We’re all familiar with the importance of a strong co-founder relationship — it’s often said that the most important factor of success is the team. However, there is another critical (but less discussed) relationship in the early stages of a startup: the design partner.
Design partners make a huge impact on the trajectory of your company. These are your startup partners who will help you define, refine, and position your product. They answer the questions — Who would use your product? At what price point? With which features?
But besides helping you iron out the details of your product, securing strong design partners adds another critical data point: validation. Securing strong design partners is the ultimate proof that you have hit a pain point with your product and validates the urgency of the solution you are building. A design partner has to be feeling the pain you’re addressing so badly that they commit their most valuable resource — time — to work with you on product development.
Yet it is not simple to find, secure, and maintain the design partner relationship- so we turned to two of our portfolio companies who recently went through the design partnership process themselves: The founders of ML observability platform, Superwise, and service supply chain security solution, Astrix.
Both founders successfully leveraged their strong design partners to mold and validate their products. Below, they share how they discovered, secured, managed, and ultimately transformed their design partners into paying customers.
First things first- what makes a good design partner and who should you approach?
According to Alon Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Astrix, it starts with introspecting:
“Before approaching anyone you need a clearly defined ideal customer profile (ICP). This will help you identify potential partners who are aligned with the types of companies, use cases, and personas to which you ultimately envision selling your solution. Then, verify mutual fit (has the partner bought into your vision? Are they willing to invest in a joint process of discovery and iteration — in exchange for access to new technology and a strong voice in shaping the product roadmap?) and build a meaningful relationship.”
For Oren Razon, co-founder and CEO of Superwise, it’s about insights, a shared vision, and a comfortability: “A good design partner will give insights into what your product should look like and which users it is a good fit for.
“Furthermore, a good design partner will be somebody with whom you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts, somebody that will share his potential needs with you, be willing to do a whiteboard session with you, and most importantly share your vision.”
Next up: timing. When do you know you’re ready for a design partnership and what should you look for in a design partner?
For Astrix, there was no ‘too early’:
“Our view is that it’s never too early to enlist a design partner. If it’s pre-MVP, both sides benefit from the shared research process. Once an initial solution is ready to be installed, you and the design partner already have a shared “language” — requirements, use cases, and a definition of success. Design partnerships accelerate and sharpen the process of developing a world-class MVP (and ultimately going to market).”
Then comes securing design partners- how do you approach a potential design partner and what do you need to be successful in signing?
Oren Razon gives us insights into Superwise’s method:
"We approached companies that, based on our experience as MLOps practitioners we judged as struggling with the problem we were solving with Superwise. We started with companies with whom we had a close relationship through our network. To convince them that it was in their interest to partner with us we had to prove: That we had a deep understanding and domain expertise of their problem, that we had the right approach and vision to solving it, that we were an experienced team and can deliver results"
From this point on, relationship management takes center stage.
How did Astrix go about making sure both sides gained from theese startup partnerships?
Communication was key, as Jackson explains:
“We have recurring meetings, usually weekly or bi-weekly depending on what’s going on at that moment. But I think the most effective and quick way to collaborate is using IM tools like Slack. Ultimately the channel doesn’t matter as long as you have open and honest communication.”
For many, the hardest part is turning successful design partners into paying customers- how did Astrix and Superwise make this transition as smooth as possible?
For Astrix, it was all about being as upfront as possible:
“This can be a delicate process, but I think it’s best to be upfront about it. You can just come out and ask the design partner if they feel ready, how they will feel if the product would be taken out of their hands, etc.
Basically, you need to feel them out, but don’t beat around the bush. Ideally, you have the kind of relationship where you have a pulse on the value they’re getting from your solution — so you know the right time and context to make the ask. Going through this process will help you calibrate your readiness for your first sale.”
For Superwise, it was about deciding whom to convert, and realizing the awkwardness is primarily on your end!
“First of all, there were a few design partners we said goodbye to. Some of them had niche needs and weren’t an overall good fit for our product. For those we did convert, it took us 6–9 months to really make them see the value and use the product on a daily basis. It was a bit awkward for us to send them the first invoice, but actually, it was only a feeling on our part, for them, it was business as usual. We did come well prepared with customer success, to ensure that we were ready to deliver high service on an ongoing basis.”
After gaining insight into how Astrix and Superwise went about building their design partners, a few aspects stick out to me.
1) It is never too soon to search out design partners. For one, their impact is felt in the earliest stages. And just as significantly, securing a design partner validates that you have hit a big enough pain point- something that helps yourself and investors to gain conviction and confidence to continue on the founding journey.
2) A shared vision is vital to a successful design partner/ founder relationship. You will need time and effort from your design partner- this is fueled by a shared vision.
3) Communication! Whether it is forming a design partnership, the ongoing discussions throughout the partnership, or converting to paid customers, having open and honest communication with your design partners from the get-go will make the entire process more smooth and more beneficial for all sides.
If you are a founder or design partner with any further tips and insights into the design partner relationship- I look forward to hearing.