20VC Figma Founder Dylan Field on The Biggest Mistakes Young Founders Most Often Make, How To Go Slow To Go Fast With Venture Dollars & How The Design Process Will Fundamentally Change Over The Next 510 Years



In this episode of 20 minutes VC, Harry Stebbings interviews Dylan Field, CEO of Figma, a startup revolutionizing design collaboration in the browser. With over $82 million in funding from top-tier investors like Sequoia and Greylock, Field discusses Figma's journey from its meme generator beginnings to a collaborative design tool used by professionals worldwide. The conversation delves into the challenges of building tool-based businesses, the importance of hiring senior talent, and the evolving role of designers in a software-centric economy. Field also shares insights on maintaining team morale during product development and the strategic approach to investor selection and board management. The episode touches on the future of design and Figma's mission to democratize access to design tools globally.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the Podcast Episode

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the 20 minutes VC and Founders Friday episode.
  • Dylan Field, founder and CEO at Figma, is the guest on the show.
  • Over 15 investors and design experts contributed questions for the episode.
  • Harry thanks Danny Rimer, Mamoon Hamid, John Lilly, Scott Belsky, Dan Rose, Andrew Reed, and others for their questions.
  • Harry promotes Brex, the first corporate card for startups, and Stripe, a resource for technology companies.
  • Harry also mentions Terminal, a service for building skilled remote engineering teams.

You are listening to the 20 minutes VC and founders Friday with me, Harry Stebbings, and it'd be great to see you on Instagram at htebings 90 96 with two v's where I'm trying to be more active in taking you behind the scenes of all things 20 vc and stride. However, to the founder joining us in the hot seat today. And what's awesome about this episode is we had over 15 investors and design experts chime in on the questions, and I've wanted to do this episode for a very, very long time.

Harry Stebbings introduces the podcast episode and the guest, Dylan Field, mentioning the unique aspect of having questions from over 15 investors and design experts.

Dylan Field's Background and Figma's Origins

  • Dylan grew up in Sonoma County, close to San Francisco.
  • He had an early interest in technology and worked at O'Reilly Media as an intern.
  • Dylan attended Brown University and interned at Microsoft Research and LinkedIn.
  • He participated in the Teal Fellowship and founded Figma.
  • Figma was started with a focus on utilizing Webgl to improve creative tools' accessibility and collaboration.

Sure. So I grew up in Sonoma county, which is about an hour, hour and a half north of San Francisco. In high school, I got to work at O'Reilly Media, and I was already somewhat familiar with tech, the.com boom.

Dylan Field shares his early exposure to technology and his experience working at O'Reilly Media during high school.

The Acting Background and Entrepreneurial Rejection

  • Dylan discusses his early acting career and how it taught him to handle rejection.
  • He finds the skill of not taking rejection personally transferable to his role as an entrepreneur.

Yeah. The only transferable skill I found so far is that when you are acting, maybe this is not true for the good actors, but at least it was for me. You get rejected constantly, and so I just kind of learned at a very early age how to take rejection personally.

Dylan Field explains that his acting background helped him learn not to take rejection personally, which is useful in his entrepreneurial journey.

The Four-Year Journey from Launch to First Product

  • Figma spent four years developing the product before launching.
  • Early on, Figma explored various creative tools, including a meme generator and a browser-based image editor.
  • The team shifted focus to interface design, which lacked good tools and needed better collaboration.
  • Figma's closed beta launched in December 2015, followed by a general release in October 2016.

Sure. So we got started in August 2012, and at the time, I think we were really excited about Webgl, which is a way to put the gpu in your computer and make it so you can use that in the browser.

Dylan Field recounts the early days of Figma, describing the initial excitement around using Webgl for creative tools.

Challenges of Building Tool-Based Businesses

  • Tool-based businesses require building a long tail of features before gaining widespread adoption.
  • Dylan discusses the difficulty of achieving parity with competitive tools and the incremental process of adding features to attract more users.

Yeah, so there's just a long tail of use cases that people have for these tools. I look back and over the past few years alone, we were now at the point where we're on par. We're a parity with a lot of the competitive tools, even over the past few years.

Dylan Field details the challenges of building tool-based businesses, emphasizing the necessity of meeting a wide range of use cases to achieve market adoption.

Analogy of Building a House

  • Dylan Field uses the analogy of building a house to describe the process of developing a product.
  • As more parts of the house (product features) are added, more people (users) can come in and enjoy it.

d of imagine as like they come to the door and they say, okay, well, do you have a kitchen? Yes. Do you have a bathroom? Oh, well, no, not yet. Okay, well maybe I'll come back when you have a bathroom. And they walk away. And so as you add more parts to the house, more people are able to come in and enjoy it.

The quote explains the incremental process of product development, where each added feature makes the product more appealing and usable for a broader audience.

VC's Hunger for Revenue Growth

  • Dylan Field discusses the traditional venture capital approach, which involves investing large sums in hard technical challenges to create a large moat around the business.
  • He contrasts this with a different approach that focuses on rapid iteration and scaling quickly to capitalize on trends.

Well, I'd reframe it a bit. I mean, I think more traditional venture capital is about putting large sums of money to work on hard technical challenges that create a very large moat.

The quote describes Dylan's view on the traditional role of venture capital in supporting businesses with significant technical challenges that lead to a competitive advantage.

Move Fast and Break Things

  • Dylan Field shares his thoughts on the "move fast and break things" mentality, which he believes is appropriate for consumer-focused businesses that need to iterate quickly.
  • He also emphasizes the importance of responsibility and stability when your product is critical to users' livelihoods, as is the case with Figma.

I also hope that a tool team that's working on the editor at Figma, where we're supporting designers who have to put food on the table and 8% of our users are international and many of them are living in third world countries.

The quote highlights the dual approach Figma takes: rapid iteration for growth-focused areas and careful, responsible development for core product features that users rely on for their income.

Maintaining Team Morale

  • Dylan Field reflects on the challenges of keeping team morale high during the two-year gap before the product launch.
  • He acknowledges that morale was sometimes low, but emphasizes the importance of early feedback and vision sharing to sustain the team.

And I think that it's kind of like you try to give the team as much early feedback as you can and you try to create as many conversations and as much visibility into sort of these visionary customers as you can.

The quote explains the strategy of involving the team with early feedback and customer insights to maintain morale and a sense of purpose during the pre-launch phase.

Coping with Challenging Times

  • Dylan Field discusses the difficulty of separating personal identity from the business during tough times.
  • He advises that entrepreneurs should remember they are not their business, although he acknowledges this is challenging to internalize.

I think that the answer I give a friend, if they were going through a hard time, is to tell them that they're not the business.

The quote conveys Dylan's personal coping mechanism during difficult periods, emphasizing the importance of emotional detachment from the business's performance.

Series C Funding and Investor Selection

  • Dylan Field describes the process of Figma's Series C funding round, which was characterized by strong investor interest.
  • He emphasizes the importance of selecting investors who are not just willing to provide capital but are also the right partners for the long term.

And so I think somehow it's been very obvious in past rounds for our seed a and B, it's been pretty clear about how we should make a decision here.

The quote reflects on how Figma's past funding rounds have been straightforward in terms of investor selection due to clear alignment of interests and values.

Board Construction and Management

  • Dylan Field aims for diversity and complementary skill sets in Figma's board members to guide the company on the best path.
  • He shares that each board member brings something different to the table and is his first call for different issues.

To me, when I go into board meeting, I'm really hoping to have a pretty diverse and complementary set of viewpoints around me in order to make sure that Figma is following the best possible path.

The quote details Dylan's approach to board construction, with an emphasis on diversity of expertise and perspectives to ensure comprehensive guidance for the company.

Communication with the Board

  • Dylan Field highlights the importance of clear and consistent communication with the board, both during good and bad times.
  • He implies that transparency and openness are key in managing relationships with board members.

Well, I think with any relationship, communication is everything. Just making sure that there's communication, good times and bad, and it's clear about what the challenges.

The quote stresses the significance of maintaining open lines of communication with the board to effectively manage and navigate both successes and challenges.

Company Communications and Prioritization

  • Emphasize the importance of being focused on high priorities in company communications.
  • Acknowledge the role of anxiety or doubt in driving attention to opportunities and challenges.
  • Highlight the necessity of balancing concerns with providing a path forward and reassurance.
  • Stress the significance of this approach for both employees and board members.

"it's important to be sort of maniacally focused on the highest priorities. And it's okay to have anxiety or doubt or worry that drives you towards those opportunities and challenges. But I think it's the, it's important to balance that with giving a path forward and giving reassurance to those around you."

This quote underlines the need for a company to have a laser-sharp focus on its most critical priorities, while also managing the natural anxieties that come with challenges. It suggests that alongside acknowledging these concerns, it's crucial to provide clear direction and reassurance to stakeholders to maintain confidence and morale.

Decision-Making in Business

  • Discusses the difficulty in determining which opportunities to pursue or decline.
  • Recognizes personal biases in decision-making and the importance of self-awareness.
  • Emphasizes the value of surrounding oneself with individuals skilled in prioritization and fostering internal debate.
  • Highlights a healthy culture of debate as indicative of engagement and care for the business.
  • Advocates for a collective approach to strategy and prioritization, despite disagreements.
  • Stresses the importance of committing to decisions after thorough discussion within a set timeline.

"I try to challenge myself to think through, like, what are the things that if we don't do, we die and start there and then from there kind of like build out."

Dylan Field discusses his personal approach to prioritization by focusing on the most critical tasks that the company must undertake to survive. This quote suggests a method of prioritization that starts with identifying existential threats or opportunities and then building out from there.

Fostering a Culture of Healthy Debate

  • Suggests leading by example to promote a culture of debate and challenge within a team.
  • Warns against the tendency to agree to everything, especially as the company grows.
  • Encourages thinking from first principles and rewarding team members who do the same.
  • Notes that fostering such a culture depends on execution and may vary by situation.

"I think just leading by example, making sure that you're willing to challenge people and you're not just a yes person, especially as the business grows more complex and you bring on more senior leaders."

Dylan Field believes that to encourage healthy debate, leaders must be willing to challenge others and not automatically agree with everything. This quote emphasizes the importance of setting a precedent for open discussion and critical thinking within the organization.

Hiring Senior Talent in Startups

  • Discusses the common mistake among young founders of not hiring sufficiently experienced talent.
  • Differentiates between age and seniority, emphasizing the need for expertise in various domains.
  • Encourages hiring the best possible people regardless of age disparities.

"I think one of the biggest mistakes is not hiring senior enough talent."

Dylan Field identifies a prevalent error among young founders, which is the reluctance to hire experienced professionals. This quote speaks to the importance of bringing on senior talent to fill knowledge and skill gaps within a young company.

Hiring Processes and Talent Acquisition

  • Shares insights on hiring processes, including the necessity of a dedicated search.
  • Acknowledges exceptions where unconventional hires can be successful.
  • Stresses the importance of being uncompromising in seeking the best talent.
  • Discusses strategies for connecting with top candidates and the value of breaking rules to bring exceptional talent on board.

"I think a few things I've learned. One is that these hires rarely happen outside of a dedicated process to go find somebody."

Dylan Field reflects on his experience that successful executive hires often result from a structured search process. This quote suggests that while there can be exceptions, a dedicated and strategic approach to hiring is typically required to find top talent.

The Evolution of Design and the Design Process

  • Reflects on the past five years, noting improvements in developer tooling, cloud services, and distribution.
  • Suggests that the ease of creating software has shifted the focus to user experience and design quality.
  • Discusses the significant increase in the importance and number of designers in companies.
  • Predicts further changes in the design process over the next five to ten years.

"I think because of that, it's no longer about can you go build a thing, but rather what's the experience like? And is this the best thing that you could possibly build?"

Dylan Field comments on the evolution of software development, where the ability to build software has become less of a challenge compared to designing the best possible user experience. This quote anticipates a continued rise in the significance of design in the tech industry.

Collaborative Tooling in Design

  • The need for collaborative tooling is increasing as more people get involved in the design process.
  • In the future, more individuals who do not currently identify as designers may take on that role.
  • Collaborative tooling is not just for professional designers but also for reviewers, stakeholders, and those giving feedback.

"And so I think that's why we're seeing such a need for collaborative tooling." "But I also think that the number of people internally who today do not identify as designers, but may identify as designers tomorrow, is growing as well."

The quotes emphasize the growing trend of collaboration in design and the expansion of the definition of a designer to include a broader range of contributors.

Role of the Primary Designer

  • The role of the primary designer is not diminished by more people participating in the design process.
  • Increased involvement from others can strengthen the designer's position by providing diverse feedback and ideas.
  • The role of designers is evolving to be more strategic, involving not just visuals but also product construction and functionality.
  • Designers benefit from visual feedback, which can be more effective than written feedback.

"I think, first of all, more people giving feedback or being involved and sort of being part of testing design is not diminishing the power of the designer now." "I think instead, if somebody's able to then instead communicate visually, that actually moves the conversation along quite nicely."

These quotes suggest that the primary designer's role is not threatened by democratization; instead, it is enhanced by more inclusive feedback mechanisms.

Favorite Book and Its Impact

  • Dylan's favorite recent read is "Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful" by Mike Mulaney.
  • The book discusses the augmentation of humans for curing diseases and enhancing biological abilities.
  • It explores the societal impacts of these advancements.

"It's a reformation from Mike Mulaney, and it's basically a book about as we augment humans more, first for curing disease, but ultimately for increasing the abilities of people biologically."

Dylan recommends this book for its engrossing content on human augmentation and its implications for society.

Silicon Valley's Future

  • There is a belief that Silicon Valley will change significantly over the next decade.
  • The hope is for Silicon Valley's infrastructure to become more globally accessible.

"I think the dirty secret of Silicon Valley is that no one in Silicon Valley thinks that Silicon Valley is going to be what it is today in ten years."

The quote reflects Dylan's view that Silicon Valley is expected to evolve and expand its influence globally.

Personal Weakness and Improvement

  • Dylan acknowledges his physical weakness and strives to get stronger.
  • He is working on not micromanaging and empowering his employees as Figma grows.

"I'm pretty physically weak, so I'm trying to get stronger that way." "And so trying to basically balance that more and make sure I'm not micromanaging and I'm empowering my employees, especially as the company grows."

These quotes highlight Dylan's personal challenges and his efforts to improve his leadership skills.

Building a Set of Mentors

  • Mentorship is most effective when it is based on deep, context-rich relationships.
  • Dylan has involved mentors in Figma's success by giving them a stake in the company.
  • Finding the right mentors is a dynamic process that involves building rapport and shared understanding.

"I think the best mentorship from people is from folks that you're able to have a deep relationship with and that they have context on the business."

The quote emphasizes the importance of context and relationships in establishing valuable mentorship.

What Keeps Dylan Up at Night

  • Dylan is concerned about Figma's pace in advancing toward its mission, not necessarily due to competition.

"Usually some variation of that. We're not moving fast enough, not necessarily in a competitive dynamic, but more of trying to figure out how do we advance and get closer to our mission faster."

The quote reveals Dylan's focus on mission-driven progress and the urgency to move quickly.

Perception of Success

  • Bill Gates comes to mind when Dylan thinks of success due to his impact on the computing industry and Microsoft's rapid growth.

"I think Bill Gates. Not just because of the riches, but also just the way that he took over the computing industry and just the amount of strength that Microsoft was able to gather in their early years and how fast they moved."

Dylan admires Bill Gates for his significant influence on the tech industry and Microsoft's success.

Figma's Roadmap and Global Impact

  • Figma's future involves making the design process more accessible and supporting the rise of digital businesses globally.
  • The goal is to empower more people with tools like Figma, providing training materials, and fostering a creative and collaborative community.

"The thing that I'm trying to figure out is how can we make it so that Figma empowers, that it makes it so that they are able to access this new economy through tools like Figma."

The quote outlines Dylan's vision for Figma's role in enabling global access to design and technology.

Conclusion and Acknowledgments

  • Harry Stebbings expresses gratitude to Dylan Field for sharing insights and looks forward to Figma's future developments.
  • Dylan thanks Harry for the opportunity to be on the show.

"Dylan, as I said, I heard so many wonderful things, I think, from literally almost every investor in Figma, which is always a testament to you, the founder." "Thank you so much for the time and for having me."

Harry's closing remarks appreciate Dylan's contributions to the podcast and his leadership at Figma. Dylan reciprocates with thanks for the platform to discuss his perspectives.

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