Play puts native iOS product design tool in the palm of your hand

The traditional way to design for the mobile environment involves a lot of back-and-forth as developers design in one program, prototype in another and collaborate in yet a third tool.

A new startup, Play, is touting itself as “the only native iOS product design tool that makes it possible to create, iterate and collaborate directly from your phone.” Legacy software requests workarounds and hacks to do something similar, explained company co-founder and co-CEO Dan LaCivita.

“This is the only design tool that uses the phone as a primary input device,” he told TechCrunch. “It allows you to design, prototype and collaborate from the phone and is the only one that gives product designers a way to experience designs as they are creating them on the medium they are using. You can essentially play in Apple’s sandbox without having to code.”

Users can choose to create from scratch or import designs from tools, like Figma, and use the Play Library for common user interface components like buttons, cards and video players or Page Layouts for something quick and customizable to create fully functional pages. There’s also native iOS features like live maps, augmented reality and camera functionality.

LaCivita started the company in 2019 with Eric Eng, Joon Park and Michael Ferdman, who all worked together in a previous startup called Firstborn where they built websites and mobile products.

“We experienced all of the pain points firsthand,” LaCivita said. “Joon said there had to be a better way. We are continuing to build on traditional graphic design software, so we don’t need another tool, but another approach, like the phone, as an input device.”

Play is in the App Store, but is in private beta with a waitlist of over 25,000 people. They will be let in over the next few months and into next year. It is a freemium model right now, but next year will also have some pricing tiers.

Today, the company announced $9.1 million in funding led by First Round Capital and including Oceans Ventures. The round is a combination of seed rounds from earlier this year and last year.

The funding will go toward scaling the team and continuing to develop new products, like Play for iPad, which was announced two weeks ago, that was a direct ask from customers, LaCivita said. It also recently unveiled its Teams feature to allow people to collaborate with one another.

When the founders first met with Todd Jackson from First Round Capital they were not looking to raise, but the “relationship clicked,” LaCivita said, and they found a partner that they felt would collaborate more as a teammate than as a venture capitalist.

Jackson said he found Play on Twitter and became intrigued. In his previous roles at Dropbox and Facebook, he had worked with designers having the same usability issues.

He sent Play to some of his friends who spent hours building a design and adding animations that were only available on the desktop.

“It never occurred to me that you could do this much on a phone,” he said. “There is a mental model where people think there is just one design tool that does one thing. We often talk about how many ideas for mobile products don’t see the light of day because you can’t share it with someone else. Play unlocks that for everyone.”