A pair of design-focused founders answers the question: "Why not work with a freelancer?"
By Chloe Oternaud and Noemie Prin (Co-founders, Melusyn)
There is still a misunderstanding about the benefits of having a designer on a founding team. We mean the type of designer who is a true creator of the whole product and concept, not just of its aesthetic. If you worked in construction, a designer would not be analogous to a decorator but obviously with an architect. The designer is a product architect.
Successful companies like YouTube, Airbnb, Pinterest had designers on the founding team. So what difference does it makes to integrate a designer right from the beginning?
The goal of every early-stage startup should be to find their product-market fit. They need to know quickly if their idea creates real value. One of Silicon Valley startups' secrets is to favor short and frequent iterations to ship faster. This is the core principle of design thinking. The designer can prototype the product, taking into account different users and contexts.
The user and the environment constitute a complex system, which is perpetually evolving. Despite that, the designer will ensure that the user experience of the product is as easy as possible. More than anything, UX has definitely become a key differentiator between startups. Innovation does not exist only in technology, but in the service provided to the user and the experience.
Focus on Quality
More and more people recognize the importance of having a designer on the team. But what we often hear is "why not work with a freelancer" instead of looking for a co-founder? Well, it is two different jobs!
When you work as a freelancer, you are hired as an expert to execute a product in a (very) limited amount of time. Of course you want to make a great product so you try to push the project forward, but above all you want to accomplish the specific mission you've been asked: you want to get paid. Period.
Moreover, you will use a significant part of your time producing specs for your client, so he can implement the design once you are gone. And let’s be honest: the result is hardly ever what was planned. Unexpected technical constraints or changes in requirements lead to a degraded version of the initial design. It is frustrating for the client, for the designer, and for the users.
Be More Agile. Be More Focused.
Luckily, a startup does not need a design rockstar, nor does it needs specs. It needs someone who understands the process of Lean startup, and can adapt to the continuous learning of the team. A founding team needs someone who feels deeply involved in building the product and taking into account business and technical requirements in a design-thinking process.
As a designer, shifting from a freelance-style approach to a more lean UX philosophy is not easy. You have to find the right balance between intuition, creativity and the actual data you get from your users. As a freelancer you mostly rely on your intuition because it is difficult to meet users on a regular basis. Sometimes you even feel your skills are underused, because you're building an MVP. Reality can be tough for a designer: In lean-UX you have to forget about great animations, pixel perfect, and emotional design (you'll get to that one you've reached customer validation!).
In conclusion, designers should not be afraid of joining a startup founding team. Freelancing should not always be the only path for designers who want to work on great products. And startups should really think about internalizing this core skill as soon as possible.
What do you think? Are you looking for a designer to start your new company?
About the guest bloggers: Chloe Oternaud is a French interaction designer who studied at Strate College, where she met Noemie. After working briefly as a freelancer she co-founded Melusyn, a project management tool for the filmmaking industry. She is the UX girl, drawing wireframes and building prototypes to test new ideas before they are developed .
With an industrial design background, Noemie Prin co-founded Melusyn in France where she is now working as the product manager, using service design methods. Passionate about video animation and data visualisation, Noemie's vision is to build tools that help creative minds collaborate.