It’s Not Just Airbnb: Felt CEO Sam Hashemi Explains Why Every Founder Is A Designer
In our Making Markets series, learn from exceptional entrepreneurs about their magic moments in company building and important lessons for shaping the industries that matter today.
Sam Hashemi has spent a lot of time with maps: studying them, designing them, and helping hundreds of cities create them for their transit networks. When Sam sold his first company, Remix, in March 2021, he knew he wanted his next one to help anyone to “think in maps” — he just didn’t know how to do that yet. So he called Can Duruk, a friend he met at Carnegie Mellon University where they both studied human-computer interaction, and they started brainstorming how to apply design-thinking to digital map-making.
The result is Felt, which they co-founded in March 2021. Felt has built the first easy-to-use online tool that lets anyone create a map.
As we face more frequent climate disasters, maps are increasingly a part of our lives. We refer to them daily, and yet it is still surprisingly hard to create and share a map ourselves. Felt is the first easy-to-use collaborative mapping app that serves a wide range of use cases, from sketching out a hike with friends, to communicating next steps to a wildfire response unit.
We recently sat down with Sam to discuss some design-thinking strategies any founder can use to build a future-proof company.
Felt is the world’s first collaborative, internet-based mapping tool, making it easy for anyone to create a data-driven map. What is it about mapping you find so interesting?
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and it’s become something of a habit for me to wake up each day and check a few maps: traffic, fire, smoke, and air quality. The world feels like it’s changing quickly, and maps help me make sense of what’s going on around me. Many people have become regular map users during the pandemic, continuously checking maps of case, hospitalization, and vaccination rates.
But most maps, while they paint a visual picture of data, are static. You might see a map that someone has put a pin on or added text to, but those are just overlays and the underlying map is read-only; you really can’t alter the map by adding new data.
So, I created Felt to provide simple tools for anyone to see, create, and add context to maps, and then share them with people they care about.
Your background is in human-computer interaction and UX design. How does your design training inform your work as CEO?
When you use something that’s well designed, you just somehow feel it. You inherently know that a lot of energy and expertise were poured into every decision around the product. But in both product design and company building, many people don’t pay attention to the little decisions.
Sometimes things that seem insignificant are actually really important. For example, we chose to use Discord for our corporate chat instead of Slack, as Discord with all its gifs and audio just represents us better. All these little decisions add up to our company’s culture and vision.
Despite a few successful designers-turned-CEOs like Brian Chesky, it’s still the exception, not the norm. How can all founders apply design thinking to company-building?
When people think of design, they think of something visual, like an iPhone or an artwork. But to me, design is much more about the decisions you make and the energy you create. Really great designers understand how humans think and feel and know how to tap into that energy. So I’m always thinking, in a conversation with a colleague or investor, in a meeting with a customer, or when writing an email, “How do I want the person on the other end of this communication to feel? What am I trying to convey?”
Building a company means making hundreds of decisions and having hundreds of conversations each week, so I try to “design” these moments throughout the day.
What are some of the major differences between starting a company after the pandemic versus prior?
Company creation seemed to accelerate during the pandemic, so there is a lot of competition for technical talent and you have to put a lot more energy into designing the ethos of your company to get people excited about working there. What is unique about your company that actually matters to the people you want to hire? Something like 70% of Gen Z believe climate is the only issue that matters in life, so you have to communicate how your company fits into that bigger picture.
And the other difference of starting a company now versus a few years ago is that the tools have gotten really good. You used to have to think of an idea and then go through a long product iteration and design process. Now you can make a functioning product prototype in one hour using React. That leads to better products, faster.
Your previous company that you founded in 2014, Remix, was acquired in March 2021. What did you learn from that experience that prompted you to found a new startup so soon after that exit?
Great founders have good amnesia! I almost forgot how hard it is in the beginning; you simply have to put your nose to the grindstone. But one thing I learned at Remix that I’m bringing to Felt is to “know where you’re being pulled.”
At Remix, we had a great product, an interactive urban transportation planning app, that had huge viral uptake. So many cities wanted to use it that our teams just kept getting pulled into updating the product based on each city’s urgent needs. We didn’t always take time to step back and see where we were being pulled and why. Now, I’m very mindful that when customers love your product, you need to be conscious of where you’re being pulled and ask yourself if that’s the direction you want to go in.
Founders should always be asking, “Where is the world going, and how does my product fit into that wider future?” Don’t get pulled so far in one direction that you get stuck there.