By Andy BuddDesigner and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp

As startups raise funding and grow their customer base, the demands placed on the engineering teams tend to scale quite rapidly. This is one of the reasons you need a solid CTO from the onset. Not only to get your product off the ground, but also to manage the complexity that comes from hiring and managing a large number of engineers. 

On the design side of things, the received wisdom is that you need one designer to service five or six engineers. As such, design tends to scale slightly later than engineering and at a slower rate. That being said, there are plenty of startups out there with a 20-person engineering team, just barely getting by on two or three designers. So once companies have scaled their engineering teams, their attention generally turns to their design and product functions.

One of the challenges of hiring designers is that there are a lot fewer of them out there, so good designers are much harder to find. And it’s especially the case if you’re not that well connected in the design space. This is one reason why your first design hire is key

Your Founding Design is your Best Hiring Asset

A good founding designer will have strong connections within the design community, so when it comes time to scale, they’ll already have a line of potential talent. These may be people they already know and have worked with, or people they follow and admire on social media. They’ll also be connected to other members of the community through events and social media. As such, they’ll be able to circulate your open roles to a much wider audience than posting to a generic job board will allow. 

They’ll also be in a great position to review designers’ portfolios, understand what questions to ask at interviews, and set the designers up for success once they join the team. Just be aware that when you decide to scale your design function, your founding designer will naturally need to step away from their day-to-day design activities and take on more leadership roles. While it’s possible to be a player-coach for a while, this quickly leads to burnout. So at some stage, your founding designer will need to step up and become a full-time manager. Something not every design practitioner is comfortable with or prepared for. 

What Roles to Hire When?

Early-stage start-ups benefit from hiring generalists. People who can turn their hands to a range of different tasks. As such, it’s not worth worrying too much about job titles and specialisms at this stage. However, you do want to make sure that within the team you have a broad mix of skills.

You’ll obviously need the creative visionaries, the craftspeople, and the user champions. Because you’ll be building your brand through your interface, you’ll benefit from having people with brand, illustration, and animation skills.  Speed is important at this stage so you’ll need people who can move fast and work to tight deadlines. However, as you’ll be iterating towards product-market fit, you’ll also need people who can research and understand user needs. As quality and solution fit become more important you’ll need both conceptual designers as well as ones who think deeply and sweat the details. 

Character-wise you’ll want a few social mavens who bring the energy and keep everybody feeling upbeat. You’ll also want the agony aunts and uncles who can steady the team when they’re feeling stressed. You’ll need a couple of strategic thinkers — folks who are thinking two or three steps ahead. However, too many strategists and stuff won’t get done, so you’ll also need a strong backbone of delivery-focussed people. As the team grows, more processes will need to be put in place, so having a few more operationally-minded people can’t hurt either. 

Building a highly functioning design team is a balancing act. Your next hire is going to be informed less by job titles and more by the skills the rest of the team has (or lacks). To get around this, some leaders will take an inventory of the skills and characteristics their team currently have, in order to find the missing gaps. For instance, it will probably be a while till you have enough work to justify hiring a dedicated illustrator, but it may be worth hiring a product designer with a background in illustration to the team. Similarly, hiring a dedicated researcher may be a few steps down the line, so it probably makes sense to have research skills distributed across a few members of the team.

Scaling up is Harder Than you Think

Companies tend to start scaling their design team for a couple of reasons. The most obvious one is that the engineering team has scaled up so rapidly that design is becoming a blocker. While engineers are quick to request more resources, designers tend to take on more than they can manage, in order to be seen as team players. This generally results in the design team running too hot for too long, and then needing to scale quickly in order to prevent burnout.

Ironically this behavior can actually be a blocker to growth as the organisation gets used to the design team being able to deliver on reduced numbers, so generally question the need for more staff. The rest of the organisation ends up shouldering more of the slack, with front-end developers and product managers doing work that would be better served by designers. This has the effect of diminishing the value of design in the organisation by turning them purely into delivery people. It’s a framing that is often hard to escape from.

When it does come time to scale the team, it often doesn’t lead to the productivity boost everybody expected. In fact, you often see things slow down even more. This is because, in order to keep up with the demands of the organisation, the design team has been acquiring a lot of operational debt. This operational debt is usually in the form of inefficient or non-existent internal processes. Having a good recruitment process, a good onboarding process, a good managerial process, and a good team development process are all things that have probably been ignored up to this point. 

You can generally get away with this lack of process when there are only two or three people on the design team and you’ve hired people you already know. However, as the team scales, this becomes increasingly untenable and the cracks begin to show. 

Start Planning for Growth in Advance

I’ve seen a lot of design teams who struggle to hire quickly enough because none of the necessary processes are in place. This then leads to more stress and inefficiency as the team is having to deliver increasing amounts of work on reduced numbers for longer while trying to fix their operational debt. When folks do join, the lack of onboarding means it takes longer for new team members to get up to speed and start being productive, while the lack of good management practices often leads to increased churn. If it takes 6 months to fill a role, and a further 6 months to get your new hire up to speed, you’re already a year behind the curve. With designers potentially jumping between jobs every 12-18 months, this feels like a particularly poor investment. 

The way to get around this is simple: founders and design leaders need to start planning for growth much earlier than they expect. If they see their engineering team starting to scale, they know that the design team will need to follow suit. If you’re planning to scale your design team off the back of a raise, don’t wait for the round to close before putting your plans in place. Instead, spend the previous six months setting up the groundwork. This will mean a variety of things including setting up a good recruitment and onboarding process, codifying your team’s processes and behaviours, and starting to engage the design community in order to grow your employer brand. That way, when it comes time to hit the gas pedal, you’ll have all the necessary infrastructure in place and won’t be caught off guard. 

Even then, be aware that recruiting takes a surprising amount of time. I know plenty of design leaders who end up becoming full-time hiring managers during the scale-up process. This forces them to stop or significantly scale back a lot of the activities they were doing before, which can take a toll on them, their team, and their business. In fact, I see a lot of first-time design leaders burn out by the end of this process. The more support and upfront planning you can provide, the better. 

In short, scaling up a design team can be surprisingly challenging. Despite being a lot smaller than your engineering team, finding good designers tends to be a lot harder, and they generally need a lot more support and management. So don’t underestimate the work and planning involved, or you may find that it slows everything else down. 

Check our past blog posts in this Hiring for Design series:

Part 1 Hiring for Design Part 1: Why A Good Designer Should be One of Your First Hires
Part 2 Hiring for Design Part 2: Hiring Your First Designer
Part 3 Hiring for Design Part 3: Interviewing Your First Designer

Part 4: Hiring for Design Part 4: What a High Performing Designer Looks Like

Our Head of Talent Alex Lewis shares insights, with collaboration with Felix Martinez and Kate McGinn from our team, on what Seedcamp’s high-level due-diligence process is for vetting and assessing founding teams. In this blog post, he lays out five traits we look out for when speaking with founders.

“ In real estate, the three biggest criteria are ‘location, location and location.’ The venture capital axiom is people, people and people.”

When I told my friends I was joining VC, it began an amusing dialogue of how they believe this current climate sees little in regards to investor due diligence, with £XXm valuations for ideas, unicorns emerging at a rate of knots, and now talks of dragons. For outsiders looking in, it’s a mind-boggling spectacle more akin to a Lord of the Rings novel than an ecosystem.

Admittedly, when I came to Seedcamp, other than a couple of YouTube videos, I had very little understanding of what metrics VCs use to evaluate early-stage startups. I began to ponder on how important founders and founding teams were to investors and risk-mitigation, especially in early-stage investing.

My role at Seedcamp involves advising pre- and post-raise start-ups on all things hiring and talent. Inexperienced founders seeking to raise their first round, seem to think investors value product fit, strategy and revenue, rather than founder fit, are the key indicators for early stage investing.

I had an insightful conversation with our Associate, Felix Martinez and newest member of our Investment Team, Kate McGinn, to understand what the high-level due diligence process involves when assessing a founding team’s suitability for investment. As a disclaimer, there are a lot of traits founders need to have that won’t necessarily be obvious during the investment process, such as grit and hustle; however, it boiled down to a few key factors:

1. Clear Communication

Investors are not necessarily deep experts in the industries they invest in, so if a deep tech start-up comes to us with a complex solution, we need to be able to understand it quickly. Someone that is able to break down complex concepts into simple, easily digestible language is going to do well. This also comes back to an old favourite: first impressions count. If you are excellent at communicating your passion, you’re more likely going to be a person that people want to work for and consequently attract top talent, which is a great de-risker. Communication is key.

2. Product or Mission-Obsession

Depending on the business, we want to see founders show a clear obsession with either their product or company mission. When the founder of one of our notable unicorns came to pitch, he was able to tell you exactly how the product was going to be built in minute detail, as well as how it was going to iterate over time and why. We want to be able to see that you have really thought about how your product should function if possible based on customer or prospective customer feedback.

3. Founder Market Fit

What is it about you as a founder that makes you uniquely positioned to go after the problem you are trying to solve? Is it industry expertise, your contacts in the industries you target? Or are you self-aware enough to know that you would need to use the capital you are raising to hire those individuals who will give you that competitive advantage?

4. Founder/Founding Team Relationship

Founders are the bedrock upon which a company is built, so having sturdy foundations are going to be key to any investor looking in. You can tell quite quickly from asking a few simple questions about how the founders met, how long they have been working together, and how they came up with the idea to get them talking, but a curveball of who is CEO can bring to the surface some uncertainties and observations on a power dynamic issue between the team. There should be a clear alignment on who is responsible for what but also small things like interrupting each other and contradicting each other is a big flag. We had a company pitch us a couple of weeks ago that were debating their strategy whilst on the call with us. This didn’t give a strong impression of alignment and ultimately led us to walk away.

5. Ambition

It goes without saying, but we are looking for founders who have an unshakeable ambition to change the world with the product they are building. We want people that are seeking to build the next unicorn or decacorn, and then some.

I hope this was helpful and like always, if you have any additions or further thoughts please feel free to reach out to me: alexlewis@seedcamp.com! If you’re looking for funding, please head to https://seedcamp.com/looking-for-funding/

Accounting and bookkeeping teams are still using outdated software to organise manage clients, deadlines, and workflows. It’s an old yet persistent problem in need of a solution. A solution like Pixie, an all-in-one beautiful practice management software that organises accountants’ days for them. We are thrilled to be backing the Pixie team, alongside our friends at Triple Point Ventures, MMC Ventures and some exciting angels including Duane Jackson and Will Neale, in their £2.25M seed round.

Celso Pinto, Pixie’s founder and CEO, is no stranger to us. It’s the second time we have had the opportunity to partner up with him: the first time around, he built GoSimpleTax, which aims to simplify tax returns. Armed with first-hand learnings from his time at GoSimpleTax, Celso is now building Pixie, which is on a mission to create the operating system for small firms around the world. By centralising and automating processes through the platform’s intuitive workflows, he aims to i) manage the large amount of user workflows more effectively, ii) fast-track the scaling of companies by increased efficiencies, and iii) bolster client satisfaction, as no stones remain unturned.

“Accountants and bookkeepers are the unsung heroes of thriving small business communities everywhere, working hard to ensure their clients remain compliant, organised, and successful,” Celso states. “But through conversations with hundreds of accountants, I noticed how challenging it is to manage their own firms as they struggle to adopt traditional practice management applications due to the software’s complex nature. Our quick growth confirms that accountants are eager for a simpler approach that is easy to use, allowing them to quickly lay the foundations that will help them grow and keep delighting their customers.”

Celso Pinto, the founder and CEO of Pixie, is a two-time Seedcamp founder, having built GoSimpleTax back in 2012.

Pixie has had strong reception from its user base. Already 1,110+ accountants rely upon Pixie on a daily basis to keep track of their deadlines, collaborate more efficiently with their clients, and automate their workflows and integrations. 

“We are excited to back Celso for a second time with his vision for Pixie,” Venture Partner Daniel King comments. “At Seedcamp, we are passionate about supporting businesses that are democratising access and growth through technology and Pixie is doing just that as it helps small firms accelerate the adoption of cloud-based practice management software. The platform is already proven, as is its founder, and we believe there’s huge potential for scale with this new round of investment.”

With this investment, the Pixie team plans to further build out the product’s features and improve their users’ experience, by pushing the envelope in terms of integrations and workflow automations. Furthermore, they want to double-down on the growth within their initial core markets, while hiring a world-class team across marketing/growth, customer success, and product delivery functions.

If you’re looking to join the epic team over at Pixie, check out job openings here.

By Andy BuddDesigner and Expert in Residence at Seedcamp

In order to hire a top end designer—or for that matter a product manager, marketer or engineer—you need to know what “good” looks like. Otherwise you may end up hiring somebody who looks good on paper, but is actually a bit of a dud. The best way to know what good looks like is to have worked alongside amazing designers in the past. That way you’ll already have a model in your mind of what you’re looking for. However if you’re not from a tech background, or have been unlucky enough to work alongside less talented designers, it’s hard to pick the wheat from the chaff.

Getting External Help

One way around this is to spend some time in the company of a good designer. Get them to explain what good looks like to them; what should you look for in a portfolio; what questions should you ask at the interview and what characteristics and attributes should you be trying to ascertain? Maybe ask them to walk through a couple of CVs or portfolios and tell you what they like. Or maybe have them point out a couple of designers they think are operating at a high level, and explain why.

Of course, if you’re already struggling to know what good looks like, you probably don’t have somebody like this in your network already. If that is the case, reach out to friends, advisors or investors for introductions. This is essentially my role as Seedcamp, so don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you’d like to chat. 

While talking to a talented designer can be super enlightening, you’ll get even more mileage by asking them to help out with the actual recruitment process. This could be taking a look at your job listing, or helping you understand the best places to advertise. Or you could go deeper and ask them to take a look at resumes, review portfolios, or sit in on interviews. The more external perspective you can get, the better. 

This is a little like asking a knowledgeable friend or family member to come with you to the dealership to help pick out your first car. They’ll be able to check out the vehicle, know what questions to ask, and let you know if they think the dealer is laying it on a bit thick; all in order to make sure you don’t end up buying a lemon. 

How to Keep Good Designers Once You’ve Got Them

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles in this series, that first design hire can be critical. However designers often struggle when working in a silo, so it’s important to build a culture that understands and values the role of design. I’ve seen many tech firms lose amazingly talented designers because they didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into, or how to best use them. 

It’s safe to say that good designers work best when they’re actively involved in shaping the product. This is because they need to understand the context they’re working in to be effective. Architect Eero Saarinen sums this up best in his famous quote — “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

As such, the best designers will want to understand your strategy, talk to customers, look at your analytics, and wrap their heads around why certain decisions have been made. Good designers are naturally curious and will ask a ton of questions. In fact, this can become slightly irritating at times—like your niece or nephew asking why the sky is blue or why ducks quack. They’ll also want to explore a range of options before landing on the one they think is the best fit. Even if it’s exactly the one you were suggesting in the first place.  

This may feel wasteful, so it’s tempting for founders to try and shortcut the process and simply tell the designers what to build. However this is like telling somebody what your holiday was like in the hope that they’ll somehow absorb the benefits of your week in the sun. It’s a natural part of the designer’s process and is difficult to short-cut. 

As such, hiring your first designer can bring up all sorts of challenges around the decision making process. Challenges you’ve not had to think about before. However with it comes a tonne of benefits, like looking at your product from a user’s perspective, and with a beginners mind; one of the reasons I think having a founding designer on the team can be invaluable. 

Check our past blog posts in this Hiring for Design series:

Part 1 Hiring for Design Part 1: Why A Good Designer Should be One of Your First Hires
Part 2 Hiring for Design Part 2: Hiring Your First Designer
Part 3 Hiring for Design Part 3: Interviewing Your First Designer