Verified Expert Brand Designer: Studio Rodrigo

Ritik Dholakia worked as a startup product manager before he co-founded Studio Rodrigo, a branding and product design agency based in NYC. Unlike traditional branding firms, Studio Rodrigo is proud of its product design chops, especially when it comes to helping early-stage startups build version one of their product. It’s not an easy balancing act since most companies eventually want to bring their product design talent in-house, but it turns out, Studio Rodrigo can help with that too. Learn more about the studio in our Q&A with founder Ritik Dholakia.

Studio Rodrigo’s unique approach:

“Studio Rodrigo listened to all of our goals and dreams, concerns and uncertainties, and created a brand identity, website, and marketing materials that were true to our vision but better than anything we could have imagined.” Tze Chun, NYC, Founder, Uprise Art

“Basically, we’re a full-stack product design team. We have people who can do brand identity from a pure graphic design and visual communications standpoint, and who can also connect the dots between design and technology, business, and customer needs. We don’t have a traditional agency model with a project and account management overhead. You work directly with our designers.”

On Studio Rodrigo’s ideal client:

“We like working with clients that are solving big, meaty, challenging problems. We’ve got a smart team that likes to wrap their heads around the kinds of technologies that are pushing industries forward. For us, that’s currently technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

designer fast facts 30

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already. 


Interview with Studio Rodrigo Co-founder Ritik Dholakia

Oaxaca4

Yvonne Leow: First things first, how did you get into brand design and product development?

Ritik Dholakia: I’ve been in digital design and product development for about 20 years now. I actually started my career as a product manager at a startup. I worked for two venture-backed startups as the first product manager. I was part of the Series A team, managing product development, acquiring initial customers, and building market traction.

The first startup was an enterprise software platform for customers doing triple bottom line reporting. The second one was one of the earliest social networking platforms, pre-Facebook, and around the same time as Friendster, LinkedIn, and Spoke.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Stitzlein Studio

After spending years working for in-house design teams and well-known brand agencies such as Nike, Google, and Pentagram, Joe and Leslie Stitzlein, who are also husband and wife, decided to launch their own branding studio. You’ve seen their work in many places; from launching the identities for Netflix, Mac OS X, Nike Flyknit, dwell and Lilly.

Stitzlein Studio has ushered in a new chapter for the couple who now works with a global network of independent designers, illustrators, and developers to help companies develop or expand their brands. It doesn’t matter whether it’s designing an identity or launching a new product, the founders of Stitzlein Studio are eager to share their vast experiences and take on a new challenge.

Advice for startup founders

“Be yourself, and be courageous. That is not easy, especially when you have investors to satisfy and payroll to make [we’re business owners too at the end of the day and totally get it]. We’ve seen founders try to mimic successful brands rather than spending time and energy on what makes them unique. Instead of trying to look like Google, figure out what you are and amplify the shit out of that. It’s surprising how many companies underestimate themselves when what they do is amazing. Our job is to find what makes them distinctive and pour gas on it.”

Stitzlein Studio’s branding philosophy

“Each brand has its own DNA, just as each person is unique. A company’s DNA comes to life both on a surface level by how they look, but also how the brand interacts with people in the world.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Stitzlein Studio Creative Directors Joe and Leslie Stitzlein

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and why the two of you decided to create a studio together?

Joe Stitzlein: Leslie and I had been working at a lot of different places before this. I had been in-house at Nike for seven years and spent three years at Google. There’s not a lot of opportunities to take risks in life, and we thought why not pivot from climbing the in-house ladder and share everything we’ve learned about branding with smaller startups as well as larger companies.

One aspect of our work that we really enjoy is taking a wonderful technical innovation and translating it into communications that are beautiful, helpful and inspiring. This is true for everything from a new running shoe to a new cryptocurrency; we love boiling complicated innovations down into a striking image or experience.

We wanted to take some of those lessons from the Nikes of the world, and the nonprofits and interactive clients Leslie had, and bring those to smaller scale clients. It was a fun opportunity.

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: NoGood

NoGood CEO Mostafa Elbermawy describes how they evaluate a client’s growth challenges by quoting Zen teacher Hunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are only a few.” Rather than deferring to in-house playbooks, NoGood adopts an open mind combined with a methodical, data-driven approach to find untapped growth opportunities for its clients. Learn more about how NoGood came to be and why they’re willing to say no to potential clients.

On NoGood’s approach to growth:

“Our work is methodical. It’s intentional. We have to talk about it. We are very transparent about what we do and it’s completely process oriented. Hacking is a misnomer. Growth is not about clever shortcuts. It has to be sustainable and repeatable, and if it’s not, we won’t do it.”

On NoGood’s proudest accomplishment:

“They helped us launch our business. They are our CMO and our CTO. Would recommend to anyone.” Erica Tsypin, Washington D.C., Co-Founder & COO, Steer

“Our success in jumpstarting Steer’s business is one of our proudest accomplishments this year. Steer is an electric car subscription startup that asked us to increase their activations. Basically, our job was to generate new active members, which not only meant encouraging more users to download the app, upload a license, and get approved, but it also meant delivering a car to a member’s door, having them drive that car and leaving a review. We were able to demonstrate signup traction for Steer and help them launch in under three months.”

 

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with NoGood CEO and Growth Lead Mostafa Elbermawy

Yvonne Leow: To kick things off, how did you get into growth?

Mostafa Elbermawy: Well, I went to school for archaeology, but hieroglyphics weren’t paying the bills, so I taught myself how to code and started a web design studio after college. I started building websites for clients, and they started asking me how to drive more users to their sites to help grow their business.

I started tinkering with growth out of curiosity, and eventually joined the digital experience team at American Express. That job helped me gain some marketing and growth experience, and I ended up falling in love with that part of the job.

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Growth Pilots

Growth Pilots is one of the more exclusive performance marketing agencies in San Francisco, but they know how to help high-growth startups excel at paid marketing. CEO and founder Soso Sazesh credits his personal experiences as an entrepreneur along with his team’s deep understanding of high-growth company needs and challenges as to what sets Growth Pilots apart. Whether you’re a founder of a seed or Series D stage startup, learn more about Growth Pilots’ approach to growth and partnerships.

Advice to early-stage founders

“I think a lot of times, especially at the early stage, founders don’t have a lot of time so they’re willing to find the path of least resistance to get their paid acquisition channels up and running. If things are not properly set up and managed, this can lead to a false negative in terms of writing off a channel’s effectiveness or scalability. It’s worth talking to an expert, even if it’s just for advice, to ensure you don’t fall into this trap.”

On Growth Pilots’ operations

“They have good business acumen, move fast and work as an extension to your internal team.” Guillaume McIntyre, SF, Head of Acquisition Marketing, Instacart

“Something we pride ourselves on is working with relatively few clients at a time so we can really focus all of our team’s efforts and energy on doing the highest quality work. Each of our team members works on a maximum of two to three accounts, and therefore they’re able to get very invested in each client’s business and integrated into their team. We really try to simulate the internal team dynamics as much as possible and pairing that with our external capabilities and expertise.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Growth Pilots Founder and CEO Soso Sazesh

Yvonne Leow: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got into growth.

Soso Sazesh: I grew up in northern Minnesota where there is no tech industry whatsoever and then after high school, I came out to Silicon Valley and got exposed to the epicenter of the technology industry. I became very interested in startups and hustled to find startup internships so I could get experience and learn how they operated.

After a couple of startup internships, I got accepted to UC Berkeley and that gave me even more exposure to the startup ecosystem with all of the startup events and resources that UC Berkeley had to offer. I worked on a couple of startup projects while I was at UC Berkeley, and I taught myself scrappy product management and how to get software built using contract developers.

Verified Expert Growth Marketing Agency: Bell Curve

Bell Curve founder Julian Shapiro describes his team as talented growth marketers who have a long tail expertise of various channels and who aren’t afraid to play part-time therapists. As an agency, they’re comfortable grounding founder expectations by explaining “No, virality isn’t a dependable growth strategy,” but “Hey, we can come up with a better strategy together.”

Bell Curve, the agency, also runs Demand Curve, a remote growth marketing training program that teaches students (and marketing professionals) the ins and outs of performance marketing.

For a glimpse of how Bell Curve thinks about growth marketing, check out Julian’s guest posts about how startups can actually get content marketing to work and how founders can hire a great growth marketer.

What makes Bell Curve different:

“Bell Curve runs a growth bootcamp which we took in February. It radically improved our growth rate, gave us access to enough data to experiment with, and as a result we built an engine for growth that we could continue to tune.” Gil Akos, SF, CEO & Co-founder, Astra
“We run a program where we train companies to run ads on every channel. So, what makes Bell Curve unique is that we, by necessity, have a deep understanding of many more channels than the average agency. We have an archive of tactics and approaches that we’ve accumulated for how to do them just as well as the big ad channels.

In effect, companies come to us when they need expertise beyond Facebook, Google and Instagram, which we still bring to the table, but when they also need to figure out how to make Quora ads profitable, how to get Reddit working, how to get YouTube videos working, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc. These are channels people don’t specialize in enough and so we also bring that long tail of expertise.”

On common misconceptions about growth:

“A common mistake people make coming into growth is thinking that growth hacks are a meaningful thing. The ultimate growth hack is having the self-discipline to pursue growth fundamentals properly and completely. So, things like properly A/B testing, identifying your most enticing value propositions and articulating them clearly and concisely, bringing in deep channel expertise for Facebook, Instagram, Google Search, and a couple of other channels. These are the tenants of making digital growth work. Not one-off hacks.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup growth marketing agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Bell Curve Founder Julian Shapiro

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into this game of growth?

Julian Shapiro: I actually started by running growth for friends’ companies because they had a hard time finding experienced growth marketers. After a year and a half of doing this, I realized it’d be a more stable source of income if I formed an agency. It’d also allow me to pattern match so I could exchange learnings among clients and have a better net performance.

It all came together very quickly. Once Bell Curve hit about 10 clients, we had enough strategic and customer acquisition overlap that we were able to share tactics, double our volume of A/B testing, and get better results. It also gave us the ability to hire out a full-fledged team so we could start specializing, whereas, as a contractor, I was too much of a generalist. I wasn’t able to go deep on certain channels, like Snapchat or Pinterest ads.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Milkinside

Gleb Kuznetsov refuses to settle for less. After spending years leading product design for startups and corporate clients, Gleb started a boutique branding agency, Milkinside, that helps clients translate new technologies into useful products.

Gleb and his team of experienced creators are committed to serving the end user, which is why they love taking products from zero to launch. Their services are expensive, partly due to their expertise in product development, motion graphic design and animation, but we spoke to Gleb about why Milkinside is more than just a branding agency and how they strive to be the best.

Why Gleb created Milkinside:

“I wanted to create a team that wasn’t just an agency that companies could contract, but a partner that would support the client’s product development from beginning to end. Everything from the product narrative, product branding, product design, UI user experience, motion design, design languages, motion design languages, etc. I looked around the industry and didn’t see what I was envisioning so I created my dream company, Milkinside, in 2018.”

“Gleb has one of those rare skills that can make ordinary, plain parts of a design come to life and doing so in a beautiful and useful way. Always pushing the boundaries.” Jacob Hvid, Stockholm, Sweden, CEO and Co-founder at Abundo

On common founder mistakes:

“There are a lot of founders who believe they created useful technology and are absolutely certain people will use it. But everything is moot if users aren’t able to understand your product narrative and how it fits into their lives. Establishing a product narrative at an early stage is essential. A lot of founders will try to create a minimum viable product as soon as possible, but they aren’t thinking about the narrative, branding, the product design, and how everything comes together.”

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Milkinside Founder and Director of Product Design Gleb Kuznetsov

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got into the world of branding and design?

Gleb Kuznetsov: I was 10 years old when I started programming and learning different coding languages. At the age of 15, I shifted to design and became pretty passionate about what could be possible in the digital world. I worked as a product designer for 15 years before I started Milkinside. I worked for big consumer product companies across various verticals and platforms. When I was a chief design officer at a startup, I was responsible for everything from the product design, UI design, branding, advertising to producing product explainer videos.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: The Working Assembly

The Working Assembly began as a side hustle. Jolene Delisle and Lawrence O’Toole juggled full-time jobs while collaborating on projects for startup clients, and they eventually realized there was an opportunity to help companies with branding, marketing, and advertising. In the past four years, TWA has grown from a team of two to a team of twenty in NYC’s Flatiron district. We spoke with Creative Director and Partner Jolene Delisle about their start, their new initiative 24-Hour Assembly—a branding program for minority and women founders, what makes an ideal TWA client, and why she’s excited about the new frontier of experiential and immersive branding.   

On common founder mistakes:

“Clients often come to us and say, “I love the branding of this.” And we’re like, “Well, that’s not really your target. It doesn’t really make sense for you as a brand.” And I think it can be hard for founders to separate their own personal aesthetic from what is actually going to be most effective for their business.”

On TWA’s core values:

“There’s an opportunity when you start your own business to be able to pick your clients, and we started working with a lot of female-founded startups right away. Zola and TheSkimm are both led by women founders. We developed a natural passion for working with these types of companies. It helps that our team is also comprised of mostly women, which I think is really outside the norm. For us, we really focus on diversity and inclusivity. It’s a core tenet of our company and an integral part of the conversation.”

“TWA is great at collaborating, ideating, and executing brand identities. They have outstanding taste, beautiful design skills and understand the marketplace well.” Michael Wayne, LA, CEO, Kin

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.

Interview with TWA’s Creative Director and Founder Jolene Delisle

Yvonne Leow: Tell me a little bit about your backstory. What led you down this path of design and branding?

Jolene Delisle: So, I have more of a background in advertising and communications, and my founding partner, Lawrence, has a background in branding. In the beginning, we were both working full time, but we would collaborate on projects for startup clients. We eventually realized that there was a need to create branding elements before we could ever develop a marketing strategy so that became the impetus for starting Working Assembly

We’re a relatively new studio. We have about 20 people full time. We’re based in the Flatiron district in NYC. And we work with emerging and evolving brands. The emerging brands are startups. About 40% of our clients are early-stage companies that have either received some kind of angel investment or are pre-series A. Sometimes, founders come to us when they don’t even have a name yet, but they have a great idea and a core MVP. Other times, startups are growing very quickly, and we’ll build out their brand and create additional assets.

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Ramotion

Ramotion is a remote branding and product design agency that has worked with Bay Area tech startups since 2014. While they typically do branding for funded, fast-growing startups, Ramotion has helped companies ranging from Bitmoji’s early brand identity to Mozilla’s rebrand. We spoke to Ramotion’s CEO Denis Pakhaliuk about their iterative approach, his favorite branding projects, and more.  


Ramotion’s branding philosophy:

“We are a big fan of starting small: designing a small package, releasing it, and then iterating on top of that. So, founders need to be focused on what’s really necessary right now for their next round of investment or product releases.”

On common founder mistakes:

“I think some founders think they need everything, but they actually need an MVP and product design. The same goes for brand identity. They need to have some key elements like colors, typeface, and the logo. There is no need to do everything in the beginning, because the logo and brand identity becomes meaningful after it’s used. It’ll eventually improve.”

“They’re the reason we have such an amazing logo today.” Kevin Sproles, Austin, Founder & CEO at Volusion

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.


Interview with Ramotion’s CEO Denis Pakhaliuk

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me about your journey and how you came to create Ramotion?

Denis Pakhaliuk: Yea, I started as a CG designer more than 10 years ago. I was doing computer graphics, CG modeling, digitalization of architectural design and automotive design. I was initially very focused on German cars and industrial design. Once iPhone 3G came out, I switched to doing UI design for mobile apps, which was a very hot topic at the time.

From that point I met a guy who just said, “Hey, I’m thinking of building an agency,” and so we decided to do it together. It started with a few people and now we have up to 30. We focus on different products, from small companies to more established brands, like Salesforce, among others. So yeah, it’s been a fun journey.

Yvonne Leow: At what point did Ramotion start working with startups?

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Red Antler

In 2007, Emily Heyward, JB Osborne, and Simon Endres began their own entrepreneurial journey began and they left their corporate jobs to start a brand design agency called Red Antler. They not only believed in the power of branding to drive growth and scale, but they also wanted to work exclusively with startups. Since then, Red Antler has become an industry powerhouse designing and launching brand identities for companies, like Casper and Brandless, into the world. We spoke with Emily, Red Antler’s Chief Brand Officer, to learn more about why they love collaborating with founders, what entrepreneurs can expect from partnering with them, and more.

Plus: Read Emily’s guest post about how branding drives success for early-stage companies.


Why Emily and her co-founders started Red Antler:

“We saw that there was an incredible opportunity to add value by thinking about brand from the very start. We started Red Antler with the vision, from day one, that brand could be a driver of business growth and that the earlier you think about brand, the better positioned you are to launch, compete, and scale.

“Red Antler was like our 6th co-founder. They helped us name & do the visual identity for Casper early on and have always been useful since as thought partners.” Philip Krim, NYC, Co-founder & CEO, Casper

On collaborating with entrepreneurs:

“My favorite thing about our clients is their passion. These are people who are starting companies because they believe that this company needs to be in the world and that it’s going to add value to people’s lives. We work with people who see a problem that they cannot help but devote their life to solving. To me, that energy is so infectious, and it’s what makes our jobs so rewarding. We’re able to put our creative power behind pursuits that are worthwhile.”

 

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview, and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already. 


Interview with Red Antler’s Chief Brand Officer Emily Heyward

Yvonne Leow: Let’s talk about your path to design. Could tell us a bit about your backstory?

Emily Heyward: I started my career in advertising right out of college as an account planner at a big, global agency, working on massive global brands like General Mills, Procter & Gamble and De Beers. While I learned an incredible amount and met some of the smartest, most creative people I know, I ultimately grew frustrated with solving the wrong problems. We were responsible for coming up with communications about a business, but we weren’t able to affect the business itself in any meaningful way.

With Red Antler, my co-founders and I wanted to make sure that we were actually helping to create things that the world needs, not just trying to come up with new stories about old, broken stuff.

Yvonne Leow: Right, and what inspired the creation of Red Antler?

Emily Heyward: My co-founder JB and I were leading the New York office for a New Zealand ad agency that was looking to expand to the States. The startup scene in New York was just getting going, and because we were small, we started getting introduced to other small teams of entrepreneurs. We’d sit down with these founders, and what we realized is the last thing they should be thinking about at that stage was big ad campaigns.

Three keys to cultivating an effective product development culture

Editor’s note: This guest post is a part of our latest initiative to demystify design and find the best brand designers and agencies in the world who work with early-stage companies — nominate a talented brand designer you’ve worked with.

Chances are you’ve heard one or more of the following statements at work (or some flavor of them):

  • “We’re an engineering-driven company.”
  • “We’re a product-driven company.”
  • “We’re a design-driven company.”

While at first glance the statements above may seem innocuous, what they really imply is a power dynamic where a particular perspective carries more weight and influence in decision-making than others. How did it get that way in the first place? Was the founder a PM in a previous company? Did the first hires all happen to be engineers? Or does the most vocal person happen to be from a particular discipline? These are some examples of how biases get institutionalized. They can get seeded early and compound over time, or happen quickly as new leaders get installed as the company grows.

Whether intentional or not, these imbalances can disempower other disciplines, create fiefdoms, and erode trust between colleagues. Over time, these divisions kill productivity and quality. Internal factions waste valuable time and energy jockeying for influence and control, while the product gets fragmented and confusing for users.

On the flip side, when disciplines and teams are aligned there is less value placed on which person or discipline “made the call.” Over time, teams move quickly, learn together, get through iteration cycles effortlessly, spend more time producing high-quality results that reach users, and less time infighting. It’s like being in a state of flow, but for teams. So what is it that these high-performing teams align on? You’ve probably heard it before, but it’s worth unpacking:

The user.

Ideally, the most important driver of decisions isn’t one person or discipline in your organization—it should be your user. Your job is to help them navigate. Everyone building the product or making decisions about it, regardless of discipline, should understand who they’re building for, and why what they’re doing is contributing to improving that user’s experience.

User-centric thinking is the hallmark of the world-class companies because they love and obsess about you—the user. Amazon calls this customer obsession. Ideo calls this human-centered design. During my time at Pinterest, the most important company value was to “Put Pinners first.”

By focusing on serving the user, it removes the pressure on any individual or discipline to always make the right call. Focusing on what is right for the user, rather than who is right removes ego from the equation. Users ultimately decide anyway—they vote with their behavior and attitudes.

Serving your users better is a goal with no finish line. Understand that the decisions you make will sometimes improve their experiences and sometimes degrade them. Nobody has 100% hit rate, and nobody can predict the future with complete certainty. In a culture of good decision-making, the goal isn’t to get any single decision exactly right (although that’s always nice), but to make consistently good (and better) decisions over time, especially the important ones.

So how do you get your company oriented around users? Consider three important factors: (1) people with the right mindset, (2) an approach to balanced decision-making that starts with users, and (3) the mechanics and properties of high-quality decisions.

1. Identify and empower T-shaped people

Differences in opinion are inevitable. But in order to have consistently productive discussions, debates, disagreements, and ultimately decisions, you’ll need T-shaped people. A T-shaped person refers to someone who has a deep domain expertise in at least one field (the depth of their T), as well as a strong ability to collaborate with people across other areas of expertise (the breadth of their T). Here’s some examples of T-shaped people, who might also happen to make a strong team:

T-shaped people tend to be the best teammates—they have deep knowledge that they are willing to share and explain to their counterparts, as well as a built-in curiosity that welcomes new perspectives. This is especially important in leadership and decision-making roles. What’s more, their curiosity and empathy doesn’t just apply to their colleagues, it naturally extends to users.

What T-shaped people realize is that no single person or discipline is more important than the other, nor should they strive to be. Sure, there are moments where one’s expertise makes their input more credible, but It’s how their collective talents serve the user that ultimately matter most. People (and hopefully T-shaped people) are the most basic ingredients of your culture. Choose wisely.

Ways to identify T-shaped people

  • Look for curiosity and empathy. Top quality execution and results are a given, but don’t stop looking there. What was the user problem they were trying to solve? How did they arrived at that solution? What were the insights that led them to take their projects in a particular direction? What promising directions did they decide not to pursue, and why? Were they involved in research and understanding the users? Can they clearly articulate the needs of the customer? Does it feel like they know them intimately and care?
  • Look for humility. On projects, what assumptions did they make that were completely wrong? How did the user or other disciplines show them a different and valuable perspective? Do they share the credit? Did they help others succeed? Individual talent is important, but building great products is a team sport.

2. Make balanced decisions that start with users

User-centered (aka customer-centric, human-centered) thinking is a way of framing problems with a clear starting point: understanding and empathizing with user needs. If T-shaped people are your basic ingredients, then the user-centered thinking is a recipe—a way to combine and enhance the ingredients to produce amazing results. Here’s what it looks like:

Have your team start by asking “what is the user problem we’re trying to solve?” It’s a deceivingly simple focusing mechanism. It may take some rigorous debate to align on the right problem, but once that happens, decisions from all disciplines have a clear tie back to driving user value first—making the product faster, cheaper, more efficient, more delightful, easier to understand—then orienting their collective effort around providing that value.

Less user-centric teams will do the opposite: look for ways to make their own work easier or more efficient, look to optimize their own sub-team metrics, or satisfy their own personal curiosities—and leave the user to orient themselves around their organizational efficiencies. If you’ve ever felt a broken sign-up flow or confusing onboarding experience, then you know what I’m talking about.

While user-centric thinking starts with users, no single lens is more important than the others. It’s entirely possible to satisfy a user completely, while simultaneously killing your business. That’s not a good decision. Or you could dream up amazing ways to delight your user, but in ways that aren’t achievable with today’s technology—that’s no good either. The overlap of  perspectives is what leads to effective decisions and great solutions. T-shaped decision-makers will know how to make those appropriate tradeoffs.

3. Make high-quality decisions

Evaluating decisions through multiple lenses is important to getting to consistently good, balanced decisions over time. What decision best satisfies your user’s needs, is good for the business (overall, not just for your sub-team or business unit), and technically sound? The overlap is where high-quality decisions are born. But there are additional mechanics and properties that make decisions high-quality.

In my experience, high-quality product decisions are:

  • User-centric. First and foremost, rooted in understanding and serving user needs. Not just listening to what users say or watching what they do, but understanding how they think and feel.
  • Considered. They proactively seek input from, and communicate with, relevant stakeholders and examine the possibilities through multiple lenses before making decisions. They anticipate immediate effects, but also secondary and tertiary effects as well.
  • Balanced. It’s good for the user, good for the business overall, and technically sound.
  • Timely. They don’t take too long, but they aren’t made in haste either.
  • Calculated. It’s important to take risks, but don’t bet the farm unless it’s absolutely necessary. Start small and learn. Double down when it works, readjust when it doesn’t.
  • Communicated before action. They are stated as clearly as possible up-front, before taking action. Their rationale is shared, citing intended effects and flagging major risks.
  • Humble. Good decisions focus on what is right, not who is right. They embrace failure as part of the process, so long as there is valuable learning. For example, a decision may yield a learning that helps you not to pursue a particular direction, saving valuable time and effort.
  • Monitored. They are tracked closely to manage both positive and negative effects.
  • Shared broadly. Their results and learnings are examined and shared broadly (and especially with affected parties), whether results are good or bad; intended or unintended—giving future decisions a stronger starting point.

The case for culture

Very few companies, and even fewer startups, stand the test of time. Products and services today are all dynamic, and expected to evolve with the changing landscape of fickle users and emerging technologies. With limited time and resources, I can already hear people saying, “this seems like a lot of work” and ask, “can we really afford to invest this much thought and energy into culture?”

The bottom line is building great products is hard work. And it’s work that never ends, if you’re doing it well. Over time, your product will morph in small and big ways with each new version, to the point where it may be unrecognizable from your starting point. So what will persist, and why? Your culture—the people, their shared attitudes, values, goals, practices, and decisions—will determine that. So isn’t that worth investing in as much as the product itself? In the end, they’re one in the same.