At the last Kstartup Fireside Chat in early August called “Real Startup Scene in Silicon Valley” we brought you four key takeaways that Seoul startups can learn from Silicon Valley. Last Wednesday, August 27th, Kstartup held their second Fireside Chat for this batch, this time featuring Chris Connolly (@chrisconnolly) from Instagram, Lorenzo Calvani (@El_Ci) from Uber, and Tobias van Schneider (@schneidertobias) from Spotify in a session titled “그들이 왔다! (They’re Here!) Instagram, Uber, Spotify Designers.” This session once again took place at D.Camp and was moderated by Kstartup’s KJ Byeon and Yoonjin Chang.
Now, I personally am not a designer, but I work with (and am hiring!) designers on our team at Buzzvil, and I found this session quite enlightening. It’s always interesting to hear from the perspective of someone in a different role, and this Fireside Chat helped me to better understand the challenges designers can face, as well as the value they’re able to contribute to a team. With that, I’d like to share some key takeaways from this event that can be design-specific, but can also be relevant for just about anyone else.
The question that seems to be most frequently asked when we have speakers from the U.S. is, “what is the biggest difference between Korean startups and American startups?” This Fireside Chat was no exception and started off with this very question, specifically in terms of design.
Tobias from Spotify said the main difference seemed to be “the culture and the process, how design problems are approached,” and all three designers agreed that one particular process is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but it should make sense based on the context of your target market. For example, Chris from Instagram mentioned that “in Silicon Valley, we tend to develop for iOS first, since we’re right in Apple’s backyard, but [in Korea], obviously, it’s going to be Android first… It definitely affects how you design your product.”
Lorenzo from Uber emphasized that this awareness of context is all the more important when you consider going international, even when making color choices. “You want to think about how a color is going to be perceived [in that country],” Lorenzo says. For example, the color red has certain implications in Japan, but it’s also the color of Coca Cola, which doesn’t seem to be particularly affected by this color choice.
Lorenzo also mentioned that Korean and U.S. startups seem to differ in their approach to getting user feedback. “At least the startups I talked to [in Korea], people don’t tend to talk to their users very much at a very early stage. The tendency is to design in a box or build a product until it’s almost done, and then you’re going to show it to your users, whereas I think most companies in the States and in Europe ask for feedback as much as possible and as often as possible to users at a very early stage, so you know whether the product you’re building actually makes sense.” Again, this may be dependent on cultural differences and context, but getting user feedback on product design or features sooner and more frequently may be an approach that Korean startups and designers can benefit from.
Another interesting question presented by the moderators was whether the designers had any particular recommendations in terms of color choices or trends, such as for mobile apps.
Chris pointed out that most of the major apps that are popular in the market today, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, use varying shades of blue. “It’s super boring, but we basically found it the least offensive color,” Chris says. “You can look at it over and over again and offend the least amount of people.”
But Lorenzo also pointed out that, “at the end of the day, it’s the color of your brand that you should stick with.” While there are definitely colors that make sense and work together, especially when designing for web or mobile, you should believe in the color that makes sense for your brand rather than trying to keep up with trends. “Trends come and go,” Chris agreed.
Tobias added to this aspect of designing for your brand identity and said, “If you constantly redesign your product… you will never have your own voice or identity,” and that as your brand grows, you should strive to “define your own visual language.” Developing this brand identity or voice is applicable not only to designers, but for any organization as a whole, and as Buzzvil’s brand manager, I agree that essentially everyone on your team is responsible for your company’s brand. Design is simply one of the many ways to express it.
The biggest issue that Chris, Lorenzo, and Tobias discussed in this session was the matter of communication between designers and the rest of the team and how to build a culture of trust. Yoonjin mentioned that many designers in Korean startups don’t talk to the CEO or their team very often, and Tobias admitted, “It’s not something that is unique to Seoul or Korea, it’s just one of the biggest challenges for designers in most startups.”
“When you work at a small startup, the process is so much more than just sitting in front of Photoshop,” Tobias says. “It’s about establishing a culture of trust, essentially establishing a culture of strong relationships with every single member of your team… Sometimes, we forget that our team is also our customers, they’re all people with opinions, and we need to find a common ground and common language to sell something to them.” Tobias explained:
It’s really important as a designer to understand what are the responsibilities, especially in a startup. It’s not just about the hard skills, those are easy… Crafting the design, the visuals, these are skills you can learn. But the soft skills – getting buy-in from people, making sure that your ideas are getting developed – those are the soft skills and those are extremely hard. And these things take time. It’s not going to happen in a week or a month. You need to have a lot of stamina.”
Lorenzo agreed with this, and asked, “What is the definition of you as a designer? A lot of designers, like Tobias said, are amazing designers, visual designers, motion graphic designers. What they struggle with is communicating their ideas and articulating their thoughts to the CEO or developer or PM. That’s the tricky part.”
Communication within a team is a struggle that I’m sure designers and non-designers alike have experienced all over the world. Hearing this message from a design perspective was a great reminder that not only do we need to speak up to get our message across, but we also need to learn how to listen carefully, as people communicate in different ways. When there’s a culture of trust in the workplace, we learn to value each person’s contribution and better understand each team member’s perspective.
As the Fireside Chat came to a close, someone from the audience asked the designers to share any secrets they have for developing their creativity, and Chris, Lorenzo, and Tobias all laughed, saying they don’t have any. Lorenzo’s answer for how to work on his creativity was to do things that have little to do with design. “I play sports, I take photos, I paint stuff, I write lyrics for songs that I will never sing,” Lorenzo said.
Tobias had a similar answer and said that he works on a lot of side projects outside of his regular work. He also tries to encourage creativity in the design team at Spotify in the form of Hack Weeks to be able to focus on boosting creativity for the week.
Tobias also shared that something that’s really helped him is his mantra to do something new every day. “Do something that scares you every day. Push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Tobias says. “Do something crazy, the first thing that comes to your mind. For example, if you think ‘I’m going to run naked through the park,’ if this is your first thought, just do it immediately… Another example, I would never make a reservation for a restaurant and dress up and go by myself. I mean, I’m alone, it’s awkward. But once you do it, something is going to happen. Someone is going to talk to you, maybe they’re going to be your new partner, maybe the new company you’re going to work for.”
Going beyond our comfort zones is a big thing for us at Buzzvil as well, so we’re definitely into the idea of trying new and crazy things. Also, like the team at Spotify, we found internal hackathons a great way to jump-start our creativity as well.
I have to say, as a non-designer, I learned a lot from this session and it was a great opportunity for the design and startup community in Seoul to have Chris, Lorenzo, and Tobias with us last week! Many thanks again to Kstartup for hosting, and for anyone who is interested, Kstartup will be hosting their next Fireside Chat in about three weeks, this time on the topic of growth hacking, so don’t miss out!