Why your first hire should be a designer and not a developer?

You kick off your startup and you start generating revenue or you raise seed money to get things going. You are in a position that you decide to hire the first employee of the company. If one of the founders is not a business person, the first hire could be a business person or an engineer. If one of the founders is a business person then it becomes a brain-dead decision: hire another engineer! Well, I think you should hire a designer and not an engineer! And here is my case…

Assume this is about a consumer application — web or mobile — and not some platform, API-only, or infrastructure play. If your startup is your typical 2 or 3 founders, one is the “CEO” (aka, the business person) and 1–2 are developers, adding a third (or second) developer to the mix might not speed up things as you expected. For each new developer that you add to a team, the productivity of the team does not increase by a full developer. Often, in the early days, there are costs of setting up tools, frameworks, meetings, and processes.

If you keep growing your business, then hiring a new developer will happen no matter what and you shouldn’t avoid it, but what if you could make the developer(s) 20% more productive? That’s where a designer comes in.

Designers are not just there to make pixels pretty. If you think like that, you need to learn a thing or two about what they actually do. Great Graphical Designers or UX Designers, can bring a world of value to your business. Yes, they should be great Graphical Designers and aces on Adobe’s tools, but they can (and should) be also great at Information Architecture, Copywriting, User Experience, Interaction Design, and “soft” skills like the voice of reason (so you can get out of your own head’s echo-chamber), marketing strategy, and they can be a great boost to team morale — when things look right and you start getting praises for mockups, your homepage or your alpha product, the whole team feels energized.

If your developers don’t have great Photoshop or Illustrator skills, or even a good background in UX (and most developers don’t), they’ll spend countless hours fighting a task they are not good at in the first place. Even if they think it’s cool to do it themselves (and learn a new skill), they are making a decision based on what they want to do and not on what’s best for the company, which is fine as long as you understand that’s what they are doing.

I’d argue that you should bring a designer well before you actually have a product out there. A designer can help you think through the user experience and tasks (“user stories”) on the website, which in turn will drive a lot of the code architecture decisions you need to make. If you start by creating a (bloated) back-end infrastructure, you’ll be constraining what your product can be because there will always be questions about the trade-off of doing the right thing over a long period of time vs. doing the wrong thing quickly, like “Wow, this feature is really cool and users would love it, but it will take us 4 weeks to re-architect the data storage to get the data in the format we need”.

Finally, let me say that hiring a design firm is not the same thing as having a Designer sitting right next to you. A design company will not be present on many business meetings and lunch conversations. They will never “get it” as much as someone in the office would. And I’m not saying they don’t add value, but their value is primarily based on executing someone else’s plan, not coming up with product features themselves.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.