My reflection on being the first designer at a tech startup (Letter to Julia)

Hi Julia,

Hope you had a great weekend. It’s so great to hear about your new position! (Can you share a link of your new company? Would love to check it out!) Here are some of my thoughts as the first designer in a tech startup.

Know Where To Deploy Your Energy And Time (or, Solving The Right Problem)

I remember when I first joined Panorama, I felt like there were so many design opportunities. At the time, I noted in my mind: The software itself looks ancient. The website is dark and rigid, there are lots of opportunities for the logo and branding… where to start?

Once you go through on-boarding at work, there will be a lot of ideas and requests thrown at you. “Julia, can you design this power point? Can you design this icon? And Julia, by the way…”.

It can also be dangerous to generate a to-do list based on these requests and start the work in the company. It’s quite exciting to work at an early-stage startup, and it’s great to feel like your skills can be put to use to help your teammates. Startups usually attract a great team of passionate and competent problem solvers, but it’s also very fragile. A startup company usually competes with limited resources and is always running against time. In this context, for us designers, the worst thing is to work on the wrong problem.

Remember, your time is limited, so dedicate your time where it’s needed the most.

You’ll find out where to dedicate your time by asking yourself and even others, “Will this project or task help my company succeed?”

For example, at one stage, your company might focus on building out the product, to make a workable application. Then, as your company’s only designer, all eyes on shipping. Getting that critical function out the door, so people can use the product and you can learn from how people use it. Or maybe, at another stage, the company already has a working application, it’s clunky but working. The company goal could be to improve the sales funnel, increase retention, or expand the client base. As a designer, you might first approach the marketing website and sales materials to help generate potential client leads. If the company already has a large client base, and your product is meeting their needs and desires, then you can start thinking about the company’s larger goals. Carve out time to push the brand and establish a strong brand voice in your industry. For designers, we can craft that voice by producing a coherent brand and visual identity for the company’s assets across the business.

How to Identify and Focus on The Company’s Needs?

When I first joined Panorama, I had 28 fellow employees. I sent out a survey to the entire company, asking for opinions about where design help was needed the most. My new teammates submitted responses to the question: “which part of the product do you think need the most design work?”.

“Which part of the product do you think need the most design work?”

Looking back on that time, I would seek feedback about design work in a different way. I would meet with every single team member, ask them the same set of questions over coffee, and have a conversation. A personal dialogue would have enabled me to ask follow-up questions and build a contextual view of the design needs of my company. Also, I would seek out a more in-depth conversation with the co-founders, and give more weight to their opinions.

Understand Your Company’s Customers

Building context is expensive.
When I was working as a design consultant, in the beginning of every project, I would spend one-third of the time building context, understanding the client and the client’s users. The better you can gain an understanding of your client and the end user, the better a design you can make. Building context is the best knowledge base for you and your teammates to reference as you make design decisions. Having a knowledge base to reference helps the decision-making focus on the user’s real needs, rather than your team member’s personal taste.

From my experience, you will understand your customers better by:

Sitting in on sales and client calls.

Establishing a user research practice in the company. Schedule in-depth conversations with at least five users every month.

Using analytics tools to help you gain a quantitative understanding of your end users. For example, tools like to use Heap + Fullstory.

Think About Hiring Your Next Designer

I know it sounds ridiculous. You’re thinking, “I just got here…?!?”

It’s not an easy task to find the right design candidate. It took us more than a year to hire our second designer Terrence. And we went through about more than 250 candidates until Terrence accepted our offer. The reason is that it’s hard to find the right fit, a candidate with the right skill set, experience, and work ethic.

It’s important not only because hiring and recruiting take time. It’s important to us because we are choosing our “partner in crime”. We are choosing our future design partner, you will likely spend a lot of time with her/him, and finding the right designer can help your grow.

The best place to start is to work with the hiring team to develop a strategy and roadmap for the next hire. Understand when it will likely be time to add an additional designer? What level of experience do we want this candidate to have? Where are the best places to find him/her and how will you build a presence at those places? For example, maybe your next hire will be someone with great data visualization skills. Then it would be a good idea to attend a Boston Data Viz Meetup. Or, if your next hire is someone with great visual skills, you would want to visit Dribble or an AIGA Meetup.

Your work is your studio

Lastly, here is some advice. It’s not just for starting work in a startup, but working as a designer.

A supportive environment with great feedback

Your workplace is your studio to practice your craft. Practice regularly, in a supportive environment. Find adequate opportunity to practice design. Seek and provide rapid feedback about the correctness of thoughts and designs. Work hard and be nice. You can build this type of environment with no ego but only great work 🙂

Enjoy your first day at work! And the coffee house I mentioned on Friday is Ogawa Coffee.

All the best!


Post Script:

Roger: I have an idea. What if you wait a few weeks, then write a reflection in the new year about your first few weeks at Crayon? We can see how closely my advice matched your experiences?

Julia: That would be awesome. Then we can share with other designers working at startups, and see what they think too.

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