It recently dawned on me that in all the articles I have written, I have not yet focused on the topic of working in Startups. While I’ve worked across a variety of Organizations of different sizes and longevity on the market, Startups are such a particular case that due to their specific nature, just demand an equal particular disposition from professionals in general, and Design professionals in particular. It also provides with very unique takeaways from the experience itself, which are applicable to many different contexts and even organizations in which Design professionals move into as they mature in their careers. Here’s some of my key takeaways based on my experiences.
A Startup Environment isn’t for Everyone. For Designers in particular it’s important to keep in mind that when interviewing for a position in a Startup, that candor, preparation and professionalism are immediately on the table. What this means for a Designer can be summarized as: be unafraid to ask difficult questions, and these questions typically shape up in terms of the following trifecta. Firstly, asking about responsibilities, how the role they’re interviewing for will evolve, scaling of the Design discipline, how success is defined for the Design group (and for themselves) and how familiar is the Organization itself with Design processes, Design Thinking and Human Centered Design. Secondly, asking about the relationship that exists or is expected to exist with Product, Development, Customer Experience, Marketing, Legal, Go to Market groups (to name but a few). And thirdly, asking about funding and financial wellness of the organization. Understanding where an Organization is from a financial standpoint isn’t prying or asking something that is inappropriate. It actually demonstrates that the Designer wants to understand the financial wellness of the business that he/she are potentially joining, how they can impact it and potentially understand the venues for growth (and in some cases getting a better understanding for what equity also means). On this topic Designers can obviously research if a Startup is listed on Crunchbase, and get some information on their funding. But asking this particular question to the recruiter or interviewer also allows to get a better context as to what the Organization has been going through and what their plans are. All this to say, this context allows for Designers to better understand the terrain in which they will operate, and level sets their expectations accordingly. With all these points clearly identified, this enables professionals to clearly outline pros and cons. Namely, what they’re willing to work with, versus what they’re not. And that is subjective to each professional, and what they want to focus on, but having this information upfront allows for a decision to be more easily made.
Wearing Hats. As a follow up to the previous point, one thing that usually comes as direct result of an interview, is the sudden realization that when interviewing for a Startup, Designers will typically hear the terms “Ownership”, “Wearing many hats”, and “Growth”. And all of those are true. And while this article isn’t a Glassdoor review on prior companies I worked for, I can undoubtedly state that my experiences with Startups have been characterized by having ownership of implementing a Design Process, I did indeed wear many hats (figuratively and literally) and did indeed grow as a professional as a result of the experiences themselves. Ownership does indeed occur as a result of the belief of Design as a possible game changer, something that the Design professional has to further cement by educating peers/colleagues, including those counterparts in the process, while also demonstrating value in terms of testing, cost savings, and delivering on results on the product/solution that customers are using. Again, always keeping in mind the process itself is co-owned and never a myopic perspective of a single person or group. Wearing many hats does indeed occur, and typically and in my case, I have been the first Design hire for a Startup. That has translated into the fact that in my particular experience, I got to be a Product Design expert, but also a Brand Advocate, a Marketing consultant, and provide feedback across a variety of other disciplines that were needed across the organization. You’re not being asked to be a Renaissance person by any means, but chances are in Startups you’ll be able to leverage a variety of prior experiences and capabilities you have as part of your arsenal of skills. And sometimes you’ll be the sole driving force, but always with the support and accompaniment of other colleagues. Once again, it is a shared journey, even in these situations. The confluence of these prior aspects does drive into a career growth that is undeniable. And primarily because as Designers who are asked to deliver on additional parts of a holistic experience, it forces these professionals to research, educate themselves and others, and position their deliverables in a way that successfully delivers value to a nascent business venture. All these aspects, which are of course extremely rewarding, can also reinforce what is described in point 1. These types of requests and demands may not be for every Design professional. Some professionals prefer more established environments, knowing what the exact scope of their responsibilities are and perfecting and excelling in that path. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this perspective.
Process and Flexibility. On the heels of what I wrote on point 2 and the experience I highlighted: I was a first Design hire for a Startup. This did enable me to wear many hats, but for the sake of being able to support a variety of Product and Development teams, I had to be strategic and understand the following trifecta: time/cost/priorities. How this translated into my particular experience can be illustrated as follows. Time: when you’re the sole Design hire within a Startup, that typically means you have to support a variety of endeavors, for which you only have a certain amount of time in the day. Also understanding release dates, urgency levels, impacts for the Organization, are all variables to take into consideration. Cost: that typically also means you have to be able to support teams that need your input, strategy and ultimately deliverables to keep moving ahead. As a professional you never want to be a bottleneck for other groups and their endeavors. Priorities: you have to clearly establish with your pears the list of projects which need to be the main focus (also based on the previous points), followed by outlining what everyone can do to work in parallel with you, and what can be expected in the timelines that everyone agrees upon. I’ve personally realized that being process driven and defining early on a good infrastructure in terms of what the Design cadence is about (research/exploration/deliverables/documentation), alleviates problems in the long run. Also usually crafting a Design language (aka, a Design System), quickly starts delivering value in building consistency across everything that the Organization is delivering. All of this keeping in mind that the first iteration of these outputs may not be the most exhaustive one, but as everything that is built and deployed illustrates, these endeavors are a living organism, one that will keep evolving and that can and should become more robust as time goes on. All of this reinforces the need for Designers to be Flexible and Adaptive. Chances are, more often than not, that you get tasked with unexpected endeavors. And at that time, being able to tilt direction and adjusting priorities is of the utmost importance. Always keeping in mind the qualities of long lasting brands: self awareness, principled, deliberate, focused and adaptive.
Education and Shared Journeys. Chances are when working in the context of a Startup, and for Designers who find themselves in the role of being one of the first hires, you will have to educate your peers on the Design process itself. Or at least clarify how the process will be adapted and implemented in the current Organization. That is once again an opportunity to build strong relationships with your team members, and build a solid Design infrastructure which will pay off dividends in the future, while also making the present that much more manageable. It’s important that Designers contextualize their partners, but also learn from those teams and colleagues on what the current dynamics are, and how Design can play a role in improving the experiences and ultimately delivering more value for the clients. In my experiences, I’ve always realized that while many colleagues may not necessarily understand the role of Design from the beginning, as the process is clarified and the value of what Designers do becomes clearer, the more everyone understand their role on this collective journey.
These lessons or takeaways, are something that a Designer can always keep in mind as they tackle different challenges. They become in a way, your “Kill Bill Training Montage”, which allows you, the Designer, to progressive develop skills that can be leveraged not only in other Startups, but across Organizations of different scales and with different resources. One must always understand the environment in which one gets to operate and hopefully what it takes to be successful in it. However working in Startup environments does force Designers to be highly aware of the plethora of factors that have to coincide to make an endeavor successful, and sometimes how little it takes to make something completely fall apart. Keeping some of these aspects in mind, while always being self aware, timely and professional go a long way.
I’ll finish this article with a quote from Charles Darwin on the topic of collaboration:
“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”.