to meet any loyalty objectives or assist with the development of new initiatives. Corporations tend to have annual recurring marketing budgets which are lucrative to agencies. If you are approaching one as a business or freelancer, you will not receive any empathy from this one.

Hiring: You will primarily have to jump through hoops to reach the dedicated HR support specialist. If you make that cut, you will be introduced to the hiring manager.

Employment Type: Full-Time + Benefits, Freelance,  Part-Time

  • Even a Manager is a cog in the wheel
  • Expect to stay a very long time, if you have no inkling to rise up the corporate ladder
  • Highly specialized workforce
  • Better work-life balance
  • Flexible workforce when supplemented by Freelance and Part-Time workers

High Points:

  • Stability
  • Salary and Benefits Package
  • Cool people who may be under-appreciated, depending on culture

Low Points:

  • Will do anything to support their board of investors
  • Expectations are steep once you go in so climbing the corporate ladder will be difficult
  • All the processes are stable and formalized
  • Lots of bureaucracy and politics once you get in

What most new design grads and many old design professionals don’t realize is great design requires a high empathy for business and very little to do with creative execution. As design professionals, we cannot expect to project our ideals and recommendations to help our clients/employers if we don’t understand them.

Business owners and Managers need to make tough decisions all the time related to strategy, investment, and operations. Knowing what drives those decisions will help you deal with any ramifications with a clear head.

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