The Past, Present and Future of Sketch

An interview with founder, Pieter Omvlee

I was at an Adobe event the other day when someone asked me what my thoughts were on Comet. It got me thinking about what Comet may mean for Sketch.

Sketch and Photoshop have been the tools of choice for product designers, and most designers I speak to today have moved from Photoshop to Sketch.

Prototyping has become an integral part of product design, and Adobe was doing nothing of real value in that space, until Comet. Adobe also saw a simple and focused design tool like Sketch gradually increase in popularity as a primary tool for product designers, which possibly played a role in Comet coming to fruition.

My immediate thoughts were that if I were Pieter, I’d be scared shitless. The conversation that transpired around me focused on Pieter, Comet, and how Sketch will fare against it. At the time, I was pretty harsh on Pieter actually, saying that he needs to take on funding and grow Sketch if he wants to fend off the very company he’d already disrupted. David and Goliath.

I went on to say that while Sketch had made good progress in the 4+ years it has been out; it wasn’t moving nearly fast enough to maintain the trajectory it needs to maintain its position.

I was aware Pieter isn’t in the habit of giving a lot of interviews so I wasn’t certain how he would feel about chatting with me on any topic, much less Comet vs Sketch. However, when I contacted him, Pieter was gracious and open. Here are some highlights of our chat.


The interview

How would you describe Sketch to our parents?
It’s very difficult to explain to my parents exactly what Sketch is. To me, it’s fundamentally a drawing app for digital design. It’s not just a drawing app, nor is it just a photo editor. It uses these tools among many others to let you expand and refine the product you hope to produce—to best represent you artistically and creatively. It also strives to not limit you by the design tools you have available. It’s a great question. Geoff, how would you describe what it does? Because after all these years I still don’t really have a concise or thorough way to describe it.

Ha! I didn’t think about answering this question myself. Do you think you could describe it as a design application that helps you design applications?
 
Yes! We set out to build it for websites and icons, then it became popular for design applications when those became more popular. That was basically the idea.

When you set out to create it, is that what you intended it to be?
 
Yes, for websites, apps and icons. That was basically the idea.

Do you feel you’ve been successful?
 
I think we have. We built an application exactly for those purposes we set out to do, so to me I suppose that’s some level of success.

What does the makeup of your company look like?
 
It started out with just my friend and me, and right now it’s 13 people. A few people fill multiple roles, but I would say 6 developers, a few designers, support, QA and someone who deals with the plugin and scripting community.

What do you want for your employees?
That’s a good question. I would hope that they have a sense of pride from building the application, pride to say that they work on Sketch. Everybody is completely remote. The first developer we brought on lives in Hebrides, an island off the coast of Scotland. Needless to say, it’s not what you’d call a really tight physical office culture. We don’t see each other every day, nor do we eat lunch together. It’s quite the opposite — we only see each other once or twice a year. It’s a bit of a different dynamic than you might expect compared to other companies like ours. Ultimately, I would like them to enjoy the work the are doing. I want them to feel challenged by the different and difficult issues that we have to solve. I think there are plenty of areas with enough challenges to keep them interested. I definitely don’t want to work them to death, so I want them to feel balanced.

What advantages does being located outside the valley offer?
There are many benefits that come from being in the Valley. Access to investors is easier in the Valley, less so outside. But, the fact that I’m physically far away has not been an issue because I like being outside the bubble.

I’ve always had this idea that the Valley is a bit self obsessed. I think having an outside perspective is definitely useful. I’ve of course travelled there a number of times. Everybody you speak to seems to be doing something with software or design and I appreciate that in my normal, day-to-day life. By not being there, I avoid immersion in those types of self-referential conversations—I’m in a completely different world.

The fact that I’m not in the Valley also means that I don’t have to pay your very high rents and other premium costs of living. Another advantage I see is the fact that we’re completely remote. It means we don’t necessarily have to compete with those who need to live physically there. We can hire people who are perfectly happy living on an island off the coast of Scotland and just hire them because they are good and wouldn’t require—or even want to—move to San Francisco, or Amsterdam, or wherever.

What have you learned in the last year that will inform this company in the next year?
In the last year we’ve grown the company quite a bit — we probably doubled in size. So last year was a good lesson on how to manage more people, and how to get them up to speed on everything we’re doing. I think in the coming year we’ll be able to reap the rewards of that work. Because as you know Geoff, it takes time for people to get to know the code, the way a company works, and all of those things. And I think now those familiarizing pieces are all in place, it will facilitate us getting much more done. It also means that I now know how to manage growth in my company.

What challenges have you faced with growth in the past?
 
I would say we are still competing with companies with a lot more money, and we can’t match them on that front. Also, people with expertise we need are relatively rare. It’s not easy to find people with the skill sets we require, and also have them want to work remotely. So, because we only hire exactly who we need to do exactly what we need them to do, selection and availability of personnel have been somewhat of a challenge.

Have you taken on any investment?
No, we are completely self-funded. There are no external investors whatsoever.

Have you ever been tempted to take on outside investment?
No. I’ve never been tempted. We are self-sufficient and profitable. If I were to take on an investment it would mean handing over a sizable portion of the company to an outside investor who would understandably expect a large return on their investment, maybe via avenues I might not agree an in the broader best interest of Sketch. I want to keep growing the company in a way that I see fit, and I don’t want to have the added pressure from someone who might expect more from it than I may even myself. Plus, with that money, I’d probably be expected to grow at a rate that I might not agree is best in the longer term. Similarly, I don’t want to be forced to hire so many people that we’re not profitable, and then only to be forced to take on more funding. We would probably quickly be expected to go from 6 developers to 20 or 30 — and that’s something that I don’t think is wise at this point in time. So in short I don’t currently see the benefits of taking outside funding.

With this type of thinking on outside investment, do you worry that others will be able to outpace you?
Well, yes and no. There is always the worry that someone else is going to do something you are not able to. But at the same time I think companies that are hell bent focused on growing can as a result lose time in setting up that growth; including setting up new staff, getting them moving in the right direction, etc. I think with a small focused team you can achieve plenty. I don’t think just having more people means you move faster or better.

What’s the biggest vulnerability of the company?
There is always risk from competitors. Adobe announced Comet a few months ago. This definitely poses a serious threat. The risk with a company like Adobe is that it doesn’t have to be an instant success for them. They can lose money on it for years while they improve it — and they clearly have enough talented people in their company to do so, so I do feel some pressure from that announcement.

I think there are many things that we want to do with our product. Maybe in the last year, progress hasn’t been as fast as I would have hoped. But, as we discussed, that is inevitable when you’re bringing new people on and truly taking the time to get them integrated and up to speed. There are also certain parts of the application that were written by me many years ago that need tweaking because what we’re building now is much larger in scope than what we had originally designed. It takes time to clean up that legacy and I think we’ve been good in the past year about cleaning some of that up, but there’s still more to do and of course that takes time and focus. I’m more focused on that internal issue than the external competition.

I think it’s safe to say that Sketch is eating into the space Photoshop created and has owned for decades. Will Comet eat into yours?
We can definitely do many of the same things in Sketch like building prototypes. So I don’t think Comet can out-feature us. I think the ecosystem we’ve built up around Sketch is a distinct competitive advantage we have that Adobe can’t easily copy, including the tools that integrate plug ins, exporting to Framer, Origami, Principle etc.

Do you see a convergence of design and prototyping? Or will there always be a need for more singularly focused tools?
I think there is a broad spectrum of prototyping. On one end, you have basic things like the original Flinto where you’re tying screens together to visualize a flow. There’s definitely value in that. On the other end you have tools like Origami and Framer where you can go completely wild with very custom animations. You can do really interesting things there. However, I think that’s not something every designer will be interested in. I may be a bit worried that those kinds of animations are going to become as overdone as the skeuomorphic stuff we saw before the days of iOS 7. I value animations but I think designers have a tendency to jump into new things a bit enthusiastically. If we just look at prototyping. We have very simple prototyping between screens to very complicated transitions between them. I could see the former being integrated into a tool like Sketch, but it’s going to be a very difficult job to build in the type of functionality that Framer or Origami has. You risk bloating the application to the point where it becomes like Photoshop, where most people only use a small subset of features. So I think there is value in having separate applications that do separate things. I’m not sure that we should be trying to dump everything into one app.

How do you go about making such a big decision like keeping Sketch focused on static design versus integrating prototyping?
You’re not the first person to ask me a question like that. We talk to a number of designers in various companies about this type of thing. So that feedback in conjunction with our own opinions about what we want the app to be is how we make those decisions.

Do you think people know what they want?
In a certain way they do. In the last year we’ve spoken to a lot of people and companies and I’ve very often heard “Sketch is just perfect the way it is, you just need to add this one thing.” One person mentions auto-layout, someone else mentions prototyping, someone else mentions data driven design. So often these suggestions sound easy to the speaker, but what they are saying is to take these already fundamentally very complex ideas and then if we could just add just one little thing to Sketch, then it would be perfect. Everyone suggests something else, there doesn’t seem to be any underlying parallel requests or even themes. And many of the suggestions may sound like an easy tweak, but are actually very complex to address. At some point we have to choose and understand we can’t satisfy everyone. I don’t want to make an application that is purely driven by what customers say or think they want. It’s also important to preserve your own vision with the app and not just dump things in because customers ask for them.

Do you have a set of values that drive these decisions? Do they change over time?
I think what we want is relatively clear. I’ve never really tried to write them on a list and say these are our core values and principles of what Sketch should be. I guess we’ve just always made decisions with values in mind but I wouldn’t be able to tell them to you because if I make a list now I’ll probably come up with another list next week just because I forgot to mention a bunch of things.

Who’s making the most progress in this space right now?
I know a few apps that integrate with Sketch like Framer, Principle and Flinto that have all recently made a solid series of updates or brand new apps that I’m quite impressed by. But that’s probably just because it’s closely related to Sketch and that’s what I’m exposed to all the time. I’m not someone who spends much time on Tech Crunch or Product Hunt to find out what the latest is that I should be looking at, because I’m just very busy and interested with Sketch itself.

How do you know if you’re moving fast enough?
I have no idea. I wish it were simple. As I said earlier, I know there are certain things that we need to develop — invisible parts that just need to grow with the new greater scope of the application. That kind of work is never going fast enough. At the same time, it’s complex, so I can’t expect it to be done in a few months. So how do I know if we’re moving fast enough? No one can reliably predict the future on these things. I guess we can only see that looking back. At the moment I think we moving at a good pace.

How do you balance quality while scaling?
That is one of the things I would be scared of in a company that grows too fast. There was a posting on Medium or Hackernews that there are 300 developers at Facebook committing code to their iOS app, and that’s pretty scary. For us, we now have a full-time QA person and we’ve put quite a bit of process into code reviews. I think in order to be effective with peer reviewed code it is important to have developers who of course objectively know what they are doing, and also have just the right level of personal interaction and knowledge that they are familiar enough when reviewing each others code that they can judge its impact.

Has QA been one of the bigger pain points for Sketch?
I think it’s fair to say, yes. There is a mountain of complexity that you open up with everything that you add to the application. Just something as simple as copy and paste. There are enormous numbers of edge cases, including: Where do you copy from? Where do you paste into? Where should it end up in the page? To which group does it belong? Does what you have currently selected play into that? Etc. There is just a staggering amount of complexity in an application such as Sketch where you can basically do whatever you want at any point. So it’s a challenge, for sure.

Are you surprised at where Sketch is today?
I would have never expected the market to be as big as it is. I started with version 1 of Sketch in a time where there was no iPhone or App store. I knew there were a few people making icons and application interfaces in this small corner of Photoshop. I thought well, there should be enough room for a small indie to serve that niche. I’ve been really surprised by the size of this market and how big it has grown, and I think it has surprised Adobe as well.

Do you think your current flat, one-time fee is sustainable for you to grow Sketch?
Well, that term is not quite accurate. We released version 3 almost two years ago, which was a paid upgrade. So it’s basically the same model that Adobe had been doing before they switched to their Creative Cloud subscriptions. I absolutely agree that a one-time fee for an application is not sustainable. I also know that we don’t want to switch to a subscription model. The appeal of subscriptions to the company is high. It’s nice that you always get money coming in — then you don’t have to come up with these big releases where you have to hope that you convince enough people to upgrade again, etc.

Customers just don’t like the idea of subscribing to software. We’ve seen that when Adobe discontinued Fireworks — that was one of our biggest sales days. Adobe’s pitch was basically that you can now switch to Photoshop. And many people said, I don’t really like Photoshop and I don’t want to pay for it monthly, so let me see what else is out there. In the beginning, Adobe introduced subscriptions as an alternative to the normal paid upgrades. Then a few years after that, they switched to subscriptions only–that was another one of our biggest sales days. We could clearly see people don’t like the idea of subscriptions if they don’t perceive a very obvious justification for it.

Whenever you have a server-based product it’s more acceptable to charge per month for something, but if it’s just an app that just sits on your Mac and doesn’t talk to a server and can just do it’s thing, people don’t understand why they should pay again every month.

What is success for Sketch?
I really like working on Sketch, and working with the people on my team. And I see myself doing that happily for many, many years to come. There is no finish line or point at which I say that I have enough money, enough customers, enough success, or that I would get bored with the app, or sell it or something — no. No, I can’t. What I do now I hope to be doing for a very long time.

What’s coming for Sketch?
With the recent exit of the Mac App Store we think that we can push updates faster. I’m really excited to be able to ship the things that we have planned for the new year. I think we learned that the last big update took too long and now we want to keep shipping smaller updates. But I don’t want to say too much, because we all know how that works with software!


It was interesting and engaging hearing Pieter’s thoughts and hopes for Sketch and where it resides in the space. He remains pleased with the size, scale and rate of growth at which Sketch is progressing. I’m now personally looking forward to more to come from Pieter and his team. While I don’t think Comet is going to be an overnight success that kills Sketch off, I do think it may take a bite out of Pieter’s lunch. One thing I did come away with, is that Pieter is dedicated and passionate about Sketch and that regardless of what competitors do, he’s not going anywhere for a long time.

I am grateful for Pieter’s time and directness in discussing a company he started because he rightly sensed a need in the space. I understand the pros and cons of growing a company, especially one you founded, and it was very interesting to get Pieter’s take on the different aspects of running a lean, completely remote company, and his projections for the future of Sketch.

Thanks, Pieter, and best of luck,
~Geoff


Me, on Twitter.