I shut down Included Design Ltd and I wrote this final blog as part of the closure process. So much has happened in the 5 ‘Included Design’ years that it was a good exercise reflecting on all the milestones. I enjoyed re-evaluate the when, the what and the why and writing it down made me rationalise the emotions.
It’s a long read, but believe me condensing 5 years into a blog was a challenge.
Where did Included Design come from? My career had so many twists and turns going from screen printing to service design via many other disciplines in 25 years, but the furniture bug was always there and I knew it wasn’t going away. So in 2016 I thought I’d combine all I knew about product and service design with all I learned about dementia and decided to create a range of inclusively designed furniture.
Between July 2016 and February 2017, with a budget of a few hundred quid, I started up Included Design Ltd and got to work. I applied for a startup loan (3K at an extortionate rate) but I also got some funding (about 5K) for the initial R&D from Scottish Enterprise, which was a huge amount of paperwork, but being free money, it was gratefully received. If you know me well, you’ll know how hard I worked; weekends, evenings and holidays.
I met some amazing business advisors (some are now friends) and I avidly consumed any content I could find about entrepreneurship.
In March 2019 I finally launched my first range of furniture. It was a dream come true, the buzz was indescribable and the sense of achievement unmeasurable.
I sold a few tables pretty quickly after launch and I was already working on the next range, but I needed more money for R&D, so I applied for some more funding. I pulled together a proposal for a project called ‘Design led, dementia friendly cities’. The idea was to work around my Italian heritage and evaluate my furniture with people with dementia in both Italy and Scotland. This project would have allowed me to prototype the range, test it, refine it and launch it during the Milan Furniture Fair, Salone del Mobile.
It was an ambitious project which went beyond the simple furniture design scope: it was about cultural heritage, inclusive design, perception of dementia and stigma , it was about working towards a universal design protocol for dementia.
Unfortunately, I got the dreaded ’we regret to inform you’ email from the funding body, twice. Thanks, but no thanks. Despite all the positive feedback in the world, the encouragement to reapply, I didn’t make it to the final cut.
It was a very well though out project (yes, I’m blowing my own trumpet) and took me almost 10 months to finalise both applications down to a T. Months of liaison with Scottish and Italian partners (the funding caveat said the commitment from any partners had to be written in stone), months of liaison with manufacturers to get speculative costs of prototypes yet to be produced, months of working around the clock using savings in the hope that I would get the funding.
So by the end of 2019, I had taken out a credit card (much quicker and cheaper to obtain than a loan: 10 minutes on my mobile vs. weeks of paperwork with funding bodies, 0%apr for 2 years vs 6% [!!!] of my previous loan) to fund the initial R&D, an initial trip to Milan to meet the Italian partners and to pay the day to day studio costs.
Sales weren’t picking up, so I applied for funding one more time, to evaluate my furniture with the local community of people with dementia, but when the proposal was also rejected and Milan was in the middle of the first wave of deadly coronavirus, the obvious thing to do was to stop everything and think.
I now know this was a blessing in disguise, but back then, in February 2020 I was angry.
I was angry because none of the funders fully understood my vision, the value of it and how hard working I had been (and willing to be). I felt I was on the cusp of something which would change my life and change the lives of people affected by dementia, using design. Yet, I was back to square one, exhausted, with a few bills to pay and 6K on the credit card.
I admit I was so keen to get some R&D funding for the Italian project that I failed to see the bigger picture to keep the business afloat. The reason why I pushed for the Italian/Scottish project was that it encompassed so many pivotal elements of my practice and as a bonus it would have given me an international audience.
But clearly it didn’t have the wow factor to impress the funding panel. It felt like Design had failed me, Scotland had failed me and I wasted a lot of energy, time and money.
Again, if you know me well, you’ll have heard me saying that Scotland is not a ‘design led’ country, and not getting the funding felt like the umpteenth confirmation.
In Italy, design is embedded in our social and economic culture. The value of design is often taken for granted but none the less is given the right regard, embedding it in processes and common practices. Lately, it’s been increasingly adopted in policy making too, thanks to the surge of service design practice in the public sector.
Scotland on the other hand, always felt laking the cultural appropriation of design, despite it being a ‘design prolific’ country. Scottish design communities are numerous, yet fragmented, there’s some (too little in my opinion) support from the institutions, but most of all Scotland lacks the leadership approach required to put Design centre stage and ultimately embed it into Scottish culture.
Fellow Scots, forgive me if this sounds like a rant, it’s not meant to be. Again, those close to me know that I’ve been flagging this problems for over a decade and I’ve volunteered tirelessly for years to create a Scottish Ministry of Design to address these points.
I’m not blaming Scotland’s design culture for the failing of my startup, but I know it played a part in it. I know the defeat of Included was a combination of things. May be I wasn’t that good after all? May be Included furniture wasn’t actually that good? May be I could have organised the business differently? Absolutely. That, and over 10 years of austerity, Brexit on the horizon and a global pandemic as a cherry on top.
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix said you need a fair bit of luck (amongst many other things) to succeed. I’m not comparing Included Design to Netflix, but I cannot agree more with Hastings: If all the stars don’t align there’s a very good chance you’ll fail.
In March 2020, with the first Covid lockdown, I had a good excuse to shut myself out of my own business, rejecting it and despising it: I was too hurt to really understand what had happened, too close to see the bigger picture. An acquaintance of mine once said:
“No one understand how hard you’re working, and to be quite frank, no one gives a shit”.
This became more and more apparent when in the following months no one was really asking about my business, my projects, my furniture.
It made me realise that your business is your entire world, but the entire world can easily get on without your business.
Therefore for months I channeled my anger in all sorts of ‘lockdown projects’ away from my laptop: Landscaping, gardening, DIYing. I rediscovered spending quality time with the family, cooking, reading, crafting. My part time job and my consultancy work was in demand (actually because of Covid), and slowly but surely I payed off all the bills, credit cards etc, but I was still not ready to deal with the elephant in the room.
It took me almost a year of hiatus, before I could finally look at Included Design Ltd for what it was: A romantic idea, turned into an expensive, unsustainable business. Expensive financially and emotionally, unsustainable for my current personal and professional circumstances.
The love for my startup was still there, but the momentum was gone. I’m not asking for commiseration thou: my life is actually better now than it ever was during my Included years: I work 3-4 days a week and I spend much more time doing stuff that makes me happy.
I was recently approached by the City of Glasgow College to teach Product Design. I got involved with the local community redesigning the local Primary School garden and their website.
I have a few clients (old and new) who really value my work and hire me for exciting projects. I started prototyping my next idea to harness design communities in Scotland with the good eggs at Community Lab.
So on the 6th August 2021, Included Design Ltd was laid to rest, but the prevailing sentiment was relief and closure, rather than sadness.
When I wonder if I would do it again, The answer is unequivocal : 100% yes. I had to give it a try. I learned a lot. Despite the setbacks, I really enjoyed it. Overall it has been a really positive experience. And of course, none of the Included Design work is lost, it’s embedded in my daily practice and I share it with other practitioners in the design and healthcare industry to make their work more inclusive.
The business is over, but the mission is not!
P.S. I would like to thank all friends, family, colleagues and clients who supported me from day one. You know who you are and I will always be grateful.
Tommy Petillo is a product and service designer.