The Startup Guide to Choosing a Product Design Partner

Ben Murray
May 14, 2019

You’re a startup with a big idea. You have industry expertise, you’ve identified your niche and you’re ready to change the world. All that’s left is to select that lucky design partner who gets to ride with you to the top, right?

Funsize was founded by entrepreneurs, and they’re an important part of our model. However, for some product design shops, working with startups can be a high-risk engagement.

Startups sometimes don’t know what they want or are unsure of their vision. They usually require multiple conversations to close deals, have limited resources and tend to want to negotiate terms.

But the startup/agency relationship doesn’t have to be so tumultuous. Over the years, we’ve had our fair share of lessons in how and how not to handle startup work. We’ve come away from them more agile and effective in helping burgeoning companies reach their goals.

We’ve also identified some key areas where startups themselves can improve in order to come to the table prepared and make the working relationship as efficient and mutually beneficial as possible.

Illustrations by Andre Jurgensen

What is a digital product designer?

To know whether or not you need a product designer, it’s probably a good idea you understand what product design is and what hiring a product design partner actually means. There are about 5 million articles on the topic, but let’s see if we can give you the lowdown in two paragraphs.

If your digital product were a skyscraper, digital product designers are the architects. We make sure the building (your digital product) is structurally sound, uses space as functionally and efficiently as possible, has good feng shui, and looks great. As you’ll see later on, there’s a little more to it than that (here’s a case study!) but that’s enough, at the moment, for us to move forward.

When is it time to bring in a product design partner?

Here are 4 common situations in which adding additional design help can be beneficial:

1. You’re thinking about creating a new product or digital service

The only thing you really must have before bringing in design (besides some money) is a hypothesis. You should be able to say “I believe (this product or tool) can solve (this problem) and create (this impact).” If you’ve got that, a good agency can help you test and validate that hypothesis to tell you whether or not it’s prudent to move forward.

If design is already a part of the DNA of your founding team (someone at your startup has legitimate design experience), that’s awesome. That means there’s a good chance you’ll be able to handle some of the early vision — and maybe even prototyping — on your own, which saves you money at the onset.

If that’s not the case, however, we always recommend that design be represented at the earliest possible stage of creating a business, conceptualizing a digital service, or creating a product. The reason for this is simple: you need to protect and optimize your investment.

2. Design isn’t represented as a core business discipline of your company

Design isn’t decoration. It is an essential business function that creates product-market fit, delights users, creates profit and raises valuation. Not every startup has design founders, but all startups must design well to survive and maximize potential. Here are some stats on that if you’re not convinced.

In our experience, involving design in the early stages of a business can save startups massive amounts of money in the long run. That’s because giving the right design partner a seat at the table, early on, allows you to make sure you’re investing in the right ideas

We’ve seen some startups have an idea, invest a ton of money building it, then realize — later on — that they need to get design involved. Suddenly, it can cost thousands to steer the product in the right direction and get everyone on the same page for new design, not to mention the additional cost of refactoring the code and dealing with all of the engineering debt that has accumulated.

A startup owner who didn’t get design involved early

3. You have an existing product or service that needs support

Your product will never be in a “set it and forget it” situation. Design will need to be involved in many of the conversations that happen throughout the lifespan of your company.

If your startup already has a product in the market, but isn’t focused on building an internal design team, you’ll want a partner you can go through the peaks and valleys with — to learn and improve your product and business over time.

The truth is: it’s not as simple as “just building an app” because product challenges are multifaceted and ever-changing. After all, the design partner is there to help you answer questions like:

  • How will the user discover the product?
  • How will the user interact with the product?
  • Is the product solving the users’ pain points?
  • Is the product delivering on its value proposition?
  • What will customer service interaction look like if something goes wrong?
  • What is the voice and tone of the product?
  • Is the path forward clear? Are stakeholders aligned on that path?
  • Potentially much more

These are questions that require constant attention and refinement in order for your product or service to adapt and grow like it should.

4. You already have 1–2 designers on your team, but need a new perspective

Startups with small design teams of 1–2 people can also get a lot of value from bringing in supplemental design help. Adding a team of experts to the project can support in-house design teams in areas where they don’t have certain skills and can lighten their workload so that the quality and speed of the work increases.

Additionally, if those designers are only being managed by individuals in different disciplines, they’re more likely to grow frustrated with the work. We’ve seen in-house designers leave good jobs because they feel like they’re not leveling up their skills. Bringing in other experienced designers helps team members feel like they’re on the right track and —if done correctly—allows your startup to avoid churn and design inconsistency.

A lot to take in there! The main thing to remember is that hiring product design help can benefit startups in a variety of different situations. To know what kind of help you need, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I only need someone to execute on a singular project?
  • Do I want someone to help me do design for myself?
  • Do I need a design partner for the journey of my business?
  • Am I prepared to invest in design for the long run?
  • Will I eventually hire designers internally, manage them and support their careers?

How to choose the right product design partner for your startup

Once you’ve determined your business needs design help, the next can of worms is finding the individual or agency to actually give you that help. For startups, the research process for finding the right design partner is wide-ranging.

Typically, you’ll be looking at a variety of different options including:

  • Reaching out to companies through their websites
  • Looking through the rolodex of designers you already know
  • Scanning freelancer resumes
  • Working with expensive recruiting agencies
  • Researching small, local agencies
  • Researching well-established, big-name agencies

At one time, start-ups may be speaking to multiples of each of those categories. We’ll look at a few common partnership options in a bit. But first, there are some general characteristics you should look for in conversations with any product designer.

How product designers should talk to “idea stage” startups

Say you’re a founder/industry expert who comes to a design agency and says “I want you to build me an Android app, iOS app and a web app for my killer idea!” If the person or agency’s first response to that is “Let’s get started!,” that might be a sign to pump the brakes.

A more responsible and realistic approach is for the product designer to first determine if your business is potentially viable. Do people in that space need your solution? Do other solutions exist? Will users download it? Would they pay for it? These are things that can be ironed out in the research phase.

If that product designer’s next question is “How much money can you give me?”, You can go ahead and shoot your startup in its proverbial head. Any product designer worth the investment should be asking: “What is the most minimum version of that idea we can build, before you do anything else, to provide value?”

This is important. Because as soon as you build those apps, you now have multiple money pits that must be supported long-term.

Those apps will almost always require one or two engineers (100k+ each) per platform and at least one full-time designer on the payroll (60–100k) to maintain them. That gives you a quarter-million-dollar payroll to support as you work through the challenges of growing a business!

It’s often a better idea to build something small, on a single platform to make sure the idea actually has legs before proceeding. We like to work this way because we share a mutual hatred for the waste of time and money. Starting things off slowly also benefits the startup as many new business owners get to the later stages of product development and realize they don’t want to actually run the business the product designer is building with them.

How design agencies should speak to startups with an existing product or design team

Startups that have already shipped a product are highly growth-focused. They are more committed to running that business because skin is already in the game.

Rather than looking for someone to turn an idea into reality, they need a standing design solution for what they already have in the market. If your company is in a situation like this, you know that churning designers can be crippling. It’s normal for these organizations to seek out full-time help so they can create consistency and move fast.

Startups in this phase should be speaking with potential design partners about:

  • How people feel about the existing product
  • The future of the product
  • How quickly the startup is shipping work
  • The long-term vision of the design team
  • Recruiting, mentoring and growing designers
  • Whether the work will be seasonal or ongoing
  • What a successful design relationship would look like

Now that you know what to look for, let’s talk about few common design options for startups and the negotiation phase for each of them.

Selecting a freelancer

When meeting with freelancers, you’re somewhat in the driver’s seat. Although there are plenty of world class freelancers out there, these interactions are typically less of a sell for the startup, and more of a conversation about proper fit. Because there is such a wide variety of skill-level with freelancers, it’s important to thoroughly vet them so you can understand their capabilities.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • Have you worked with a company of similar size before?
  • Have you worked in a similar industry before?
  • Have you provided similar solutions before?
  • Do you have relevant case studies or testimonials I can look over?
  • What’s your design process?
  • How many clients do you usually have, how much weekly effort can you give us?
  • How long will you be willing to work with us?
  • How will you bill me?
  • If you decide to move on, how will you help us find a new partner?

You need to ensure the quality of their work aligns with the expectations you have for your business. The more social proof you can get from a person, the better.

Selecting a small design shop

If you’re meeting up with a small design shop to discuss potential work together, the conversation is a little different. You can be more assured that they have the necessary capabilities to help you because they should have more readily available testimonials and case studies.

Be ready to ask educated questions that show you have a deep understanding of your business and the design needs of the project.

Useful questions include:

  • What projects have you worked on similar to mine? What kind of traction did you get with those projects?
  • What was the ROI for those similar projects?
  • How would you staff my project?
  • What approach / process methodology will you bring to my project?
  • How flexible is that approach / process methodology?

Selecting an established agency

When speaking to an established agency, the dynamic shifts a little more. In some cases, the agency is — more or less — interviewing you. And you may need to sell them a little on the idea of working with you.

Be prepared to answer questions like:

  • What is your business plan?
  • What are your defined metrics for success?
  • How much experience do you have working with designers or agencies?
  • Do you have a design team? Tell us about about your design operations current, and future plans?
  • Who are your stakeholders?
  • How many users do you have, what’s your revenue model and what do sales look like?
  • Where does your funding come from?
  • How much money do you invest in design annually?
  • Are you open to an equity design partner?
  • A year from now, you’re really happy and we’re having coffee. What would we have to do to make you feel that way? (Thanks Blair Enns)

Ideally, you want to establish trust with the agency as soon as possible. Avoid mistakes like entering the conversation without an understanding of the agency’s budgeting ballpark.

Many of the questions you asked freelancers and small design shops still apply here. A few more useful questions to ask are:

  • Do you have any specialized engagements, programs or pricing specifically for startups
  • How do you take accountability for your design decisions?
  • How will you measure account and project success? How will you address issues when they arise?
  • How does your pricing work?
  • Are there ways I can save money by tweaking billing in your favor?

Closing a deal with your design partner

Illustrations by Andre Jurgensen

In pricing conversations, be transparent, thorough and flexible in the discussion — regardless of whether you’re dealing with a freelancer or design agency.

Startups need to be honest about where they’re getting their money from and how much money they have, so that the agency can look at the opportunity realistically. The more an agency understands your business, the more they’ll be able to put together a thoughtful strategy for you. To reiterate, design is a business function and a good designer or agency wants to make you money — so they need to understand how to do that.

If, after the price conversation, it seems like you may not be able to make it work, don’t be afraid to ask the agency if they’re open to exchanging design work for equity in your company (if that’s something you’re comfortable with, of course). If an agency is willing to work like that, it’s a sign that they believe in your product and that they’ll go above and beyond for your product’s long-term success.

Agencies can typically expect startups to use more of their time and ultimately account for less immediate revenue. However, some agencies (like ours) look at these situations as more than just revenue. If it’s the right project, there is more potential value in play.

Some reasons we — and other agencies — might take on startup work include:

  • It’s fun and exciting for our designers
  • Our team will learn something and grow
  • The startup could refer work to us or we’ll meet exciting new people that could impact our future
  • We may be able to show the work in case studies and tell stories about our work
  • We could potentially grow our portfolio of investments

Sometimes, the agency has to adjust pricing with those considerations in mind to make the numbers work. You should keep those potential benefits in mind as selling points for your project if needed.

Define success with your design partner

Before signing a contract, always make sure you’ve defined what success looks like for that project or relationship. Don’t let that stress you out though. Your definition of success can be as broad as it needs to be.

For some projects, success might have exact deliverables, features and timelines attached to it. For others, it might just mean bringing on a team that does what it needs to in the moment. It’s possible that determining deliverables at the beginning of the relationship is irresponsible because there are too many unknowns. The important thing here is that both startup and agency agree on the expectations.

That said, if 75% of your engagement is complete and you still have no idea what you’re getting, something is wrong.

If you’ll be working flexibly, at least agree upon how you will manage the work and decide what will and will not be done. Establish weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to ensure the design partner can pivot, as-needed, to hit commitments. All of this should be clearly spelled out in the contract before any work happens.

Picking the right design partner can be overwhelming for those unfamiliar with the product design process. But taking the time to fully understand your needs and conduct thorough research during this phase could mean the difference between failure and profitability for your startup.

Good luck on your hunt. We wish you all the best!