November 30, 2022

Musings on thriving as a designer startup co-founder

Swarm has existed for over two years this season and it’s been an interesting journey for all of us, including me! I’ve always wanted to share thoughts on what I’ve been experiencing as a co-founder, and what new learnings have been sticking with me so far.

Before, when I was an individual contributor for a startup, the stakes were all about delivering mockups and prototypes. These days, it’s all about creating psychologically safe spaces where people can be their most authentic selves, coaching and mentoring individuals as part of a collective organization, stimulating group excellence, and making sure that design permeates all strategic decisions of the company.

Here are a few learnings on being a design co-founder!

1. It’s all about people. Bring everyone along.

Before, I would use my facilitation skills as a designer to get buy-in from stakeholders from higher up the chain. These days, to me, it’s all about co-creating a vision of the company and product with everyone — every team, every individual from Swarm. Diversity of opinion matters and getting aligned on values makes sure everyone works towards a why that they care about. This makes it easier to get there. To us, we believe in falling in love with the problem, being collaborative, delivering a high level of craft, and being passionate, intense, compassionate, and kind (P.I.C.K.).

2. Cultivate relationships and trust.

One-on-one relationships form the bedrock of all strategy, craft, and the serious fun that gets built from the company. People simply can’t be their authentic selves if as a leader, you don’t put in effort to get to know them personally — what their personal missions are, their motivations, their goals, and why the hell they are in your company anyway. Make sure the work they do is aligned with what they want to get out of life. Trust is bred through consistent care and by modeling the type of behavior you want people to adopt. You have to be reliable and make sure your actions consider the group’s collective context and dreams.

3. Take care of team dysfunctions.

There are many possible ways a team can crumble. Absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results are all examples. More cohesive teams trust one another deeply, engage in healthy unfiltered conflict, commit to decisions and actions, hold one another accountable for delivering, and focusing achievement of collective results. The foundation of all of this is building safe spaces for people to be vulnerable. Vulnerability allows us to voice out true feelings. This is extremely hard to achieve, and if the leaders don’t have enough emotional maturity and intelligence to cultivate it, then it’s truly impossible to build a successful company.

4. Coach, mentor, train!

Growth is better achieved when people arrive at the answers themselves. This is not to say feedback is not important, but rather it’s to encourage leaders to ask more evocative and thought provoking questions that allow people to arrive at these personal answers. We should also never assume that people are just “okay.” It’s a leader’s responsibility to take care of their people and make sure they are at an optimal emotional condition, and are empowered, supported, and lifted up in order to deliver what they need to do. It’s really all about enabling people to do their best work. To coach effectively, building relationships one-on-one and providing timely and relevant feedback should be routine. There's has to be an element of genuine, personal care around each person's growth too.

5. Start with why.

There’s no point in acting on goals if people don’t know why you’re doing it in the first place. How did we come up with this? What's our purpose in this world? Why do we exist? This is where giving strategic context matters. It’s not enough to share quantitative signals or rely on product metrics for why — because it does not inspire or move people. Or deep diving too much on the intricacies of solutions we feel biased towards. You really have to ask why you’re solving this specific problem in the first place. Why are we doing it? To us, we're building Swarm because we want to change the future of work. We connect people with work differently. We're trying to prove to the world that there’s a new way — a different way to connect with opportunity and how to support each other.

6. Be the evangelist for your teams.

Celebrate your people! Recognize their work. Make sure you see the efforts and hard work of people in your company put in and put them in the spotlight — because they deserve it. People have to be acknowledged for their ownership, leadership, and the moves they make that inch everyone closer to the goal. As part of evangelism, leaders need to give people the space needed to work autonomously as well. In a recent retreat, we were able to give out vocal affirmations for one another that allowed each member of the team to know how people really feel about them. Group self-awareness is key, and feedback is a love language that enables this level of individual and team advocacy.

7. Contribute as a designer from a strategic lens.

Design plays a strong role in influencing business decisions and the strategic direction of the company. It’s not just about creating mockups or prototypes — designers have to take an active role in understanding the problem and rethinking the ways in which the company can solve problems. Not just in a marginal sense, but in a totally innovative sense that requires a deep understanding of user goals, motivations, pain points, and mental models. Designers are scientists and visionaries that create the future at the company. Engaging in routine activities that enhance and expand your views matter — especially if you're trying to build a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion.

8. Take care of your co-founder relationships.

As a co-founder, you’re accountable to your new peers — your fellow co-founders. Understand the challenges they’re under, provide support where possible. Be accountable to them and the plans you’ve committed to together, and hold each other to a higher standard. Also, it’s typically lonely at the top, and you have to find solace in the fact that you have each other to keep each other going! Startups typically get destroyed because of co-founder break-ups. Taking care of these relationships mean being aligned with your values and being cognizant of what each of you wants to get out of life. The company can be a vehicle for each person to live out their dream, no matter what they may be. The whole staff relies on the leadership team, so take care of your partners really well!

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