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When, How & Why to Hire A Designer: Design for Start-Up Companies

Updated: Aug 10, 2023


As a founder, it’s often much easier to build a product than to explain its value to people. Have you ever faced a disconnect between communicating your value from face-to-face meetings into a web page?




Based on a study conducted by Forbes Insight, 85% of individuals assert that they cultivate stronger and more meaningful business relationships through in-person meetings and conferences (Forbes). Meanwhile, another study by Hubspot shows that landing pages with a clear call to action had a conversion rate of 11.4%, while 1-on-1 meetings had a conversion rate of 5.3%. SalesForce found that websites with a well-designed lead capture form had a conversion rate of 20%, while 1-on-1 meetings had a conversion rate of 10%. The true answer to this problem is better communication of ideas to design experts. Therefore both the landing page strategy and the in-person strategy need to go hand in hand. The goal of this article will be to help founders better articulate their in-person experiences/observations to design and marketing professionals who can further scale and expand the fundamentals of their strategy.


Usually when founders think they can hire a low-cost intern to “bring in site traffic” by posting reels every day on social media accounts, in the hope that it will help their product “go viral” and gain the traction it deserves. Of course, the reality is a lot harsher than that, 6 months in, nothing happens and the intern is fired.



The logic behind this mindset is understandable: founders believe that a great product should naturally sell itself. They acknowledge the need for establishing an authoritative online presence but are willing to spend as little as possible to establish it. While this approach seems fair, startup founders fail to realize that they are entrusting their product's marketing efforts to an intern who lacks experience in this field. This same mindset is not adopted for hiring R&D or Ops professionals of the same company. Why is design somehow overlooked as an inferior / less important skill that anyone with time and a paintbrush can achieve? Let's put on our curiosity hats and deep dive into this.


A little bit about me, I am Pranav. I’ve worked as Head of Design at a YCombinator-funded startup (which is just a regular start-up but with some funding and some clout). I’ve also developed and launched brands for over 100 startups, businesses, and companies and I can guarantee that design plays a critical role in defining your product’s value in the eyes of your customers, investors, and team. Choosing the wrong designer can steer you away from PMF (product-market fit) and make you believe that you’ve built a terrible product. It all comes down to this: How can a founder translate their passion, ambition or idea into a webpage, brochure or blog?


How?


Are you ready to get started? Grab a pen and paper and honestly answer the below questions for yourself.

  1. What type of designer should I hire?

  2. How can you evaluate a designer's previous work?

  3. How do you balance cost and quality when hiring a designer?

  4. How can you ensure effective communication and collaboration with a designer?

  5. How can you ensure a designer meets project deadlines?

  6. How can you assess if a designer fits your company's culture and values?

  7. What challenges can arise in terms of a designer's flexibility and adaptability?

  8. How can you ensure a designer is available for long-term collaboration?

  9. Why should I pay if designers are just going to make things look good?


When?


We have noticed that answers to these questions depend on where you are in your journey as a founder. The Idea stage, Pre-seed, Seed, or Series A and upwards will determine the answers to the above questions differently.



Hiring designers according to your progress as a founder


Idea Stage - Before Funding


The idea stage is probably where you know what kind of product/solution you want to build and who you’re building the product/solution for. At this stage, I would not recommend hiring a designer to build a product or a website, or your brand.


At this stage, you should learn a few design tools to help you easily convey your ideas. Here’s a starter toolkit:

  • Coolors - for selecting a color palette for your brand.

  • NounProject - to find an icon that can serve as your brand's logo.

  • DaFont or Google Fonts - to choose a unique typeface for your wordmark.

  • Canva - to create sample templates and test your brand's aesthetic.

  • Google Slides - to document and create a basic brand guideline.

  • Simple website builders like Framer or Wix - for building a landing page for your startup.

  • Stock asset sites like Freepik - to find visual resources and help visualize your brand.

  • ChatGPT - to assist in structuring content, websites, or pitch decks, but it's recommended to write your own words to bring out a unique brand voice.

  • Image-generating AI tools like Midjourney - for generating photos, icons, and UI ideas.


To make a better market fit and conserve your cash flow, it would benefit you to simply put in the time and effort, upskill yourself, use a template, and build your own basic brand and website. Your aim should be to get to talking to customers as soon as you can and understand what not to do rather than what to do right. Experiment at this stage, try different colors, perform A-B testing, and document your observations.


I’ve also been privy to brands that are dead on arrival, i.e., no response from any customers or audiences on launch. I highly recommend saving your money and energy for the second iteration. The hard truth is that a “good-enough” brand that has launched is way more valuable than a “perfect” brand that’s still a work in progress.


You may hire a freelancer or two to get something specific like a 3D render from Blender, optimized landing page copy, or complex illustrations. But I would urge you to find alternatives that are cheaper, quicker, and just “good enough” for the idea stage. Wait until you have a proof of concept that is showing early product-market fit to really invest in brand building.


But hey, if you don’t mind spending some money to jumpstart the process, I would recommend our starter pack and I will be happy to make multiple iterations to your website on the go.


Anyway, are you ready?


Here We Go...


Early PMF / Pre-seed


You’ve found your first bunch of customers and you have a fair understanding of their needs. Your product is cherished by users who recognize its early-stage status and they’re willing to pay to use it (or you’re signing-up customers at scale) and you’ve probably even raised some funding. At this point, you need a trustworthy identity to reach higher traction. Transitioning from neophiliacs to early adopters is critical for your company. At this stage, when the role of a customer becomes apparent, a designer is needed to help you articulate your offering.


Getting your first few customers is a good indicator to hire your first designer. After having tried multiple combinations, I recommend you first get a senior designer or a generalist on board to start defining the visual identity and building a proper brand. Typically a senior designer will help conduct user research, brainstorm and develop design solutions for various business roadblocks, design a great user experience with a fantastic UI, and ship, test, and iterate alongside the customer.


The ideal candidate should’ve worked in the domain you are operating in and will have 3-4 years of total work experience. They are someone who likes to think on their feet and execute and iterate rather than build design systems that are more useful at a different scale. They will be able to use multiple tools and vendors to achieve outcomes that will be reflected in the way customers respond to your brand.


A senior designer should help you-

  • Build a simple brand guideline using elements and intent from what you already have in place

  • Work with content writers to develop simple ways of expressing the value proposition of your brand and product. This should result in boilerplate text for the product, team, about page, and product descriptions that can be reused across your communication

  • Work with marketing and sales teams to measure, understand, and test the impact on users



You could call this high-level work. A single designer sets the lenses through which we should develop brand-related artifacts. These guidelines should help not only the public view of the brand but they should also help internal teams build products, marketing material, and documents that look like they came from the same brand.


Senior designers may use the help of freelancers, vendors, and agencies to help achieve deliverables like web pages, prints, videos, or events.


You also want to hire someone who can lead the design thought process and has the drive and desire to build something that people will love to use.


Alternatively, it may be too expensive to hire an agency.


Hiring a junior designer or a freelancer at this stage will mean that you or someone from your team will need to coordinate and monitor the effort and they may not be as confident about making changes. Furthermore, hiring generally involves constant burn rate issues, what if you could use designers only when you needed them?


A great solution is to get an unlimited design subscription, especially from designers who understand startups and your needs and iterate with you. Remember that a large part of achieving good customer acquisition cost and conversion on your online offering is a trial and error or A/B testing process. Design subscriptions allow you to pause and restart as required by you, which is not possible with employee / hiring approaches.


Seed


You have a steady stream of customers and your product more or less works well. Now your challenge is to help more people find it online or offline. Your designer has done well to create and establish a brand that has a decent recall with customers. But can it scale to many users despite their demographic, their gender, race, and ability?


This is a pivotal point and needs to be considered carefully depending on the kind of company and product you are building. Not all companies need a full-time team of writers, designers, and creative directors- hiring an agency or opting for a design subscription might be a great idea. Setting the correct KPIs is an area where most founders fail, they either set them too early in the funnel or too late. Setting KPIs is like spreading out buoys in the ocean and waiting for them to light up.



Basically, you need to deploy content on as many channels as possible, tracking their growth and optimizing each channel on a daily basis. For this, you need experts for each channel and designers who can deliver great content for each channel.


Tracking key metrics and identifying the best channel can be tricky. However, we can make this rather objective. Let us assume that we prioritize cost-of-customer acquisition, conversion %, and total impressions (just an example). Here, each channel (like advertisements, SEO, Billboards, etc) will be evaluated based on the same 3 KPIs and the best-converting channel wins.


Today, there is no silver bullet that proves what channel might work for you. Even within the same industry, channels used in marketing and design can change drastically.


While specialist agencies may be able to take over the entire task of driving your marketing efforts, it will probably cost you a bomb and you may feel left out of a lot of the activity. It would be important to research agencies and find the right one for you.


Another option is to get a design subscription that can bring to life what your marketing manager dreams up. Or maybe if you don’t have a marketing manager, we can help you establish a marketing plan. Book a call with us if you feel like it.


Series A and upwards


At this stage, it is essential to have a well-organized design and communications strategy in place to maximize efficiency. The primary goal of these efforts is to ensure consistent growth. Ideally, your team should have already developed and implemented several successful playbooks, providing a solid foundation for further progress.


You will need many different specialists to come together and work as a team to deliver the kind of goals you will be looking at. You will definitely need senior, experienced leaders in marketing, growth, branding, communications, and design. They may require juniors to help with the day-to-day activities.


Additionally, you will need the help of agencies to deliver and help you surpass your goals. You can also opt for a design subscription service.


Why is it important to involve a designer in your marketing plan


Designers have a unique ability to bridge the gap between technology, business, and human needs through effective communication and visualization. A good designer will easily transform your product from “something customers find useful” to “something users love to use”. This key insight is mighty useful when you are making strategies for your business.

A designer will be able to provide key insights in areas of customer perception, ease of use, and competitive analysis. Their developed visual cognizance also helps them visualize innovative ideas and features. After all, Tinder went viral for its revolutionary swipe feature, which I believe is a design feature. So Swipe right on us?


While going to a designer with a clear marketing plan is also a good idea, it is prudent to hear their views as well. Their insights might be critical to understanding your customers’ needs. Having precise marketing goals also helps designers orient their work for that purpose. If your purpose is awareness, they will design for it. If it is lead generation, then they will design for that. But you must be clear about what it is that you want from them.


How to budget for design or hiring designers?


Hiring designers might be a very challenging task for founders. Especially, if the founders have little to no experience in designing anything themselves. Even having worked with Canva helps understand what it takes to design and this in turn will help you hire designers better.


Designers come in all shapes and sizes and at every price point imaginable. You can hire freelance designers for as little as $1/hour. But a good designer is probably going to be rather expensive. According to PayScale the average price of a designer with 3-4 years of experience in the US is about $100,000.


This is why design subscription services make so much more sense for early-stage founders and startups. They cost a fraction of the price you pay to hire and deliver great results.


What are some things you cannot expect from designers?


Not every designer is cut out for your startup and it may take a while for you to find the right fit.

  • While designers are here to help you translate your vision into tangibles, they may not be the right people to create that vision in the first place. The vision needs to be clear in your head, but that’s a starting point.

  • While most designers can generally do a host of tasks. It is best to hire someone with domain and industry experience. While a designer from an eCommerce company might be able to deliver good work for a Travel Tech startup, a designer with Travel Tech experience will be able to deliver faster and better.

  • Designers are not marketers. They will not be able to tell you if the target audience you’ve chosen is the right fit for your product, but they will design to fit that audience. So choosing the right audience for your product is not a designer's responsibility.

  • You need to provide accurate information and “raw material” to your designer and explain your objectives clearly. This will help the designer deliver high quality work. If you expect the designer to go looking for information and content, you may end up with something that is inaccurate and in a totally different direction.

  • Designers can work in flexible ways, but be clear about how you are going to compensate them. They can work for cash, equity or even a mix. Their involvement and level of ownership also change accordingly. If you hire a senior designer at discount pay with the lure of hiking their pay once you achieve some milestone, expect low interest at work. Throw in sizable equity and see their attitude change.

Remember that designers create your visual identity and what your vision represents. This has the potential to make or break your product.





Key Takeaways


As a founder, the early stages are all about doing everything yourself to get that initial traction. But as you put a team together, it is important to get the right designer on board to help you navigate the already monumental task ahead of you.



 


Here’s what you should take away from this article-

  • learn some amount of design and do the initial work yourself.

  • You will need different kinds of designers at different stages

  • Interns are not good enough, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

  • Always hire someone senior first

  • Generalists > specialists in the early stages of building your venture

  • Design is not just making things look good, it involved understanding user behavior, optimizing their experience, and making the brand values visible and tangible

  • Hiring full-time designers is expensive. Hiring agencies are even more expensive.

  • Good design may help with recurring customers, but great design will build LifeTime Value


Clean Design Company


Clean design company is a design subscription service that was created specifically to help the ever-changing needs of early-stage founders and startups. We can help you build a brand, a website and execute world-class marketing strategies that win. Check out our website to learn more.


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