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Alumni Profile: Wells Riley

Wells Riley, AS'12

Wells Riley, AS’12, is a product designer for Envoy, a customer resource management tool based in Silicon Valley. Wells studied graphic design at Northeastern and for his capstone project created Startups, This is How Design Works, a design guide for non-designers. Wells is also the founder of Hack Design, an online design course, and Balances, a tool for viewing digital currencies in one online location.

Why did you choose Northeastern, and who influenced you the most during your time here?

Northeastern looked like a great school, and had a ton of helpful info available online. I grew up in Connecticut, and Northeastern was far enough away from home and in a large metro area, which made it an ideal place to be independent and grow. Co-op was a major factor, although I didn’t realize how huge of an advantage it was until after my second co-op.

A lot of my growth came from professors who pushed me to work harder and never settle for, “It’s done.” As a graphic / interactive design major, you’re solely judged on whether your work is successful or not. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much time you put into something, or how technical your work is. If it’s not good, it’s not good. Learning that was a big “ah ha” moment. John Kane, Matt Rich, and Ed Andrews were major influences on me, and I wouldn’t be the person I am without their guidance and an occasional kick in the ass.

“A lot of my growth came from professors who pushed me to work harder and never settle for, ‘It’s done.'”

What did you learn from creating the page “Startups, This is How Design Works,” your senior year?

I came up with the idea while working on my Capstone design project. I set a goal that I wanted 200,000 people to view my work–a number that seemed possible, but highly unrealistic. It needed to be viral, and I had no idea how to do that. No one teaches you how to create viral content. It just has to be good.

I chose to write about design in the tech industry because it was (surprisingly) only in its infancy in 2011. I knew from looking at classical architecture and product design that design is integral to success, and that a nice “theme” or veneer isn’t enough. I wanted to write an open letter to all startups to give them proof that design is necessary right from the founding days. It took me four months to collect data, conduct interviews, and build the site. It went through two or three major iterations before I felt it was readable and understandable. Within eight hours of publishing, it went viral. I had 77,000 hits on the first day, and over 1.5 million unique hits since then.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in starting their own business or working in startups?

Working in startups? Congrats–you’ve just boarded a roller coaster. Keep an open mind, stay hungry to learn new things, and put everything you’ve got into making it successful. I only have three rules for people starting a business:

1. Worry about taxes a lot. Since you don’t do per-paycheck withholding, you’ll need to remember to deduct about 40-45% of your total income and put it aside for taxes (which means you’re going to want to).

2. Charge way more than you think you’re worth. If you don’t, you’re definitely undervaluing your work, and you also have all of those insane taxes to worry about. Fun.

3. Don’t call starting your own business “freedom.” It’s more demanding to run your own business, and one hundred times more stressful too. But it’s also amazingly rewarding if you can run a successful business. That part is important.