smallFISH, Connecting Micro-Businesses With Design Students

An interview with Jason Cooper / smallFISH / jasecooper.com

"My aim for smallFISH is to give micro-businesses confidence in the fact that they can compete and out perform the big fish, and design can help them achieve this"

- Jason Cooper recently started smallFISH a project aimed at supporting small businesses. We found his approach and ideas inspiring. In this article Jason talks about his background, smallFISH, why he started, what he learned so far, what he hopes for in the future. -

Tel us about your background. Where are you from? Which schools did you attend?
Born and raised in north London, I'm 21, half-way through my education. I spent my first two years at Northumbria University studying BA(hons) Design For Industry. For my 3rd year I decided to take a year out and enter the real world. Over the last year I have interned at a number of companies for around 3/4 months, such as Pentland, Salomon, Curventa and PDD.

What did you like about your education?
DFI (Design For Industry) really encourages you to get out there and go on internships, during the 3rd and 4th year the last semester ends early allowing you to find a placement for the spring/summer. Entering the real world really moves you on quickly in terms of skills and understanding, I encourage all students to do so.The course teaches you a process that can be applied to a number of problems, whether it's to do with products, businesses, services, experiences. For me this flexibility is great as it allows me to explore various subjects and different industries.

What is your profession? What is your field of expertise?
This is an answer I am still searching for. I am unsure what direction I want to take after graduation, though I am in no rush to make a decision. I'm enjoying this state of uncertainty, it encourages me to explore all areas. I am cautious of falling into a category that will define what I do, while my education is in industrial design, I do not consider myself an industrial designer. It's an exciting time and I hope I never find an answer to this question, we'll have to see...

Do you feel that you are part of a changing world? What changes do you see happening? Which change do you find the most important?
Very much so, I believe it to be a very exciting time to be alive and even more so to be a student.

For me, the digital divide of the developed world is very apparent and really interests me. It seems the internet best represents this divide. Not so much in literal terms, networked computers and so on, but more in terms of what the internet represents -.collaboration, participation, a voice, bottom-up as opposed to a top-down hierarchy. It allows for the creation of value from the periphery and has shaken up a number of industries that have very much been stuck in a 20th century way of thinking. I believe it's important to be aware of these changes, particularly as a designer, as it's having a huge impact on communication, finance, media, education, politics and society as a whole.

Tell us about you project smallFISH. What exactly is it about?
smallFISH is about connecting micro-businesses with design students, giving them that nudge that will get them working together. It allows for business to improve their servicees and experience design-thinking, something that isn't accessible for micro-business considering that professional consultants are far too pricey. And for students it allows them to experience real-world clients, get a taste for the business world, work with constraints and develop business and groups in their local community for the better.

How do you plan to do this?
smallFISH has four different types of users. The main two being smallDESIGNERS and smallBUSINESS. smallFISH are designers from a variety of fields - product, interaction, interior, graphics etc. smallBUSINESS is intended for micro-businesses and community groups such as youth groups, church's, community groups etc. The users will each have their own section of the website. From there they will be able to search for each other within their city or town and have the usual social networking tools that will allow the two groups to interact. These two separate sections will also feature blog entries on different subjects. e.g. For smallBUSINESS - 'How design can help your business?' 'What to look for in a designer?', while smallDESIGNER blog entries will offer advice on dealing with clients, NDA's, business etc. I am considering allowing anyone to submit an article with a rating system that will filter out the weaker posts, there will also be regular smallFISH writers from different backgrounds.

The other two users are bigFISH and Universities. bigFISH consist of professionals and the public. smallDESIGNERS will be able to post their on-going projects and have bigFISH comment on their work and progress. Universities will act as a collaboration in order to get more designers to get involved with smallFISH.

When did you start working on the project? Are you working alone? Are you looking for collaborations?
The project is no more than a month old, if that. I'm currently working on my own though I am keen for others to help, I want the development of smallFISH to be as open as possible. I always run my ideas through the smallFISH blog to hear what others think, I encourage people to get involved.

I'm always on the look out for collaborations, at the moment I'm looking for:

- Designers, business owners, students to participate in writing blog entries for smallFISH, this will be a platform of learning offering guidance and direction for smallFISH. If anyone is interested and has something to say, whether one blog entry or a series, do get in contact.

- Students interested in smallFISH BETA. They will be the first to be featured as smallFISH case studies.

- Universities. I'm looking for universities to collaborate with for smallFISH beta. Both the students and the school will be featured in the case study section of the site. Since I work alone and I'm interning, the project moves slowly, I plan for things to pick up a bit more when I get back to university and my time is my own.

What is the reason you started this project? Besides wanting to help the smallFISH?
I originally got thinking about my own design consultancy and how I could differentiate from that already out there, I'm sure most designers often find themselves caught in the day-dream of running their own gig. I quickly realised that working with large clients didn't particularly drive me, this got me thinking about how accessible design is for micro-businesses. While big businesses often have the opportunity to turn to specialized consultants to help them with their problems, the small fish out there don't have this luxury due to both money and a lack of understanding about design. So smallFISH was born, initially I had the idea of working in the traditional consultancy sense, a set base/HQ, a list of clients, the difference being that I'd be working with micro-businesses. I soon realised this wasn't appropriate, I'd only be able to work with businesses that were local to me, it would be a lot more effective if I could create a platform for other designers to go out there in their local community and find work for themselves.

How will you choose the grads that are involved? What part will grads play in the organisation?
I don't believe in smallFISH being an exclusive club, who am I to judge? And also 'judging' each portfolio that came through the door would be far too time consuming. Anyone can be a smallFISH, it is up to smallBUSINESS out there to assess the designer's skills and how they will match their needs, guidance will be provided for the smallBUSINESS through the smallFISH blog and participation on the website.

How are you planing to fund the project and pay grads and pay teams to facilitate the initiative?
Again, I want smallFISH to be as transparent as possible when it comes to the development of the designer and business. Setting fees is a big part of business and a valuable lesson to learn for designers, they will soon learn whether the price they set is too high or too low. smallFISH will provide guidance in this area and also encourage students not to work for free at the risk of de-valuing the service in which they provide.

What is the Board of Innovation and what part will they play? Why and how did the elect you?
BoI Labs will be able to provide assistance in looking for ways to monetize smallFISH so that the project can support itself and also actively scout for the right partners to assist in the growth of smallFISH. The Board of Innovation Labs was set-up to assist with the set of business start-ups and helping bring them to market. As far as I know BoI became aware of smallFISH through Twitter.

Which part does design play in setting up this project? How do you apply it? Which methods or tools do you use?
I am very open with the development of smallFISH, I want others to feel they have had an impact on the final product. I use my blog to discuss different topics concerning smallFISH and how to best go about them. I have found peoples contribution very helpful. For example, the subject of mentoring came up in a reply to a blog post. Students are always being mentored throughout their education and the question came up - is there a way for students progress to be monitored when working on smallFISH projects? The discussion got me thinking, smallFISH just doesn't have the man power to provide a one on one mentoring program, but it got me thinking about professional designers. There's no reason they can't be involved, there contribution would be extremely valuable.

This lead to the idea of bigFISH and making small-FISH.org a platform that would allow for discussion around an on-going project so students can ask questions etc. Professionals will be encouraged to sign-up as bigFISH and provide their words of wisdom, though this isn't exclusive to professionals, it is open to anyone that wants to be involved in the project. So people from the local community, the actual users of the business, can also participate, act as a bigFISH and play a hand in the development of business in their neighbourhood.

What does design mean to smallFISH?
I understand that when you mention 'design' to micro-business owners their initial thoughts will be cutting-edge business cards and an amazing shop sign. I feel this is just a small part of the service that design students can offer, whatever their background, be it product, communication, interior, interaction. Part of the smallFISH's aim is to educate micro-business owners on what they can do for their company. I'd love to see designers get involved with the business model and really question the service that that business offers its community and really explore how it can improve.

What has you experience been while setting up the project? Did you change your approach? Does everything go the way you planed it?
I have learnt a great deal about entrepreneurism, a field that very much interests me. I believe it's an area more designers should venture into. The skills required of an entrepreneur and a designer seem to be very similar in a number of areas. The business side is something I am learning as I go along which can be quite intimidating, though I've found jumping in to the deep-end to be the most effective way of learning.

Have you faced any problems? Did you learn anything new while working on the project?
My biggest problem I face is finding a developer who is as committed and passionate to the project as I am, smallFISH is non-profit which makes it even harder. I have no doubt that the right person will come along, it is just a matter of time.

One thing I've learnt so early in the development of the site is to get your ideas out there. For now the smallFISH website is little more than a concept and documentation of development. But this has been enough to inspire others and create a momentum behind the site that wouldn't have happened if I was worried about people copying the idea.

What has been the best moment so far?
The response and participation, it has been very encouraging and keeps me going.

Where will the project be in 3 years? What are you hoping to achieve?
My aim for smallFISH is to give micro-businesses confidence in the fact that they can compete and out perform the big fish, and design can help them achieve this. My other aim is for students to realise the value of getting out there and getting your hands dirty, be entrepreneurial, get involved with business and better your community. In 3 years I'd like have strong ties with design schools and encourage them to use the briefs that smallFISH will offer. Ideally this would be multi-disciplinary, and if possible, a collaboration with business schools would be great to see. Annual smallFISH Awards could be great in providing an incentive, it'd be great for universities and students to get the recognition they deserve for doing great work in their community.

I want smallFISH to also be a pool of knowledge for both design students and small business with regular writers from a variety of different fields and backgrounds. It will also be great to see active participation throughout the website, from BIGfish and also members of the public.

What are you short term goals for smallfish?
I am currently working on a proposal that I can use to approach universities with. For this I need case-studies, when I get the time I plan to get out there and work with a couple of micro-businesses myself, though I'm hoping to move things along a bit quicker than that. I am looking for students to be involved with smallFISH Beta and help put together the first case studies of the website and be part of the proposal. I am currently putting together a brief for students to work on, though this will be quite flexible and is encouraged that students interpret it as they wish.

I am also looking for a developer to work with, it'd be great if they were in London so we could get together and work things out, though location shouldn't be too much of an issue.

Are there any other projects you are working on? Can we expect more from you in the future?
I am also currently working on a start-up in my own time involving music and local communities (www.jasecooper.com/milkman ), as well as interning and university projects.

So I wont be getting bored anytime soon.

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Comment by Jason Cooper on August 4, 2009 at 11:31
Thanks for the support guys.

Paula, I'd be interested to here more on the factors that prevented you from connecting students and business. Who was to fault, the professors?
Comment by Beth Arnold on July 28, 2009 at 13:07
Terrific idea! Love your concept. So many people can benefit from this. A lot of people out there don't understand the importance of design. This is a solid bridge for student experience and better design for the people who need it. A chance to expand consciousness about design, too.
Comment by Meena Kadri on July 26, 2009 at 4:25
Brilliant initiative Jason. We had our students in India study street vendors and grassroots entrepreneurs to gain insight on how design can be applied to services and systems. http://www.randomspecific.com/sidewalk-scenarios A rich experience for all involved.
Comment by Paula Thornton on July 25, 2009 at 3:31
Great for you Jason. Bypass the administration. I made the mistake of trying to bridge students and biz opportunities via the professors. I was an idiot : )

Seriously, brilliant on your part. More please.

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