Few sectors ignite such intrigue in Europe as the UK’s emerging tech ecosystem. With Brexit well behind us, European observers are keeping a close eye on developments in London’s Silicon Roundabout – and further afield.

We follow the flurry of excitement during UK Tech Week. We watch homegrown listings on the London Stock Exchange with keen interest. And when the time is right, we also offer our opinion on how tech startups across the channel are missing a trick.

And here’s mine – a chief design officer should be one of the first hires for all tech startups.

If you ask an entrepreneur or a venture capitalist what the most crucial elements of building a successful tech start-up are, the answers will be predictable. Raising capital. Hiring bright, eager software developers. Investing in emerging technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Investing in design talent will be near the bottom of the list. But in a crowded British startup scene (60% of UK small businesses and start-ups fail within the first three years), tech startups need a point of difference. They need something that competitors simply don’t have.

And for tech startups – a chief design officer could be the silver bullet.

Take two competing London-based startups. Both develop mobile apps that track tourist numbers in European coastal towns, so British sun-seekers can find the holiday locations that aren’t overflowing with tourists. Both apps provide a similar service and use the same technology. But more importantly, both apps are competing for exactly the same audience.

So how can one of these apps capture its competitor’s user base and unlock future growth? The obvious answer would be launching an aggressive marketing campaign, investing in online ads and app store partnerships to boost downloads and squash the competition. Or investing in upgrading the underlying technology so the app can also identify the best local pubs and restaurants. 

But the solution doesn’t lie in boosting user acquisition. It lies in user retention. And the best way to retain users is through a beautifully designed, easy-to-use, user-centric app. But here’s the problem – software developers don’t always develop beautifully designed, easy-to-use, user-centric apps. Designers do. And designers know how to design a product that users want to use.

How do you build a high-performing sales team?

And that crucial ability to see a problem – and a solution – through a design lens is absent where there isn’t executive-level design representation.

Product design aside, design thinking is a vital function of a successful business. Yet most executives and management teams have no understanding of how design should be implemented in a business. They think design is a purely physical concept – not something to be embedded into a company’s culture, operations, and strategy.

A culture of design thinking must be embedded from day one. The beauty of a startup is that culture is malleable – you can be selective in what values to embed in your team. A chief design officer doesn’t just guide the design of good products, they help build a strong design function in a business that can ultimately be the difference between success and failure.

Apple did it. Their iconic iPod and iMac designs weren’t just success stories built on novelty appeal and superior technology. Consumers around the world bought their products in the millions because of their simplicity and aesthetic beauty. Their products were simple to use and beautiful because a culture of design ran right throughout the company. 

Attention to detail: How Steve Jobs pulled Apple back from brink

From Steve Jobs and London’s Jony Ive right through to those on the frontline selling devices in Apple Stores. LG, Sony, and Google are other examples of companies that got it right.

According to a recent McKinsey & Company report, building a modern, successful design department is one of four actions a company can take to drive revenue growth at twice the rate of industry peers. 

So why wait until you’re up and running before prioritising design?