Meet First Round’s Inaugural Founding Designer Track Cohort — Summer 2020

A couple weeks ago we wrapped up our first-ever Founding Designer Track — a new community for those considering joining a startup as its first design hire. We are incredibly thankful to the coaches who lent their time and joined us as speakers, sharing valuable insights across a series of sessions, from choosing the right startup to join and establishing design as a critical function of the business and growing your team. To get an in-depth look at many of the key takeaways from this first-of-its-kind program, check out our new article on the Review.

As for the folks who benefited from this incredible wisdom, our inaugural cohort members are already quite accomplished in their own right. Hand-picked after a competitive application process for the program, this crew of up-and-comers already help design many of the products we know and love, and are on a stellar trajectory to achieve big things in the startup world. Without further ado, meet our inaugural Founding Designer Track cohort!

Founding Designer Track Summer 2020

Aaron Whitmore, Product Designer, Facebook

“I started working in product, but soon realized that I was really passionate about the role of design. I’ve worked as a Product Designer focused on enterprise for companies including Technicolor, Netflix, OpenTable, and now Facebook. When I’m not working, I moonlight as an event and street photographer.”

Alphonso Morris, Lead Product Designer, Netflix

“As a product designer, entrepreneur and business strategist, I have over 16 years of branding experience. I’ve been designing for the digital world for more than half of my career. I know how to monetize your website, build traffic, maximize your exposure and create branding campaign strategies that truly engage your audience.”

Andres Santanilla, Product and Design, AngelList

“I like to describe myself as an entrepreneur at heart and a product designer by trade. I formerly was an industrial designer but transitioned into UX because I wanted to prototype, test and ship faster. One takeaway from Founding Designer Track that’s really stuck with me is that startups are not always about speed. It’s about understanding when you need to slow down while still keeping the momentum going. The key is the movement, not the how fast you’re going.”

Andrew Chin, Product Design, Instagram

“I’m passionate about the intersection of technology and design, and have worked as an engineer and PM before becoming a product designer. I have 13 years of experience at companies of various sizes including Apple, early Square and Dropbox. Founding Designer Track has created a special community for designers to bond, engage and demystify topics around founding startups. In the midst of a pandemic and racial injustice, meeting with this supportive network has been my bright spot every week.”

Andrew Lee, Product Designer, Notion

“I’m a self-taught product designer at Notion, previously at Palantir and Acorns. One takeaway from the Founding Design Track was that as the first designer, you have to balance craft with people skills to establish a strong design culture. The latter involves selling design to your org so that people are bought in, which includes underrated things like hiring, building a strong foundation with founders and integrating with other key functions—namely marketing and engineering. Most people are good at one or the other, but that’s the fun—figuring out how to excel in both!”

Becca Naul, Senior Product Designer, Netflix

“I’m a generalist designer with deep experience in product design, service design, brand strategy, advertising and experiential design. I’m especially passionate about working at the intersection of technology and physical, IRL experiences. I’m also a proud Designer Bridge, Makerspace, and Gray Area Creative Code Immersive alum.”

Bryce Daniel, Product Designer, Snackpass

“I’m a product designer / design Swiss Army Knife with a background in film, animation and visual storytelling. A takeaway from Founding Designer Track that’s really stuck with me is that product design is a balance of craft, features and time to market. Hypergrowth companies usually don’t have the luxury of all three, so it’s important to align on the priorities early. For a startup, it’s usually maintaining quality and launching fast by way of simplifying the product. With that in mind, as designers we can optimize for maximum learning per dollar spent. Rather than an MVP, design enough that the feedback you get will accurately reflect where the product will be and allows you to move forward, rather than confirming something you already know.”

Cristiana Ortiz, Designer and UX Manager, Carta

“My goal as a product, web and brand designer is to create and maintain visual consistency from the brand to the product. It’s so refreshing to align and meet with like-minded designers through this program. There was not one conversation I had where I didn’t learn something new or gain priceless insights. It’s truly a first-class look into the innovative world of becoming a founding designer.”

Gaurav Bhushan, Head of Design, Keyo

“I focus on helping early-stage companies scale with design thinking. I’ve always given a lot of importance to evaluating the product and design thinking at an early-stage startup, but the coaches advised that it’s often much more important to evaluate how the company plans to get the product in the hands of enough people to make it a business that actually works. With a good acquisition and distribution strategy, building the product becomes much easier.”

Jude Sue, Product Designer, Instagram

“I am a curious problem-solver at heart who enjoys designing for users at scale. I am formally trained in architecture, but after designing my first app, I was hooked on product design. I’m currently at Instagram, where I lead design on a team focused on user problem(s); previously I have worked at several early-stage startups where I shaped product. One takeaway from Founding Designer Track that I found valuable is that designers tend to rely on their superpower — which is design. But as a founder, you will often find yourself working outside of your ‘zone of genius’ on any given day, so finding people who balance your weaknesses and who have very different strengths — in fundraising, marketing or sales — is key to a successful founding team and product.”

Kaye Mao, Interaction Designer, Google Health

“I’m an interaction designer fascinated by problems of complex systems. What was most valuable to me about the program was not any one specific tactic or strategy, but rather the opportunity to meet senior industry leaders who are diverse in so many different ways (career paths, introverts and extroverts, race, gender) and have found a way to be successful in their own right. We spoke to CEOs, founders, lead designers and VCs that pulled back the curtain on what the journey to success actually looks like. It gives me hope that I can be myself and get there someday, too.”

Mario Gomez-Hall, Staff Designer, Stealth Startup

“I’ve always been drawn to invention and creativity. Across working on my own startup, joining Square and Lyft, I’ve been able to explore my passion for hospitality. entrepreneurship, and the arts. I loved the variety of speakers and fellow designers — each person truly brought a fresh perspective that collided and merged and grew with each other’s in an exciting way.”

Paola Mariselli, Product Design Manager, Facebook

“Before landing on design, I explored many roles in tech, including marketing, finance, and project management. Ultimately, I’m passionate about early-stage development, ambiguous landscapes and challenging problem spaces. I’m currently building new mobile apps on Facebook’s New Product Experimentation team. In that role, among other things, I focus on building design culture, which is why I found learnings from the sessions so salient: design culture is company culture. Similar to how a skeleton reflects the being in which it resides, design culture is a reflection of company culture. Thus, building design culture can’t be formulaic or dogmatic.”

Sam Elliott, Senior Product Designer, Empower

“I’m part of the founding team at Empower and am passionate about FinTech and Renewable Energy. As designers, I think our natural tendency is to shy away from building networks. I loved that Founding Designer Track acted as a bit of a forcing function to build a community in a way that’s been hugely beneficial.”

Tabitha Yong, UX Designer, Google Research

“I’m passionate about the intersection of design, technology and social good, with early-stage projects being my favorite. At Google Research, we prototype emerging technologies and do foundational user research to find opportunities that aim to benefit the world. At Founding Designer Track, it was a poignant reminder that design is a compelling starting point, but there’s also opportunity to grow across as much as up. You can grow across disciplines by joining, shaping and leading companies at earlier stages.”

Looking Ahead

If you’re interested in participating in future Founding Designer Track cohorts, please tell us a bit about yourself here.

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