Figma’s Layered Lessons

Or, how to learn something useful from big events

Clark Van Der Beken / Unsplash

1

When any company sells for $20+ billion dollars it’s big news. Accordingly, over the past week we have been blessed with an abundance of takes.

But what can we—product builders who would love to create something as successful as Figma—actually learn from this? The money is a clear signal that something important happened here. But what was it? How did it happen? And is there anything practical that we can learn?

Yes, I think there is.

The immediate impulse is to focus on the object-level lessons that pertain to the design tools industry. There were a lot of good takes this past week and I have a big list of them at the end of this piece. But for most of us, this layer of analysis is less relevant than the basic question of how Figma came to be. Especially in its formative years, Figma broke many of the “rules” of company building that Silicon Valley swears by—and it calls into question how valid those rules actually are. 

I think this will be useful to know for anyone trying to build something important.

2

Normally it’s a terrible idea for founders to spend 4 years building a product before it launches. But in this case it worked out.

It’s equally “wrong” to start with a technology—in Figma’s case, WebGL—and search for a problem to solve with it. But that’s exactly what Figma did.

Last but not least, you’re not “supposed” to use fluffy business books like Blue Ocean Strategy to decide what product to build. And you’re definitely not supposed to design by committee. A commanding, visionary leader is supposed to earn original insights (secrets!) from personal experience, and then build an organization around it.

But here’s how CEO Dylan Field described the origins of Figma as we know it:

“We thought of [Figma] as interface design plus other things. And it wasn’t clear what those other things were. [So we] had a nice whiteboard session with the team where we just crossed all these things off. It’s like, what do we all think we’re doing? Okay, let’s cross them off one by one until we get to what we’re actually doing. And we used a cool framework, “eliminate, reduce, raise, create” from this book Blue Ocean Strategy to figure out what we are doing that’s different than the competition. What are we not doing that the competition is doing? What are we doing worse? And where are we going to make this brand new?”

Essentially, Figma ignored all the “rules” and sold for $20+ billion dollars anyway. 

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