Design · Hiring

Designer: Contract or Hire

Thomas Knoll I get to help people build their ideas and their teams

February 19th, 2013

Having the hardest time right now deciding whether a designer needs to be one of our first hires, or whether we can just contract out the work for a bit. Pretty sure most people have strong feelings one way or the other on this. So, I'm more interested in feedback on *how* you make the decision, not what your pet preference is. 

Eric Rogness Technical Product Manager

February 19th, 2013

Check out the conversation we had about this in November:

DT Tamez

February 19th, 2013

The fact that you are putting a lot of weight on this decision tells me that you already know the answer. *How* you make the decision is simple - if you are creating a product that people will be using, you need a designer. At minimum, you should make a designer a full-time member of the team, if not a co-founder.

That being said, not all designers are created equal. For your purpose, I would suggest that you find someone who fills the skill set you need, has startup chops, product experience, and fits well into the team.

I was recently hired as the designer for a startup as we go through the DreamIt accelerator at Capital Factory in Austin, Texas. The two co-founders of this company are a hacker and a hustler, and I was the first hire on contract.  We are halfway through the program, and my greatest takeaway so far is that the best startups will follow the three founder model: designer, hacker, hustler. You need each of these complimentary skills, and no one person is alone going to be the magic unicorn.

We recently had a visit from Michael Dodd of Austin Ventures. If you ask him, the designer is the most important person in today's startup. You can stack the team full of engineers, but at the end of the day, the product has to be simple, intuitive, and aesthetically pleasing. If it is not, then hopefully, you are building software for robots, not people.

You can achieve your short-term goals by hiring on contract or part-time, but a culture of design does not happen overnight. If you want it built into your company, and you should, then make it a goal as early as possible and invest in the person who will take you there.

Roy Leban Founder & CEO at Puzzazz

February 19th, 2013

Here is my simplest answer:

1) Determine your definition of designer. Different people define it anywhere between an artist and a UX expert who can't draw.
2) Is that definition a core part of what you are?

One of the key pieces of advice I give startups is that you can't outsource yourself. If what this person is going to be doing is going to be part of the definition of what the company is, hire them. If they are giving you the first version of a skin which may change many times, hire a contractor or outsource it.

Other questions to ask:
* What is the quantity of work?
* How much continuity do you need?
* How much management are you willing to do of a contractor? Would an employee require less management?

Michael Fedyna Professional Problem Solver and Tinkerer

February 19th, 2013

It comes down to your velocity. If you iterate rapidly then you need a UI/UX designer working freelance about 1 day a week and a designer as a full-time member of the team. If you iterate slowly and the workload doesn't justify having a full-time designer, you just contract it out. A remote freelancer will also require more bandwidth from the rest of the team than someone in-house. Our freelance designer is remote, so we have a UI/UX designer work in-house with us when we need them. We then pass wireframes to our remote designer to make mock-ups and polished changes.

Doron Gan Founder CTO at ViralGains

February 19th, 2013

Hi, You should hire if you can. A good designer is a key critical hire because usability and user experience are very important for people to actually use your app. Usually the ideas doesn't matter as much as how easy and efficient it is for people to get what they want done. It turns out that changes/enhancements never end after an initial design so this person will be important for the duration of a company. Thanks, Doron

Cynthia Hernandez Founder at KirinGie.Me (Social Entrepreneur)

February 19th, 2013

To arrive at a reasonable decision consider the following: 

1) objective: what are you trying to accomplish? 
2) target audience: what will lead to greatest conversion? 
3) resource needs: is the resource you are considering absolutely necessary to achieve your objective and convert your target audience?

Jean Barmash Engineering Program Manager at Tradeshift

February 19th, 2013

Thomas, In the past I've worked with contractors, and am currently working on a new business where we are also working with a freelancer. Both of these are B2B business where good design, while important, is unlikely to be the differentiator that will make or break the company (the first one was technology play, where we were able to do something much cheaper than previously possible, the second one is more of a business model play). I do think designer will ideally be one of the early hires, even if this is not a differentiator. I would base your decision on how competitive your market is and how important will superior design be to your success. If it's B2C, arguably good UX / design can be a true differentiator, so having a designer early


February 19th, 2013

As a designer (and having hired other designers, both contract and full time) I agree with all of the answers so far. It really depends on your companies needs. I would need more details to give you a more specific answer (by all means pls message me if you want this and I would gladly help), but my generic answer is try before you buy. I've gotten all of my startup jobs based on contract to hire. I prefer to work this way and I think its a great way to "date" your designer before fully committing. 

Especially in the early stages, if the cofounders dont have a clear view about what the design needs to be (visual OR UX) it can be difficult to find a designer who can translate what theyre looking for immediately. What you absolutely do NOT want to do is spend time hiring a full time designer, who after a few weeks, you realize isnt on the same page / cant meet your needs. If you hire a contractor, and it doesnt work out, you havent wasted that much time and neither has your designer. 

Heres a list of what I think are pros and cons. This is based on designing for a startup:

Contractor : Upsides
- the hiring process for a contractor tends to be faster - you look at their work, give them a project, and see how it goes, so you save time interviewing extensively, making sure they fit in with the team, etc. 

- you pay them for the work they do - if youre strapped for cash, you will most likely agree on an hourly or per project amount. this allows you to budget your money and time.

- less management time used - you give them the spex, let them do their thing, meet in concentrated times. this keeps things focused for them and for your company. less time is wasted going back and forth.

- you might  not have enough work for a full time designer

Contractor : Downsides
- they arent in the office and may miss those "Ahaha" moments

- if you havent managed a contracter before it can be tricky to sync schedules etc

- youre contract worker may have another job and you might not be their # priority - its best to set clear expectations of time commitments up front

- if they dont nail it the first few times you could loose time waiting for their iterations

Full time : Upsides
- they may help you take your brand to the next level if you are ready

- they are around all the time and can quickly switch gears if you decide a path you were working on is not longer the desired track

- you dont waste time on iterations / directions the team doesnt like - you can go over initial ideas and iterate much more quickly

- they can work on multiple projects - youll save time by being able to move much faster as a team on product and anything else the designer may need to work on (presentations slides, business cards, random things youll forget you need designed)

Full time : Downsides
- if they arent a good fit you might feel guilty about letting them go since you have spent so much time hiring THE designer that you will most likely try to make it work even when its not

- they will most likely (at least any good designer) point out all of the design flaws in everything and want to change it all (this isnt nec. a downside, but youll have to manage their expectations more)

- they will need a full time manager - managing a designer isnt always easy (it can be but usually isnt in the early stages)

- youll have to pay them a full time salary. right now prices for the good ones are super inflated and most startups arent willing to throw down that kind of money with out knowing if the designer will be what they need.

In any case - before you do any type of hiring make your expectations of the designer clear. There are lots of different types of designers (visual, UI, UX, web, marketing, branding, advertising, print, etc) who all have specialties and things they are willing / able to do, and things they arent. (I know this was already said before but its SUPER important.)

I've seen success from both, and learning to be had from both. While I am of the same mindset as Danny, where design SHOULD be a priority, I know for a fact that in all startups it just isnt, and cant be for x y z reasons. Decide what kind of culture you want and that will influence your decision.

Wow that was long winded but I hope it you can tell this is something im passionate about....

Ted Rheingold COO at InVenture Capital Corp.

February 20th, 2013

Contract. Design doesn't make the product, it makes it great.

Why make the product great before you know it's something that is a viable business?

Andrew Coyle Product Design Lead at Flexport

April 3rd, 2013

I am a freelance designer who has worked with many start-ups. Design is important from the very start of a new venture. It is not the end product that is useful in the early stages, rather the design thinking and process that helps better illuminate the product.

I was recently asked about my interaction design process by a number of start-ups. So I decided to post a graphic that details my general approach. What is unique about my process is that I blend user experience with brand identity. This allows the user’s needs to be satisfied while delivering a visual design that reflects (or defines) a client’s brand.

My Design Process >