Working for enterprises vs. startups: A designer’s playbook
By Terri Lee Published July 17, 2020
Since 2018, I've been chronicling my journey as a designer, beginning with my design internship here at House of van Schneider. Now, after nearly two years working in an agency, I've grown more confident as a product designer and directly seen the impact I can make on a project. Interestingly, that impact is much different depending on the client.
If you are a designer, you’re most likely working in-house, for a startup, in an agency or as a freelancer. And for those of you just starting your design career, you might be wondering what the differences are between these work environments as you decide where you want to work.
Many designers want to work for an agency at the beginning of their career because it exposes them to a wide range of projects and industries. Here I’ll detail some of my thoughts on the spectrum of work you'll do in this role – and how your impact differs depending on whether your client's an enterprise (a larger, established company) or startup company.
Established processes vs. creating new processes
No matter where you work or who you're working with, you'll quickly learn the agency life revolves around process. It's the regular meetings, specific communication practices with the client and defined timelines that keep the machine moving and the work flowing.
Enterprise: If your client is a larger, more mature company, it will likely already have its own processes in place. For example, one enterprise project I worked on had already defined a thorough process for conducting user testing. The product designer would prepare a prototype and complete a research specification template for the UX researcher, who would conduct user interviews on a specific platform, summarize their findings in a deck, and present the deck to the product designer and team.
Startups: A startup, depending on its stage, might not have a process in place. Recently I worked on a project where we were the first designers to touch the product. In cases like this, it’s important to bring our best practices to the project to help shape it, so we can do the best work possible and provide guidance for the client.
Rigid vs. fluid roadmap
Product roadmaps are a high-level strategic document to help align teams, stakeholders and priorities. Depending on your client, you may be following a structured roadmap or navigating your way through one that's more loosely defined.
Enterprise: Within an enterprise, the product roadmap may be established by management or product owners, and product designers might have little to no influence on shaping the roadmap. Because many teams touch a product, there will be interdependencies; this makes it critical for all teams to adhere to the timeline prescribed in the roadmap. Practically, this means there may be strict deadlines to meet so your work isn’t a blocker for other teams.
Startups: Startups have fewer and smaller teams, or perhaps there isn’t even differentiation between teams within the company. As a result, the roadmap might be more fluid, with the opportunity for a designer at any level to have an influence on the roadmap or timeline. However, because the roadmap is fluid in nature, it may change frequently depending on budget, shifting priorities or investor opinions. So don’t get upset if you spend a month designing a specific feature, only for it to be deprioritized.
Slow and steady vs. busy bee
Businesses are just like school projects; the more people on a team, the longer it takes to get things done.
Enterprise: At bigger businesses, there are more opinions, competing priorities, the usual company politics and processes. This results in a slower pace than that of a startup. Remember, with enterprises, any proposed changes to a product have to be greenlit by the teams it might impact.
Startups: Startups are able to be more agile because of their size, but this can be a double-edged sword. In cases where a start-up has a short runway, there can be immense pressure on the employees to increase their output so the company doesn't fail.
User data and feedback
Enterprise: Enterprises are usually of a certain maturity level; they’ve been around the block a few times and have history within their industry. These companies should have data on their user demographics and understand how they use the product. Even better, they have a user research team to handle user testing and data aggregation. Having data to work from is incredibly valuable. It eliminates the guesswork, saving the company time and money.
Startups: On the other hand, a startup in an early stage, without a product on the market, will have no data on their users, what they want or how they will use the product. In fact, they may still be searching to see if there is a product-market fit. For design, it’s difficult to work with a lack of data. Of course, there are general design principles and UX patterns you can follow, but without quantitative data, there will also be a significant amount of guesswork involved. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself having to double back on work once user feedback starts flowing in.
Why work with an enterprise?
The most valuable thing I learned while working with enterprises is how to communicate and collaborate cross-functionally within an organization. This might not be explicitly stated on a job listing, but you can be sure every company will look closely for these soft skills when deciding whether to hire you. It will help you become a designer who others enjoy working with, which can propel your career even more than your technical skills. Through my enterprise clients, I also learned how to cater my design presentations to a wide range of audiences (you won't present to a product manager or engineer the same way you do to another designer).
With an enterprise client, your design work has the potential to make a huge impact. If you help redesign a landing page for a company that operates in multiple countries, your work will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people. That’s exciting, and something to be proud of. Just keep in mind that while the potential is great, it will be a large mountain to climb.
Why work with a startup?
Startups test your grit and design competence. You likely won’t have access to the design support you’d find at an enterprise, but you will have an opportunity to take the lead and bring your expertise to the table. Given the high stakes for a fledgling business, you'll likely feel more skin in the game and personal satisfaction from its success. Plus, you’ll have more of what all designers covet – creative freedom.
Your work for a startup can contribute to its success or failure, which can be thrilling (you may be the only designer on the project, so anything user-facing was created by you!). But due to the fast-paced nature of startups, there’s a chance it could be easily overhauled in a short time frame.
These are of course generalizations based on my personal experience working with these types of companies as an agency designer. It’s completely possible that an enterprise might have no design processes in place, or that a startup doesn’t need much from your design team. Whatever project you work on, take the challenges in stride, and try to capitalize on the unique opportunities you have in your situation.
I'm Terri Lee, a designer, poi lover and podcast enthusiast from Austin.