Designed with Purpose
How to Build a Core Startup Design Team
Design may have been an afterthought to product development in past years, but it’s now widely understood to be a crucial early stage component. The explosion of consumer apps – and their influence on enterprise software – has put the end user at the center of all stages of product development, and design is key to building a product that resonates.
“If a product has a touchpoint with an end user, then there’s a way to be intentional about how that experience ends up working,” says Tome CPO and co-founder Henri Liriani. “Design is the core definition of that process.”
Prior to co-founding the storytelling platform startup in 2020, Liriani worked across several design-focused roles including as the product lead for the human interface messenger group at Meta. Over the course of his career, he saw how the gap between UX and UI teams has significantly narrowed due to the evolution of tools used. In turn, that’s led to the need for closer collaboration at earlier stages and with faster iterations in order to be fully aligned on a product.
“It turns out that having all of that thinking under one roof produces better product outcomes, too, because you can really closely coordinate product decisions and workflows with how something looks and how it works,” says Liriani. “And the truth is that those things aren’t really that separate.”
However, many founding startup teams don’t come to the table with their own design background, and may struggle to recruit and hire designers who are the right fit. Katy Amaya, who works with Greylock portfolio companies to recruit talent, says securing designers from the outset has become an increasing concern for today’s startups.
“We all know that a bad UI design can deliver misunderstandings, it can also bring about confusion and frustration to the customer, so it’s really important for founders to understand that that first designer is really the only voice for design at this stage,” Amaya says. “If they don’t uphold the quality of design, no one else will.”
Amaya and Liriani joined me on the Greymatter podcast to discuss how the role of designers has evolved over time, how it fits into today’s product development cycle, and how to go about building a design team that can set the tone for exceptional product vision. You can listen to the conversation at the link below or wherever you get your podcasts.
Hi everyone. Welcome to Greymatter, the podcast from Greylock where we share stories from company builders and business leaders. I’m Heather Mack, head of editorial at Greylock.
When many of us think about the foundational roles in a technology startup, job titles like engineer, product manager, or sales come to mind. But in recent years, design has become a much more integral and critical part of startups and at increasingly earlier stages. Past generations of startups could get away with focusing purely on the technical aspects of their product in the initial stages and bringing design teams later. But today’s startups are living in the age following an explosion of consumer apps and the subsequent push for consumerization of enterprise software, which has resulted in a heavy focus on the end user experience. Good design is now a critical part of a company’s success.
So how can startups bake design into the core of their product and how should they approach building a design team? Here today to answer those questions are my colleague Katy Amaya, who’s part of the talent team at Greylock, and Henri Liriani, who is the co-founder and chief product officer of storytelling platform Tome.
Katy, Henri, thanks so much for being here today.
Henri, you’re among the few founders we know with a design background, so I think it will be helpful to our listeners to start off with some context about how the role has evolved over time.
So you started off your career at a few design firms, you were a co-founder at a music sharing startup, and then you spent six years at Meta in product design before you co-founded Tome, which we’ll talk about in more detail shortly. From your perspective, how does design fit the overall aim of a company’s product and how has that changed? Okay.
Years ago there was often this UI design or UX design split, and that was a byproduct of how long it took to do each part back then, given the tools we had access to. You had someone wireframing all the steps in a workflow and you had someone visualizing all of that UI in some almost photorealistic graphical style like wood or metal or plastic.
And now, given how the style that we use has evolved, the tools that we use to generate these designs have evolved, one person can do all of that much more efficiently. And it turns out that having all of that thinking under one roof produces better product outcomes, too, because you can really closely coordinate product decisions and workflows with how something looks and how it works. And the truth is that those things aren’t really that separate.
Just to give everyone a sense of how design forward thinking Tome and Henri are, tell us exactly what Tome’s offering is. How does it work?
Yeah. Tome is a tool meant to take the idea in your head (or the things you’re working on) and just make it really easy to lay that out in a consumable format where we do a lot of the design work for you, actually. So you get to spend most of your time thinking about how is this message coming through and what’s the narrative impact, rather than how finely positioned is this element relative to that element, what font and style should I be choosing, and how is this going to reflect on me once I do end up sharing it.
Instead, really it’s just the quality of the idea that hopefully will be the thing that reflects on you and that you can succeed with there. And so far we’re pretty early on in our journey still, but we’ve just gone from a closed beta to general access in the last month or so and we’ve seen pretty crazy growth, and people pick up the tool to be able to talk about their work online and be able to interview at places and pitch their seed decks and tell these interactive and rich and visual stories in all these different contexts that we actually hadn’t imagined. So, so far, so good.
And I think a lot of that is made possible by a design team that’s empowered to think like product managers and engineers and interact really directly and closely with those other functions as they illustrate these visions and then work to make them real.
How does design really play into the core of a company’s product offering?
If a product has a touchpoint with an end user, then there’s a way to be intentional about how that experience ends up working. And I think design at its core is just the definition of that process. So thinking through, even if the only touchpoint is a website, just thinking through the mental state someone is in when they get to that website, and what they might want to see to compel them into the next step, and organizing the information they encounter and process, and walking them through that. And if your product is something that’s really engaging or requires a lot of interaction, that’s even more surface area for someone to think through really intentionally.
So when we think about what a designer is doing to fit into a company’s core product offering, it’s just bringing a bunch of considerations into an intentional thought process of how someone experiences and interacts with the company and its product.
That’s really helpful context. Now, I want to get to Katy. You work with a wide range of startups in the Greylock portfolio and you help them find and recruit some of their earliest employees. And I know lately you’ve been getting a lot of questions from founders about the design role. They’ve figured out it’s really clear that they need to think about it at the initial stages, but a lot of them are still not really prepared to go about hiring for this role, so how do you help them understand how to begin the search?
It’s a lot of education. Very few founders are like Henri and have design experience, and they aren’t really prepared for how hard it can be to find that first designer.
As we heard, it’s not a nice to have afterthought anymore but a crucial part of the company. We all know that a bad UI design can deliver misunderstandings, it can also bring about confusion and frustration to the customer, so it’s really important for founders to understand that that first designer is really the only voice for design at this stage. If they don’t uphold the quality of design, no one else will.
Then, there’s the timing of it all. One thing that comes up is founders are not always aware of how critical it is to bring in someone early. When people wait too long to bring in a designer, they are setting themselves up for a very painful recruiting process. At the most basic level, very few designers want to work for a company that doesn’t have some sort of design function in place, because they will have to spend most of their energy trying to convince people of the importance of design and why it should matter, rather than doing great work that advances the mission. And that’s a really frustrating place for anyone to be.
Then, you get into this classic hiring mess. You start getting desperate. Maybe you start thinking about hiring someone who isn’t a good fit. Maybe you bring in someone who is too early in your career. So something that could be interesting to explore and that I recommend to he founders when we kick of the search and while they are looking for that perfect candidate is to think about bringing on a design consultant – someone who can come in and really help bridge the gap between the design and product teams from the very beginning.