Working at a Startup 101

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INTRO

Every day more and more start-ups emerge to fulfill unforeseen needs and there aren’t enough designers to meet the demand. Whether they are the size of Google or just 4 people in a loft, chances are you’ll work in one at some point in your design career. With that in mind I’ve written this post on what it’s like to be a designer at a start-up with a leaning towards San Francisco/Silicon Valley.

So what is a start-up?

Usually a start-up is a young company that is creating an app, product or service that is using technology in a new way to solve a previously existing problem. Start-ups begin small and major growth spurts often come through rounds of funding from Venture Capital firms. These VCs hope the start-up will become the next big thing. However for every Airbnb, Facebook or Google there are thousands of small companies just a thumb swipe away, each one trying to ‘make it big’ too.

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The architecture of a start-up: Unity staff work n’ watch in comfort

Working at a start-up vs traditional companies

When compared with older, more established companies, start-ups definitely have a different feel to them. Filled with hope for the future everyone at a start-up is feverishly working away on a product that may be huge one day. However there are 4 major influences on any start-up that create it’s corporate culture:

Firstly, start-ups are living on borrowed time as the money to pay for everything usually comes from Venture Capital investment rather than sales. With their board appointees in the company the VCs demand growth in order to get a return on their investment. Results are key on a quarterly basis and not a lot of time can be wasted on getting things wrong. 

Secondly, start-ups attract a lot of Millennials as employees. Young, idealistic and probably lacking a mortgage, spouse or children they can risk having the uncertain future and lack of stability that comes with working at a start-up. This is just as well since Millennials may not thrive well in traditional companies where it could take years to get a senior role there.

More unique to each start-up is the founder’s personality who bring their own unique flavor to the company’s dynamic. They may be super focused and quirky but their vision saw a big enough gap in the market to create a company around. The Founder(s) will have a lot of control over company and product direction and will expect things to happen fast. They are godlike in their domains…

Lastly, each start-up’s industry will heavily define the corporate culture. For example, if you work in a gaming start-up the vibe will be very different from an enterprise data solution start-up. You can guess why and you can also guess which one would be a lot more fun (speaking from experience).

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Expect to play with a lot of new technology at a start-up

How do you thrive at a startup?

’Start-up environment’ in a job spec used to be a warning that you’ll work very long hours but now it means more than that. Get used to these aspects of a start-up if you want to thrive in one:

Firstly, expect there to be few boundaries and scant or no job descriptions. However the increased expectations of delivering projects often causes equally increased autonomy which in turn inspires individuals to work harder and for longer hours. It’s a trade off: experience and responsibility for effort.

Secondly, get used to change. As the company expands it may physically move office several times. Likewise the whole direction of the company’s product(s) may change as customers use it in unexpected ways. The two factors combined may create a very disorganized start-up. It all comes with the territory: forewarned is forearmed.

Thirdly, accept failure or cancellation of your projects. Start-ups are trying to do something entirely new and no one knows if the market is ready for it. And since time is money (either could run out any time) projects can get cancelled to save both. Don’t worry – you can still put the project in your portfolio in order to get your next job.

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Gilfoyle whiteboards the formula for Mean Jerk Time in Silicon Valley

What’s the day-to-day work like for a designer?

So how are things different for designers at a start-up compared to traditional companies?

Firstly, you’ll need core design skills such as UX, visual or product design. Ideally all three in the fluid environment of a start-up. This is a good thing for designers since you get to design a wider variety of projects with more responsibility than you would in other roles.

Next is scale. You’ll be working on huge projects that you can’t do on your own such as an app, website or game. As a result you’ll be collaborating with a lot of people who have very different skills to yours such as developers, data analysts, business development etc. Expect to do a lot of group white-boarding sessions with a huge amount of smart thinking. so you’ll be kept on your toes intellectually. 

Thirdly expect to do lots of iterations in bursts of activity called ‘agile sprints’ which are pretty much applied to everything in start-ups. This process was originally devised for developers to work in parallel on large projects. As a designers you’ll need to do a lot of prototyping or proof of concept mocks to communicate ideas or pinpoint errors. The ‘fail fast and fail often’ mantra  is used at this point to avoid wasting more effort later on. However in reality people don’t want you to fail at all and would rather you are ‘outcome creating’. Be warned.

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Design work: from simple interactive prototypes for user research to a full UI audit

What will I actually be doing as a designer?

You’ll be working on an entirely new ideas (hopefully) as your start-up tries to create a better, faster or simpler method of doing something. Hopefully the team will be putting the user first with everything you work on. This isn’t rocket science. Users vote with their thumbs in a fraction of a second. Whether you’ve solved the problem well or not will be apparent very fast. With that as your compass here’s what you’ll be doing on a daily basis

With that in mind here are the activities that will fill your days:

– Talking. A LOT of talking. New ideas are what make start-ups thrive
– Meetings with product, marketing, sales and engineering etc.
– Drawing, mostly boxes, on whiteboards
– User research: asking people a lot of questions
Creating personas of the end user
– Wireframes in Balsamic, Zeplin or similar programs
– Interactive prototypes in Principle, Invision or similar programs
– Detailed files in Sketch, Photoshop or Illustrator

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Always use the product before an interview: Fitbit on my son to pitch ‘Fitkids’

Getting a job at a start-up

The same thinking applies to getting a job at a start-up as it does for any other job. Ideally you’ll demonstrate an interest in the company’s mission e.g. an interest in fitness if you want a job at Fitbit. Look at it from the company’s perspective – they want their start-up populated by enthusiastic people who are living the dream.

You’ll definitely need to have used the product/service before an interview if you can. Even better if you make a case study out of solving an existing problem with the product. Think like the user and think like a business to show you have a ’T’ shaped skill set: flexible enough to be broad but also show you can go deep in one or two core areas. Demonstrate your process with good thinking visualized well and keep any text in a case study to a minimum.

Also try to find someone at the company and get them to add you to the internal system. Most start-ups offer good incentives for employees to find good hires. While you’re at it do your financial research – especially if you would be leaving a full time role to take a job at a start-up. Be aware that you may get offered shares or stock options as part of any financial package. Speaking of which…

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Options: not just for your relationships

What are stock options?

During your job application at a start-up you may get asked if you’ll take stock options as part of your compensation package. So what are they?

Well, they aren’t cash or shares.

Primarily it is the option to buy stock (shares) in the company at a later date. That’s right – they are an option to buy shares: not real money. In order to ‘execute’ your option you will have to pay money to buy the shares from the start-up itself. The hope is that the shares will rise in value when the company goes public.

So why would a company offer stock options? Primarily options allow companies to give some kind of (hopefully) financial benefit without any cost in the short term. However these stock options have to ‘vest’ over time i.e. usually you gain an additional 20% ownership of the stock options for each year you work at the start-up. This  is after an initial 1 year ‘cliff’ during which they don’t vest. Eventually you end up with 100% ownership of the options after 5 years.

Before accepting a job offer look at the start-up’s stage of funding i.e. whether it is at series A, B or C of funding. This is key as each round of funding dilutes the value of stock options. In contrast to stock options you may also be awarded RSUs (Restricted Stock Units) which are already paid for stock (shares) in the company.

Click here if you want to know more about the ins and outs of stock options.

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Commute in style to Facebook with the ferry from Marin

Long hours and the commute to work

Once you get offered the job at a start-up then comes the commute. Previously a start-up job might have needed long hours in the office on top of sitting in traffic for a few more hours every day. However with advances in technology it doesn’t have to be that way… 

At the moment I work on a team which has people in Montreal, Shanghai, Copenhagen and San Francisco. This process creates non traditional hours as a result. You can leave work at 5pm to go to a networking happy hour or home for dinner with your family. Later on you can do more work from the comfort of your couch.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many of the larger companies have wifi enabled coaches that take their employees from SF to Silicon Valley. Facebook even has a boat to get employees from the city or Marin to their HQ by the water in Menlo Park. Click here to read more about it.

Initially it might seem like you are doing more hours in this kind of ‘always on’ environment. However you have the flexibility of setting your own hours or being able to do something during the day such a child’s school event.

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Tech companies in the 1950s and now

CONCLUSION

If you’ve seen the show Silicon Valley you’ll have seen how it parodies the incredible roller coaster ride of success and failure that comes with trying to start a company and launch an entirely new product. Art definitely imitates life in this incredibly well written show.

Your own job at a start-up could be similar: you could be working on the next big thing or it could just as easily crash and burn. It could be both over time as risk is inherent to start-ups.

Either way it’s usually a good experience to have under your belt. After all you’ll probably have fun and do interesting work. For example, one start-up I worked at had huge growth quarter after quarter. I had more responsibility than any previous job and I created a large body of work for my portfolio. I left for another job and by coincidence the company then had two bad quarters in a row. Almost everyone I had worked with was laid off in one day. Such can be the way of start-ups…

Branding 101

Branding_header_Wayne_arrowWhy is branding so important?

Tomorrow morning when you wake up, try to count all branded items you see from the moment you wake up until you reach 100. What time do you think it would take until?  When I taught art direction at San Francisco’s Academy of Art I asked my students the same question. Most thought it would be midday. They were shocked when I told them that assuming they woke at 7am it would probably be somewhere between 8 and 9 am.

Why? Almost every item we touch or see has a logo on it. In fact, there are so many we blank them out.

Despite this ‘blanking out’ process, brands still represent a certain intangible something in our minds. We often think of brands as being a physical product but they could just as easily be a religion, a service, an app, an ideology or a blog like this one. All these things represent a world view condensed down into its simplest, most easily understood form, each trying to be distinct from other competing world views. In fact, the more competition there is for the same world view then the more energy is spent differentiating these brands. After all, Coca-Cola developed a more distinct brand when Pepsi started competing with it (see below).

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Just what is branding? (in less than 250 words)

If I ask you to think of something you really like what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s probably not the logo but a warm fuzzy feeling. Great brands elicit this response in us without any of us realizing. Think of Charmin toilet paper vs. Facebook. Both are useful. One fulfills a need physically while the other’s ‘need’ is emotional. Yet why do they make you feel the way they do?

You know the brands so well in the above lookalike logos that you immediately get the joke. This is because part of the branding process is to create an expectation in our mind of what’s coming – whether it’s a drink, a movie, a piece of technology etc., and the product then has to match that expectation. These two steps are combined to form the ‘brand’ in our mind as all those emotional feelings about a product gets distilled down into a logo. The logo itself is not the brand but is often confused for it as it’s an easy way to be recognized in a crowded marketplace like a store shelf.

However, good brands aren’t just recognizable but also create an internal resonance within us. They make us feel good to use, to wear or to be identified with ‘our’ brands. This can be from simple things like whether you are a PC or a Mac person, or it could be whether you wear Manolo Blahnik or Tory Burch shoes. As a result, the accumulation of feeling from all these different brands can form a huge part of how we self-identify in our modern, highly consumerist society.

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Start with a story…

For thousands of years human beings have relished listening to stories. From tales of how the gods made the world to watching the bickering of real housewives on Bravo. We are all preprogrammed to like a narrative story with highs and lows, lots of drama and a climax. Similarly in a marketplace filled with brands telling well-honed stories anything short of that merely seems like a gag or a pun.

No one likes to be ‘sold’ to but people do like buying into a good, authentic story around a product or service. Part of that story can be the creation myth of how the company came into being. It could also be the founder’s metaphorical journey in the wilderness with only their vision of how things should be to sustain them, such as Steve Jobs. It could equally be as simple as how a company saw a real need that nobody else addressed. Whatever the story, there should be depth and authenticity to it.

Another aspect of good stories is the actual storytelling process. Here’s where designers, marketers and advertisers come into the equation, as they distill all those complex and subtle ideas into something tangible that can be communicated to large groups of people.

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 …then think of a name.

Why did Uber catch on more than Lyft? Or Zipcar over City Car Share? Why did cell phone manufacturer High Tech Company change their name to just HTC? They all give a more distinct name to a brand. Similarly when we meet people for the first time, we learn their names and get a general impression of them quickly. Likewise in a market where there are entirely new concepts or products, it is easy to start imbuing a new meaning into a brand’s name. It may seem like just a word made of a few letters, but it helps create the overall impression as it carves out space in our minds.

This is where brands with names that only mysteriously allude to what they do create an undefined but strong feeling in our mind such as Googol, a number represented by “1” followed by 100 zeros. It’s a great way to summarize the enormous possibilities of the search tool without spelling it out. Likewise a combination name like Wikipedia (Wikea + encyclopedia) gets the point across.

While in the past there has been a profusion of descriptive names for brands or companies, the current trend is for something shorter and non-descriptive. Then throw in X’s, Y’s and Z’s to make a version of the name with a URL still available. Hence Xfinity, Lyft and Zynga (the latter is actually the name of the founder’s dog’s name but hey, it works). Also, with a more unique name it is easier to turn it into a legally ownable corporate asset.

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Remember the logo is just a symbol for the brand

How a brand’s name comes to life in its most succinct form is often the logo. The two are inseparable. The style of the logo is also used to create an emotional tone of the name: calm or hurried, conservative or risqué, stylized or minimal. Whoever we are there are brands that resonate with us. In fact, Logo Lounge produces a trend report every year showing the changing styles in logos: http://www.logolounge.com/trend-reports.asp

For example, the choice of a late nineteenth century script in the Coca-Cola logo effuses a sense of classic Americana. Meanwhile, Apple uses the sans serif font ‘Myriad’ in a stylishly minimal way because it says modern and utilitarian. Pepsi changes their logo’s look with the times while keeping the same name. In fact, in a recent campaign Pepsi has gone back to a nostalgic look like their arch rival Coke.

Once developed, the logo often gets applied to everything that makes up part of the brand such as websites, t-shirts, packaging etc. But good branding is more than just trying to brand a herd of cattle with the same mark (see appendix). As the next section will show, we’re not simple animals and need much more mental stimulation than that…

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“Don’t show me logos, show me a system!

We all like to believe there is one overall vision guiding a brand and hence the part of us that has an emotional connection with it. After all, we are all individuals. It all boils down to the fact that everyone that interacts with the brand in any of its forms has an expectation of what it should be. The more complete the brand the more trust we have in it and branding is all about reputation.

As mentioned earlier, any given brand represents a view into the world as defined by that company or product. Branded materials should look like they all fit together as a cohesive whole. This creates a more compelling and complete world view with more emotional appeal. Once you know some of the brand then you begin to have expectations for other parts of the brand. These expectations create desire for more.

Apple is great at creating this desire. They don’t sell cardboard boxes but when you see their packaging you want what’s inside. Even if you only have the box from the time you buy it to the time it takes you to open it, say, maybe 5 minutes. Those moments form part of the expectation for the actual physical piece of technology inside.

Even as we blank out brands that don’t seem relevant to us we have an undefined emotional association with them. It is the total experience of the brand from price to how it meets our needs to how it  matches our expectations.


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Branding_JAQK_images_2 Branding_JAQK_images_3 Branding_JAQK_images_5Branding_JAQK_images_7 Branding_JAQK_images_8 Branding_JAQK_images_9

Branding_JAQK_images_6Branding_JAQK_images_4Here’s how: JAQK Cellars case study

Here’s an example of a brand that has followed all of the points above where every point of contact sets a tone before you come into contact with the core product, i.e. the wine from JAQK Cellars.

San Francisco agency Hatch had the idea of creating or ‘hatching’ new brands of their own each year. Their first was a gaming themed winery. Why gaming? In the words of Joel Templin, one of the founders of JAQK “everyone plays games.”

First the name: by taking the letters from the Jack, Ace, Queen and King cards the unique name ‘JAQK’ is formed  – very intrinsic to the brand.

Next is the marketing and the bottles’ labels: the latter are all of high quality with captivating designs often spanning not just the labels, with each bottle telling its own story within overall gaming framework. These labels/bottles are important as they are a key point of differentiation in the wine industry.

Then there is the experience of the product itself: does the wine‘s taste actually match the high expectations set by the brand promise of its promotion and the packaging? I can truly say it does and encourage you to try them here: http://jaqkcellars.com

here: http://jaqkcellars.com

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Conclusion 

It all seems so easy. Right? In a comical way the show Silicon Valley conveys just how difficult it is to work out what a brand (Pied Piper) is and to get it out there in the marketplace. If big companies are spending millions of dollars on all their logos/brands why do we as consumers have such a sophisticated ability to tune out most of them?

Well, maybe it’s because there are now so many brands in our daily lives. They ALL vie for our attention like a crowd of people constantly pestering us to do something. In your head you’re thinking “I don’t have time for this”.

Marketing people want brands that stand out when really they should want their brand to be desired, as this is what good brands do. Hopefully by following these simple steps your brand will have the depth needed to be desired:

  • Define your audience tightly as you are probably not talking to everyone in the world
  • Tell a story of the product or service that is relevant to your audience
  • Set expectations of what the product will do
  • Make the product, story and logo intrinsic to each other
  • Find out if the story is unique or if somebody else is already doing it
  • Always remember, the logo is only a symbol or summation of the brand story
  • Think about how the brand’s story could be told in different contexts
  • Finally, and most importantly, the product must deliver on the expectations of the brand – without this vital step your brand will fail.

Get all these right and your brand will begin to design itself.

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Appendix: A short history of ‘branding’

The idea of marking herds of animals had been around for some time before the nineteenth century. However, while huge herds of livestock roamed across the American West and Midwest, the danger of cattle rustling was very real, usually coming with a death sentence for those caught. As a result, ranchers had to put a permanent unique mark on the hide of every animal so they could be distinguished from one another if the herds were intermixed or if the cattle were stolen.

These squiggly or unique marks were what we would now call brand marks but back then they were called cattle brands (actually a ‘brand’ is the name of the metal implement used to apply the mark to the animal’s hide – see picture above). At the same time, in the crowded cities of the post-industrial revolution, what we now call ‘consumer products’ began to appear. Some were beginning to stand out by emphasizing a distinctness more than just the product itself. Somewhere along the way the cattle brand metaphor was used in context to trademarks and products in the cities, and the branding industry was born.

Links:

http://www.underconsideration.com/brandnew/archives/coke_pepsi_chart_revised.jpg

http://www.foerstel.com/logo-evolution/

http://www.design-arena.com/2012/01/branded-names-what-they-really-mean.html

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