Designing in a Sequoia-backed, Series A Company
by Jason Li
“So like, do you design the website?”
“Do you work on the app all day?”
“What’s designing at a startup like?”
These are typical responses I get when I tell people that I design at a startup. After working at Thanx for almost two years, I’ve decided to share an insider’s view of what it’s like being a Designer in a Series A company.
I work closest with the Head of Design on a day-to-day basis. Together, we serve a variety of teams including Sales, Marketing, Customer Support, Merchant Support, Growth, and Engineering. This comes with an equal share of challenges and opportunities — but I believe they’re all tremendous career-building experiences.
If you look at design roles from large companies such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter, you’ll find an extensive variety: Visual Designers, Interaction Designers, Brand Designers, UX Designers, UI Designers, Product Designers, Communication Designers, and Motion Designers to name a few.
Startup designers are usually expected to wear all these hats, and Thanx is no exception. On top of designing our core product (consumer app, merchant dashboard), we’re occupied with other things too. Need illustrations for a blog post? You got it. Wait—those illustrations need to be animated now? Coming right up. Need a beautiful Keynote presentation to close a major deal? Done. Need marketing collateral? Leave it to us. Need print material for our merchants? Of course! Need interior design advice? Our Head of Design can handle it! You get the idea.
This may sound intimidating but the learning experience is unmatched. The ability to touch all aspects of design in a company is a rare opportunity that I’m glad to be a part of.
One Product Team
At larger companies designers may work with different Engineers and Product Managers every time there is a new project. One of the biggest challenges with this is the need to adjust to the work styles of new teammates. This is not the case with my day-to-day, as we have one Product team. It’s easier for us to move as one cohesive unit.
We have a modest-sized Engineering team at Thanx (and we’re all buddies). This means that I collaborate with the same Engineers and Product Manager on every project, which is very beneficial. When I first started off, the deliverables that I provided were very high fidelity. I tried to explain everything I could to make sure designs were implemented correctly. Over time, we established processes to improve hand-off and I began to lower the fidelity of my designs. I got better at anticipating design questions and technical limitations that our Engineers may encounter. On the other hand, our Engineers got better at anticipating my design expectations so that I don’t need to explain every little detail. Also — I now know how to prime future Product hires on how our team functions.
Great Trust and Responsibility
Everybody in the company trusts in our design decisions, and gives us very useful critique when asked. If we have valid reason to do so, we can even add a purple kangaroo to our logo. But we won’t…because that’s a terrible idea…
…Or is it?
What’s nice is our ability to influence the product. Typically our Product Manager comes to us with requirements, but usually leaves the canvas open for our interpretation. We have free reign as to how to solve these problems. Sometimes this involves reimagining the requirement altogether, and that’s an invigorating exercise too.
When a large company rebrands itself, chances are it’s part of a bigger shift in corporate strategy and vision. Just look at Uber’s recent rebranding to celebrate the cities that they serve. Their transformation was not simple, and they faced a lot of public backlash. When the average startup decides to rebrand, they’re either pivoting or polishing up their image as they position themselves for the big leagues.
We rebranded Thanx about a year ago for several reasons (you can read about it in an upcoming post—follow us to know when it publishes). But even after an extensive rebranding project resulted in a totally new logo and colors, our brand can now continuously evolve. For example we’re constantly refining our illustration style. Being a young company allows us to reasonably experiment with our brand without causing huge disruptions. We also don’t need layers of clearance before being permitted to take risks. (Lastly, it’s nice being able to tweak our brand without causing a landslide of negative tweets and blog posts questioning our decisions — feedback is always very positive).
Planting Design Seeds
We embed design into our culture. Everyone at Thanx knows our primary color is called “Spearmint.” They know our main font is “Lato.” They know how our logo came to be and how to properly use it. They know to make their Keynote presentations look decent (or suffer from good-natured teasing at a company meeting).
We may be a young company right now, but we’re growing into a huge company right before my very eyes. The 30 people currently at Thanx will one day all be leaders when we grow to 300. Making everyone understand the importance of design while we’re at this size ensures this principle is retained as we grow. It’s very rewarding seeing my co-workers consider design implications in their day-to-day.
Managing Limited Resources
Facebook’s recent launch of Reactions is beautiful. It was the result of almost a year’s work from a very talented team of researchers, content strategists, engineers, and designers. Likely tens of thousands of cumulative work hours went into this project — and that’s reasonable given the size of Facebook and how many people Reactions will affect. Unfortunately startups don’t have this luxury of time, money, and people. If Thanx were to release a similar feature at our scale, it will probably take us no more than 3–4 weeks.
“Done is better than perfect” is often my mindset when designing a product or feature. But to be clear here—‘Done’ means we have a shippable design solution. ‘Shippable’ means that we believe the user experience makes sense and that aesthetically the design is solid. I would love to spend a few extra hours polishing up on designs, but that’s hours taken away from the next project. Furthermore, those few hours can amplify into days of extra work for engineering.
There’s certainly merit to not spending months on perfecting a project. Launching quickly means that we have shorter feedback loops and allows us to react fast to underperforming designs. Thanx is a fast-moving company and Design moves fast with it.
Give it a Try
So yes, I do design the website. I do work on the app (although not all day). I also work on and influence many, many other things. Being at a startup has been a very fulfilling learning experience so far and I highly recommend Designers at any point in their career to try it out.
— Jason Li