Rising to the start-up design challenge

By Brittany Hill

Ritik Dholakia, founder of Studio Rodrigo discusses how startups can optimize their growth design function at every stage of growth.

For more than 15 years, Ritik has worked with start-ups as a product manager and design studio leader. Studio Rodrigo has recently collaborated with early-stage start-ups including RareBits.io, Spell.run, Openspace.ai, and Object.Limited, as well as growing start-ups such as Cedar and Jetty.

Finding the right mix of product design, branding and marketing talent makes a massive difference in differentiating any start-up, from identifying markets, to the way you’re seen by investors, and to your customer acquisition strategies.

Every start-up founder’s dream is to find that unicorn first design hire: someone who can do it all, from branding, to product design, to marketing, to recruiting and hiring. But unicorns are rare beasts. So how does a founder ensure their design function is optimized at every stage of their start-up’s growth?

The three-phase design challenge

In those crucial first three months, it’s all about finding ways to make your brand, story and product stand out from the crowd.

Once you’ve nailed your core brand, positioning, and product design language, it’s time to adopt a design process featuring tight, iterative loops to help you validate your product and go-to-market strategies.

That will give your start-up traction and momentum. Then you face the challenge of scaling, which means hiring and onboarding people across your brand, product, and marketing design teams, getting them working together effectively, and giving them the tools to successfully grow the business.

Phase one – staking your claim

The key design challenges in this all-important initial phase are to go broad, to explore a range of ways to execute your product, and to move quickly.

  • Find an experienced design lead whose design sensibilities are aligned to your vision. That lead should be supported by freelancers or a small studio, to allow you to go both broad and deep quickly.

  • Hollywood often uses a short-hand of ‘like X meets Y’ to describe movie concepts. Adopt a similar approach but go deeper. Don’t just say ‘like Uber meets Casper’ – instead, identify the qualities and attributes of Uber and Casper that are relevant to your vision.

  • Write down four or five key attributes that define your brand and develop visual mood boards using Pinterest that explain what they mean to you.

  • Give your designers room to iterate, with regular milestones to force decisions so you keep moving forward.

  • Use collaborative tools such as Figma or InVision to share design progress on a regular cadence.

  • Invest in a research sprint midway through the process to validate the brand and product directions you feel most strongly about.

When we worked with Spell, the machine learning platform start-up, they already had great technology and a brilliant product. We helped them define how their brand would work by encouraging them to think about how they talked about their technology and products. How that translated to a marketing design language that set them apart from their competition. And how that design language then extended to a more mature product (their web-based user experience) and to their educational tools and content marketing.


Phase two – designing for speed

Ideally, coming out of the first phase you’ll be feeling good about your core brand, positioning, and product design language. Now you have to figure out which aspects of your hypotheses really resonate with your customers. 

  • First, you should define the hypotheses you are trying to validate and where in your ‘design stack’ (from brand to identity to product UX) you feel like you most need validation.

  • As you build your design team, hire on the strength of quality of craft, speed of thought, and willingness to be nimble and flexible in response to feedback.

  • Establish a clear design framework and system, to enable quicker design iterations.

  • Define what's core in your design stack – such as your identity, the fundamental proposition, and the design language – versus what you are testing, such as UX/UI metaphors, specific features and flows, and marketing messages and tactics.

  • Use lightweight prototyping tools such as InVision, Figma, or Principle, coupled with testing tools such as UserTesting.com or User Interviews.com for regular cycles of validation.

  • Invest in a trained design researcher to work alongside your design team.

For Object Limited, the digital flea market that helps lovers of vintage fashion buy and sell online, we worked directly with the founder to get a product into the market and in front of his users.

We iterated quickly, using Sketch and Invision and a regular check-in cadence to download his overall product vision, create the right user experience, and push it forward across his product roadmap. He moved quickly to onboard his technical team and begin building. And we became his design team to help establish the core design language for his launch product.

Phase three – designing for scale

Once the time comes to scale up your start-up, the design challenges you face can become operational and technical very quickly.

  • Evaluate your design team for their strengths in hiring/recruiting, establishing process, managing people, and doing hands-on design – and hire to complement the skills you have.

  • If all your designers are from the same mold, consider diversifying your hiring templates to give you more breadth as you scale.

  • Invest time in getting your tools right, down to the level of having clean, well-organized files that make collaboration possible.

  • Formalize your design system. If possible, engage freelancers or an external agency for a project to validate that your system can be used effectively by external teams.

  • Create template documents that encapsulate your design process, so new hires can easily understand how to work within your culture and processes.

  • Establish a roster of trusted freelancers, agencies, and studios who understand your business, product, and design stack so you can scale up when you need extra help.

Much more than look and feel

Design is about much more than the look and feel of your start-up’s product or service. Design thinking will define your culture and shape your strategy. It will give you the tools you need to identify and address the key challenges you face. Ultimately, it will play a major role in deciding your success.


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