When we think about working in a startup versus in a large company most of the benefits or cons are obvious.
- Startups, offer more time flexibility, less structure or processes, a broader scope of work, more access to equity, smaller teams or individual work where you can develop into a leader, fluctuating benefits and salary, limited mentorship.
- While large companies have less time flexibility, strong structure and leadership, stable benefits and salary, clear roles and responsibilities, mature board of directors, and strong mentorship and role models.
What’s not talked about quite as often is whether a startup or corporate job is better for your career as a product designer, in the long run.
We've invited Ida Ström, Senior Product Design at Mercury to share her experience with you about being a designer at a startup, benefits she sees, leadership opportunities, growth tracks, and overall job satisfaction. After working in both environments, first as an Intern at Twitter, then as a product designer in startups in San Francisco, Ida as been exposed to the benefits and shortcomings of growing as a designer in a startup environment.
Ida welcome! Glad to have you here! Could you tell our readers a bit about your story and your career in design. What made you interested in becoming a product designer?
I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. Growing up, I was always doing sports. Because I did competitive sailing and ski racing, I traveled often. When being on the road and whenever I needed a break from it all, I found myself drawing and creating things. Both my parents and their friends worked in advertising, and I was lucky to be surrounded by designers, artists, and creative minds from a young age.
After a lower back injury put an end to my ski racing dreams, I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, to go to art school. I later found my way to San Francisco to pursue an arts degree in digital design.
After graduating, my first job as a product designer was for a small startup in SF. I didn’t have much experience, but I think the founder could sense my hunger, and I was lucky to be hired as their first designer.
What is your experience with working in startups?
I've always been drawn to people who build things, which has naturally led me to work in startups. I love working as a product designer in a startup because you have the space to deeply care about your customers, the product, and the design. The lack of resources and structure allows you to step in and have a holistic impact on the business, not only the pixels.
When I joined Curology after graduating college, I knew I wanted to work in a smaller company. Still, I also wanted to have the opportunity to learn from more senior designers. I was lucky to be surrounded by amazingly talented people who I learned, while still having ownership over big projects. I built an internal tools design system and led design for Curology’s medical & pharmacy operation teams.
In the summer of 2020, I joined Mercury. I was blown away by their mission, the people, and Mercury’s vision for how to build great products. When I joined, there were 6 designers on the team, and we’ve since then grown to a team of 19 designers (and we’re hiring!). You can read a bit more about our design team here.
What do you like about working as a designer at a startup?
Firstly, it allows you to wear your product thinking hat in a way that large companies might be unable to give you space for. When teams are smaller, and processes are not established, you work as a team to figure things out, and this allows designers to step in and work on the product roadmap and strategy. You can work closely with the leadership team and directly impact the company's trajectory.
I also really enjoy the adventure. You're most likely working for founders who have dedicated their lives to making their dream a reality. Their passion is going to be contagious. On a similar note, since working for a startup can be a rocky adventure, hiring people with passion and grit is the only way to thrive. I love being surrounded by passionate, smart and hard-working people. It allows me to always keep learning.
Lastly, I love being able to work cross-functionally with other teams. At Mercury, I work closely with the customer support team, and learning from them is always my favorite part of the day. There's something magical about working with people deeply passionate about building great products for a great mission. Believing in what you’re building is what’s going to keep the team moving forward, in good times and bad times.
What advice do you have for product designers who want to join an early stage startup?
An important skill is learning how to embrace change. This might be a pro or a con depending on how you see it—but as the company grows, your role constantly changes. The company will most likely face growing pains and roadmaps changing.
As the company grows, the design team will naturally accumulate design debt. Balancing building new projects while maintaining design system work can be challenging in a small design team. On top of this, I think it’s important to make sure the startup you want to work for has a good work-life balance. I've been lucky to work for startups where work-life balance has been a priority, but that’s not always the case, so I think it’s important to pay attention to it while looking for a job.
If you made it to the end of this interview, it seems like you’re excited about joining a startup. There are few things in life you can control, but if you’re lucky to join a group of smart and kind people working on something you care about, what could you do to leverage this opportunity?
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