Founders, Hire Your First Designer
Most founders start to build out their Design teams late - the most common timeframe I have seen is post-PMF. There are no catastrophic consequences to getting serious about Design late in your startup journey, but if you want Design to be a key differentiator in your startup, there definitely is a great time to invest in Design – hiring a solid designer right when you’re starting out.
Most founders think of Design in a very limited way. They see it largely as an Execution tool. They have an idea, they build out conviction (in a usually messy & roundabout way) in isolation. Once ready, they put it through Design and eventually to Code.
What these founders miss out on entirely is using Design as a Thinking tool. Getting a designer onboard very early into the game and involving them from Day 1 can change the game entirely for your startup.
If you’re a Founder, here’s how you can operate with your first designer –
Good designers love working with the founder directly.
This is what seat at the table looks like for them – offer this setup very clearly to them when you’re interviewing. A good designer wants to work right where the ideas originate. They’d rather work off of pure raw thoughts from the founder directly, instead of working on second or third-hand distilled briefs. The best designers in fact would want a piece of your mind and will be willing to operate at your level of chaos.
Good designers help you iterate at the speed of thought, and they work fast.
They help you and your startup become visual thinkers by working as fast as you can think. Imagine walking out of a brainstorm discussion and seeing decent fidelity designs an hour later – this is what they do. They help improve the quality of collective decision-making by converting ideas into designs. People respond to shapes (mocks) with a lot more confidence than they do to words (documents). When people are able to see and interact with designs much sooner in the building process, the progress velocity shoots up immensely.
We’ve not really moved forward until we see designs first.
I don’t need to tell you how important the first confidence-inflection point is, when the team gets to see the first set of designs. It’s magical.
I call this TTFM: Time To First Mocks – Good designers have this down to a few hours, and not days and weeks. A very low TTFM is critical in an early-stage startup to keep the rate of iterations very high.
Good designers employ strong product thinking.
Imagine the best product person you’ve worked with – a good designer is that person, with additional design skills. Nothing against getting a product manager early on, but the point here is that a good designer would help you move forward a lot quicker with their solid understanding of product, and design execution skills. A good designer wouldn’t be blocked on a PRD. In fact, they’d be able to shape a great one pretty much on the fly while creating designs. If this sounds surprising, I’ve seen it in action throughout my career - it’s possible.
I call this OTFM: Overhead To First Mocks – for good designers, this overhead is as low as a quick discussion. For a founder though, this turns out to be a huge timesaver to get things moving.
Good designers embrace ambiguity and love helping figure things out.
This trait alone is worth all the money you’ll pay them. They love jamming with you on very half-baked ideas you have in your head. In fact, they’d help you solidify them. They do not use the lack of clarity as a crutch for inaction. Instead, they’re quick in picking up the tool they’re best skilled at – ‘let’s mock it up and see’.
I call this CTFM: Clarity To First Mocks – for good designers, the prerequisite clarity to move forward is no more than a few intuition-led hunches discussed with the founder.
A good designer early on in your team can propel you forward very quickly even with low to moderate product & directional clarity.
I highly recommend seeking out a designer for your early-stage startup. It can be a significant competitive advantage for you. But hiring such a designer isn’t easy either. If it was, many founders would have already done it.
There are a few qualities you can evaluate the candidates on.
Qualities of a designer for an early-stage fit
- Very good product judgment
- Solid understanding of design patterns (iOS, Android & Web)
- Good understanding of engineering cost of building design
- Good scoping sense and an MVP mindset
- Very fast design execution
And then just one last thing to keep in mind:
The 0-to-1 delusion
Most designers who say they love working on 0-to-1 problems don’t love doing so for a no-name / barely known startup. What they’re referring to is in fact doing the 0-to-1 at an established company where the stakes are extremely low and the risk is practically non-existent.
Do check for that when you hire.