Designing for Early-Stage Startups: Mapping Experience, Collaboration, and Tackling the Unknown

Ida Ström is an experienced Product Designer who has worked for multiple startups in Stockholm and San Francisco, such as Curology and Mercury. She opened up to talk about designing for early-stage startups, working closely with founders, and how to hone in on her product thinking skills.

As a Senior Product Designer at Mercury, Ida works with a variety of topics, like designing workflows and finding solutions to user problems. Her background in marketing and her experience working in sustainable fashion, media, telemedicine, and fintech, give us the impression that this young designer, has the spirit, and the drive of a strong entrepreneur. 

What inspired you to become a designer? 

As a kid, I loved coming up with ideas. “Anyone can have an idea,” said my mom between work calls. As a marketing executive, it probably wasn’t the first time a 20-year-old someone came to her with an idea. “Build something, and then we can talk”, she said and hopped on another call. Tough love, but the right kind of lesson to keep me interested in understanding business dynamics.

I took mom’s advice to heart and started developing my ideas, but my lack of craftsmanship often led me to feel overwhelmed and drained. I realized I needed a skill to make my ideas come to life. I started reading about designers and entrepreneurs and dove deep into the world of startups.

Photo courtesy of Badr Chemmaoui

How did you find the process of stepping into startups? 

After attending a design college in San Francisco, I was desperate to find work. A teacher connected me to Ryan, a founder who gave me my first designer role, as the first designer in the team. Ryan was still working full-time, so the team and I would spend time outside his day-to-day job working together, either on zoom or his apartment. When you get a team of people together in a room with different skills and the same desire to build something great, that energy is addictive. Like everything in life, working at a startup comes with highs and lows. But that energy of working together is a rush I keep chasing. I’ve been lucky enough to work for a few startups, and I would like to share the learnings that I collected along the way.

I’m curious about what those learnings are. Where would you start? 

I would definitely begin with my experience working closely with founders. The magic behind design is its ability to take something fragile and untapped and allow it to shape a form. When joining a small company, one might find oneself talking to founders with big ideas; some will be crystal clear, and some will just have a fragment of potential. As a designer at an early-stage startup, it’s all about working closely with founders and learning how to take their big ideas and turn them into action. 

Photo courtesy of Ignacio Ceballos

It’s common to hear that most startups don’t make it past their second year. What’s your take on the challenges faced by entrepreneurs and their teams? What can you share about the role of designers in those ever-changing scenarios? 

This touches on another learning that I wanted to share. It has to do with designing on an uncarved path.  

Personally, I find that it makes sense to connect to a startup’s mission at its core. The reason why I think this way, has to do with how easily startups pivot, and being too attached to a particular aspect of the business as it stands today, might end up in disappointment tomorrow.

It’s hard to build a company. It takes a lot of grit and patience to make it right. Mistakes are made, ideas are scratched, and often, weeks or months of work have to be thrown out because something didn’t work out. 

Ida Ström

As designers, we dream that the things we design will fall into the hands of a user who will love them. Working for startups, we have to fall in love with the idea that many of the things we design will fall back into our own hands as mistakes to embrace and learn from. The gift of working for a startup trying to find its place in this world is discovering that design is, in its purest form, a way to explore the world. When embracing design as a process, without the urge to make it perfect, we can uncover its raw beauty, be at peace with the outcome, and unlock success—whatever that might look like for each of us.

Having said that, I want to move to the third and last learning I want to share: the role of design.

The beauty and the beast of being a product designer, particularly at a startup, is understanding that design touches all aspects of building a product. I can be an eagle flying high above the clouds, overlooking the big picture of our business; or a fish, swimming in the most crowded parts of the sea, crafting small bits of a larger puzzle. In one meeting, we’ll discuss the company’s vision; in another, iterate on the border color of a design component with a front-end engineer. As designers, we’re uniquely able to be a part of the full spectrum of building a product, and to do it well, we have to embrace it. But there are nuances depending on the type of company and industry. If you want to spend your days in Figma, burnishing designs and moving pixels, a startup might not be for you. However, if you find joy in influencing the company’s trajectory and understand the ins and outs of building a company, you might enjoy working at a startup.

“As a designer, your role is not only to craft designs but also to help drive alignment across teams. When done right, design is deeply rooted in collaboration and democracy.” 

Ida Ström

This topic falls right into the current agenda of Design Matters, as one of the 3 themes for our next conference in Mexico City is “A superhero?, No, a Designer!”. With this theme, we aim to open up the conversation about the role of designers, and tap into their own sense of worth in a region that oftentimes seems to undermine them, or even forget the importance of designers participating in key strategic business moments. How would you define the role of designers after your years of experience? 

The VP of Design at Mercury, Juliana Vislova, says, “A designer’s superpower is to make things tangible”. As a designer, your role is not only to craft designs but also to help drive alignment across teams. When done right, design is deeply rooted in collaboration and democracy.

“Anyone can have an idea,” said my mom. But she forgot to mention that few people are crazy enough to go after them. If you find yourself in a room of people who go for their dreams, I can’t say what will happen for sure, but an adventure lies ahead.

Follow Ida’s work on Twitter, LinkedIn or visit her website.

Cover image: Ida Ström and team members doing a risograph workshop in New York at Lucky Risograph. Photo courtesy of Juliana Vislova.

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