Back in 2003, straight out of college I joined four friends as the second employee on their startup - telerik. Over the next 6 years, I led design efforts to help a hugely talented organisation grow to 500 and become the global leader for UI components powering the presentation layer for most Fortune 500 companies. Before the days of open source frameworks, telerik's UI components strived to be for Microsoft technologies what these days Bootstrap is for HTML.
In typical startup fashion, I was a Support Officer, Project Manager, Art Director, Web Designer, QA, Front-end Developer, and everything UX-related - often all at the same time. Planning on the go, growing faster than learning, plastering enthusiasm over rookie mistakes, experimenting in real life for lack of prior experience - the excesses of a high-growth startup have taught me courage, innovation, and.. ninja multitasking.
As the company grew, I was able to contain my focus on UX and build a team of designers and UI developers. I balanced hands-on work on usability, interaction, and UI design with managing a team of 10.
My CRM project must have been a half year behind schedule and overambitious (as typical before the days of agile) but once delivered, streamlined the workings of the entire organisation. Custom-styling every product demo page was a bottleneck to product launches, but positioned us well with clients. True Tesla-style, we kept setting incredibly ambitious goals, going public with them, and then often missing the target. The constant rush was a drain, but also one reason behind the exponential growth.
Successful projects rest on the strength of their team and the success of each team member rests on how empowered they are to unfold their full potential. While we had a lot of bright people on the team, I can't imagine we were special or somehow substantially a stronger sample than elsewhere. But when a team is empowered with responsibility and rewarded for success, bright people turn to heroes. It's not a simple recipe, but empowering a motivated team to this day is my number one advice for success, ranking higher than the product idea or any marketing/distribution advantage.
Looking back with the benefit of experience, my work at the time was littered with inefficiencies. I was learning both design and management on the go, I don’t think I got either right. My three main takeaways for successful startups:
The initial success of a startup depends on talented, passionate doers. Those rarely translate smoothly to managerial roles, yet this is what startups expect and reward (Travis Uber CEO anyone?). If you’re inspired by your hands-on work, chances are you will think of management as a second priority. Your team will suffer. Startups should leverage talent to inspire and up-skill others, not to manage them. Invest in professional management, free up your talent to grow in their area of passion, reward for personal contribution and not hierarchical role. Alternatively - invest in managerial training for talents who want to grow in the area and don’t expect them to be great managers just because they were great developers/designers.
In my case this was a deal breaker - squeezed between my inefficient delegation and a growingly political environment, I felt creatively drained and chose to reinvigorate my passion with an MA degree, leaving a great organisation with huge potential. If you force your talents to manage, you’ll either lose disenchanted talent, or even worse - suffer their mismanagement.
Fast organic growth results in weirdly shaped organisations. Quick tactical decisions solidify in historical mistakes. In our case, I had built a strong central practice around UX and UI, when what was needed was a decentralised pool of talent closely aligned to project teams. Take time to step back and examine your process periodically - just because you’re growing you’re not necessarily doing things right. Go beyond entrenched interests in the organisation and scrutinise what works in your company against industry best practices.
This is a rookie mistake - as a UX lead, I focused on the wrong end-users. We were selling UI components to developers who were integrating them in their own UIs. I focused on the clients of our clients - delivering UI that looked slick, had eye candy, and worked well for end-users. What I didn’t do is focus on our real clients - the developers, delivering UI that was easy to integrate in their codebase, quick to learn, customise, and implement. At the time that seemed as a technical task out of reach for a designer and better left to developers. Now it sounds like an exciting design challenge.
Designers will often lack the domain expertise to address successfully specialised, professional users. If that’s who you’re targeting, invest in designers with the domain knowledge and experience for your audience or with the patience and skills to research it thoroughly, don’t settle for generic design heuristics. Having now designed for highly specialised users (from weather scientists to high frequency traders), I know you can get under the skin of any user - but not without painstaking research, ethnography, and tremendous efforts in reading and training. Invest in that if you want genuine innovation.
We certainly didn't work efficiently in the early years of Telerik, but we worked hard - our vigour and efforts made up for mistakes with quick fixes and turnarounds. So this is my last advice - work hard, and fix fast. There will be more mistakes.