Figma CEO Dylan Field discusses fundraising, hiring and marketing in stealth mode

'We didn't use a proper NDA or anything'

You’d be hard pressed to hang out with a designer and not hear the name Figma.

The company behind the largely browser-based design tool has made a huge splash in the past few years, building a massive war chest with more than $130 million from investors like A16Z, Sequoia, Greylock, Kleiner Perkins and Index.

The company was founded in 2012 and spent several years in stealth, raising both its seed and Series A without having any public product or user metrics.

At Early Stage, we spoke with co-founder and CEO Dylan Field about the process of hiring and fundraising while in stealth and how life at the company changed following its launch in 2016. Field, who was 20 when he founded the company, also touched on the lessons he’s learned from his team about leadership. Chief among them: the importance of empowering the people you hire.

You can check out the full conversation in the video embedded below, as well as a lightly edited transcript.

Raising a Series A a year behind schedule while still in stealth

I actually had approached John Lilly from Greylock in our seed round. For those who don’t know, John Lilly was the CEO of Mozilla and an amazing guy. He’s on a lot of really cool boards and has a bunch of interesting experience for Figma, with very deep roots in design. I had approached him for the seed round, and he basically said to us, “You know, I don’t think you guys know what you’re doing, but I’m very intrigued, so let’s keep in touch.” This is the famous line that you hear from every investor ever. It’s like “Yeah, let’s keep in touch, let me know if I can be helpful.” Sometimes, they actually mean it. In John’s case, he actually would follow up every few months or I would follow up with him. We’d grab coffee, and he helped me develop the strategy to a point that got us to what we are today. And that was a collaboration. I could really learn a lot from him on that one.

When we started off the idea was: Let’s have this global community around design, and you’ll be able to use the tool to post to the community and someday we’ll think about how people can pay us. Talking with John got me to the point where I realized we need to start with a business tool. We’ll build the community later. Now, we’re starting to work toward that.

At some point, John told me, “Hey, if you ever think about raising again, let me know.” A few weeks later, I told him maybe we would raise because I just wanted to work with him. We talked to a few other investors. I think it’s pretty important that there’s always a competitive dynamic in the round. But really, it was just him that we were really considering for that round. He really did us a solid. He really believed in us. At the time, it wasn’t like there were metrics to look at. He had conviction in the space, a conviction in the attack, and he had conviction in me and Evan, which I feel very, very honored by. He’s a dear mentor to this day, and he’s on our board. And it’s been a really deep relationship.

How to recruit while in stealth mode

This is one of the hardest parts of being in stealth. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the thing to learn and take away from this conversation is that you should go be in stealth for three years. I would avoid that if you can, and one of the big reasons is recruiting. I remember going to see candidates and we would talk. I realized at some point that the time to me getting my laptop out and opening my computer and showing them Figma really mattered in the outcome. People make judgments so quickly. I started to kind of A/B test it a little bit. I noticed for the candidates that I showed Figma within the first few minutes versus the candidates where we just talked for a while, the latter would bounce because they didn’t believe that Figma was a real thing. People who saw Figma right away were like “Whoa, you guys built something really cool. I’m actually intrigued now.”

I had to kind of get around that in the conversations, which was pretty tough. I can’t imagine how you would do it if you couldn’t show people the product, even in that stealthy context. I would just kind of like look at them in the eyes and tell them that what I was showing them is confidential. We didn’t use a proper NDA or anything. You just kind of went out on a limb. If someone’s going to tell people about your thing, they’re going to tell the people about your thing, whether or not they’re under NDA probably. Right?

‘It’s really important that you have marketing before launch.’

First of all, I think it’s really important that you have marketing before launch. There are a lot of things that you have to do in order to get the position of a product right. You need to think through the competitive landscape, obviously, but you also really need to come up with sort of a point of view on why you exist in the world. A position statement, or a point of view. From there, you have to figure out the supporting points of this position. That should impact the way you talk on your careers page, the way that you talk in the first blog post you write about the company, or if you’re pitching a journalist. All of these different touch points need to link back to that single message. That’s because, as your customers are encountering you, you need to be able to have that clarity. It’s also really important that, in addition to having that singular message, you really think through the launch strategy, and that launch strategy might take months to develop. It’s not like it happens overnight.

We were really, really lucky to have an amazing marketing hire that we brought in maybe three to six months before our launch of a closed beta. Not only was she great at the marketing side, but she was also really good operator in general, a total athlete. Her name is Claire Butler, and she’s now our director of community of Figma. Having her in the company early was super instrumental on the product engineering side. One thing that people don’t always realize is that you need to scale your decision making bit, and also need to give your employees more freedom and flexibility. It’s very easy to fall into the trap, which many founders do, where people come to you with a question and you give them the answer. You might say, “Well, why is that so bad? I’ve thought a lot about this problem. I have a lot of things in my head. I just tell them.”

His early mistakes

The reality is that when you’ve hired smart, creative people, you empower them. When you get to the point where the company is 10-15 people, you start having basic processes in place about simple things. Like, here’s how we kick off our project, or here’s how we define what the problem that we’re solving is. You also need to have some kind of process through which you check in with each other to make sure that you’re in sync and things are not going off track. But you also need to have some flexibility and freedom to explore what the options might be for solving this problem. It can’t just come from you.

I definitely made that mistake quite a bit early on. I didn’t learn that technique until our first manager, who really had a long history in the space, really helped us develop those processes and build those muscles. Before that, I think my team was a bit frustrated with me, honestly. Maybe more than a bit. Because I wasn’t empowering them enough. That’s one of the things that also changes. You have to empower people more.

How to define company culture early

I think in the early early stages, when you’re just a few hires, the question of company culture is so undefined because every person you hire is changing your culture in the early stages. It’s almost like you have all these different force vectors, and they’re not necessarily aligning, and you don’t know what the span is yet. You don’t know what commonalities bind you together. I think there are basic questions that you’re citing, implicitly, when you hire people. Are we a competitive culture or a collaborative culture? Are we a culture that’s cool with ego? Or are we very humble about ourselves? Is it a culture that’s just about the work and go home? Are we going to be more of a family? And if we’re more of a family, what does it even mean? Are we a culture where we’re heads down all the time? Or do we talk a lot? There are all these different things that get impacted and built slowly as you hire every single person. You have to be pretty deliberate about this stuff, because otherwise you might find yourself in a place where things don’t feel good.

One of the things that we did eventually was we tried to create sort of like very formal “vision mission values.” On the vision/mission side, I think that you have to decide that as a founder on your own. Figma’s original vision was “eliminate the gap between imagination and reality.” That was a bit too abstract for people. I still like it a lot. But eventually, we changed it to “make design accessible to all.” Our mission is to help teams collaborate visually.

For the value side, that’s not something you can decide on your own. In my opinion, you really need to go through a process where you involve your team. For us, that meant we create a survey and then try to figure out from that survey what is it that people are saying? What are the main clusters that we can build momentum around? I ended up picking three. A lot of companies have more than three, but for us, I wanted it to be something that was memorable for people. That no one would forget. We actually made them the three primary shapes because we’re a design company. So our values are a circle, a triangle and a square. The circle is foster inclusivity. The triangle is be bold. The square is have fun. Notice, I didn’t say anything like integrity or respect or customer centricity. I assume that if you’re working for Figma, you’ve got integrity, and you’ll be respectful. I’m assuming you’ll be customer centric.

As we scale, perhaps we have to think more about whether those things are stated values as well.

On fostering inclusivity

We think about bringing your whole self to work. In the spirit of “foster inclusivity,” that’s something that matters to us a lot when people are not feeling able to do that. We study it really carefully. In the context of Black Lives Matter, and the tragic killings, that was an area where it was sort of like reflexive in terms of the fact that we need to go make space for this and we need to talk about it as a group. We need to figure out what adjustments we can make to our D&I strategies, where we’re falling short, what should we continue doing and also what do we stop doing? What do we need to start doing that’s new? These are all things we think about a lot. There’s no magic solution to anything on this stuff.

‘Ironically, we had to work to have fun.’

I also want to talk to the “have fun” value for a second because it’s a weird one. And it also relates back to our culture. So in the earliest days of Figma, we were a very heads-down office. We were trying to ship some some software. If you walked in the office, you could have heard a pin drop. It was really quiet. There was no fun being had. So when I told everybody, “Here are three values,” have fun was a little bit aspirational for us at the time.

But that came out of a real need that I was trying to solve. If we can’t be a more fun culture, if we can’t get to a place where people enjoy working here, no one’s gonna stay. So that is something that now would feel natural and if you went to one of our all-hands or any team meeting, you would feel like it’s pretty fun, I think. But it wasn’t always that way. We had to work toward that. Ironically, we had to work to have fun.

How to successfully run a closed beta

We basically went around and talked to every team we could to try to convince them to use Figma. One of the earliest teams that used Figma was Krypton, which is now called Coda. I remember going to their office, showing them Figma in person with my co-founder. At the end of the meeting, they said they were interested in Figma and they’d try it out. We were just like, “Oh my god!” On the way back, we were driving back to the city, and we got an email that essentially said they were having trouble using their fonts on Figma and they’d have to evaluate again in a few months. I gave the phone to my co-founder Evan and said tell them we’re on our way back. We turned the car around and went to fix the problem and they ended up becoming our first customer.

At the start of a closed beta, you just gotta hustle. You have to do everything you can to get people using the software. I think after that, as you start getting more proof points, and more people using it, then you need to have some kind of launch. You have to show people the future of the product. For any product launch, you have to have something that sort of hints at what this could be and why it will be exciting. Without that, it’s going to be a tough sell, and people won’t really get too excited about it.

So, if you have those ingredients, put it out into the world. If you have a good email list, that’s great. But know this: if you wait a long time to send out your actual invite to the closed beta, people forget who you are. We only have so many brands we associate in our head and everyday we’re inundated with new things. If you wait six months, your conversion rate will meaningfully drop when you send out a bunch of invites. Finally, watch the metrics. See how people are using it, and how much they’re using it. If people login once and they never use it again, that’s not a great sign. You probably want to talk to them to figure out what’s going on and why they aren’t using it.