Figma's Product Journey: 10 Lessons for PMs + Growth teams
Interesting takeaways for building products that users love.
Well, wasn’t this a busy week for the product world?
Adobe acquired Figma for a ginormous $20B - a headline that got all the tech pundits analyzing the deal. Days later, someone hacked Uber & even chimed into their Slack to flex their prowess. And amidst all this hullabaloo, Twilio laid off 11% of their workforce in pursuit of profitability.
In this edition of Behind Product Lines, we’ll summarize some interesting product & growth lessons from Figma’s journey.
10 Learnings from Figma’s Product & Growth Journey
Everyone’s talking about how Figma managed to sell at $20B when their projected ARR for 2022 was only around the $400 Million mark. Adobe clearly saw the collaborative prototyping tool as a massive threat that was getting uncomfortably high momentum.
But how did Figma manage to attain such a threatening position to unsettle a juggernaut like Adobe in the first place?
Of course, they built a product that designers & product teams love but equally importantly, Figma leveraged powerful growth mechanics that kept the revenue wheel turning.
Let’s explore some product and growth lessons from their journey till now:
1. Dropping baggage to gain focus
Did you know that initially Figma was supposed to be a drone company?
Evan Wallace, co-founder of Figma, convinced Dylan to take a different direction when they realized that a drone product would involve navigating a myriad of privacy concerns.
They, eventually, turned to the idea of “Photoshop in a browser”.
However, when they charted out what use cases they wanted to copy over, they tried to pursue too much - everything from animations to photo editing.
“We’re not trying to tackle everything Adobe is doing”. Just grappling for UI creation will be very tough. Designers are a persnickety set who may be stubborn about changing their workflows.
The co-founders sat with the team and decided to cut out the noise. It would be overly ambitious to pursue a wide range of design applications and attempt to oust Adobe on all fronts.
Thus, they dropped all the funky photo manipulation features & focused purely on interface design. As soon as that strategy was set, prioritization became easier & the team was able to move much faster.
Lesson: You don’t need to match another product in terms of feature set to disrupt it. Your unique solution approach to the problem counts for far more.
2. Obsessing about a Clear Value Proposition
If you look at Figma’s vision from Day 1, it’s been centered around one element that was missing in design & product teams a few years ago: collaboration.
Their early Techcrunch coverage shows that they were challenging Adobe on that very point:
Field tells me his big competitor “doesn’t understand collaboration”, and the Adobe Creative Cloud is “really cloud in name only”. He insists that “Design is undergoing a monumental shift — going from when design was at the very end of the product cycle where people would just make things prettier to now where it runs through the entire process.” Figma wants to do for interface design what Google Docs did for text editing.
Look at some of the messaging they’ve adopted over the years on their website headlines:
“The Collaborative Interface Design Tool.”
“Collaboration is hard. We make it easier.”
“Nothing great is made alone.”
Even their other products have similar themes:
FigJam: “An online whiteboard for teams to ideate & brainstorm together”
Figma Enterprise: “A design platform for scale.”
With that product vision baked into Figma’s DNA, the product’s direction was put on a set and deliberate path. Figma wasn’t going to beat Photoshop on a feature set or design tools. It was going to beat them by making it more inclusive to non-designers.
Also, we’ve all heard about the classic jobs-to-be-done example:
“You don’t buy a quarter-inch drill, you buy a quarter-inch hole”.
In case of Figma, users weren’t just adopting a design tool that lets you annotate asynchronously.
They were buying “quicker time-to-market”. (their real Job-to-be-done)
Lesson: A singular product focus, especially in early days, makes team alignment, prioritization & decision making easier.
3. Dylan’s ego-less thirst for seeking the truth
Co-founders are known to be dreamers that remain adamant on their way of doing things.
Co-founder Dylan Field, however, seemed to be closer to an ego-less Product Manager - a rare breed that prioritizes the well-being of the product over being right all the time.
When ex-Mozilla CEO, John Lilly, passed on investing in Figma, Dylan kept meeting him for feedback on improving the product.
Moreover, when John casually suggested Dylan to meet with a former Adobe CEO (Bruce Chizen) for some useful advice, the latter took the advice seriously and tracked Bruce down.
“Dylan shows this amazing quality of mentor-seeking and truth-seeking,” says Lilly, who led Greylock’s Series A investment into Figma in 2015. “He’s never deterred by people who think he’s not doing the right thing—he just wants the information.”
Lesson: Effective Product Managers actively invite critique on the product from relevant circles to position themselves to improve it. They don’t become defensive when a feedback point is contrary to their opinion.
4. Creating demand with a closed beta
Figma launched a waitlist for the product back in 2015. It then rolled out a closed beta for a few months before becoming available to the general public.
The waitlist allowed them to test demand for the product & garner a targeted list of early adopters: product designers, UX professionals & product managers.
And the closed beta was extremely useful to improve the product in tight iterations based on real user feedback. This enabled them to massively fine-tune the product before a wider rollout. When Figma went public, it was a much more polished tool.
Lesson: Feedback loops from a targeted set of relevant users can help improve the product. Closed betas are great incubation environments to tighten up loose ends.
5. Setup a highly collaborative product culture
Figma’s product team thrived on cross-functional brainstorming. It wasn’t just a bunch of product managers ideating solutions, rather engineers, designers, architects & PMs collaborated with themselves, users and other stakeholders to focus on items that mattered.
Figma exhibited this bias for collaboration through different exercises. For example, to set priorities for work items, product teams at Figma used “Buy a Feature” exercises where members would be allotted a certain amount of currency which they could place on potential features in question.
Similarly, they used an exercise called “Alignment Scale” to get team members on the same page. In this exercise, a list of product decisions or statements would be put forward. Everyone on the team would then put their avatar on a scale to depict their conviction towards it.
Interestingly, Figma’s team also focused a lot on discussing both professional and personal goals in their standups and team meetups. This enabled more candid, honest & transparent communication. It humanized the Figma movement within.
Lesson: Product can’t be developed in a silo. PMs have to work with different groups & departments to get it right.
6. Leveraged a spectrum of Network Effects
“Collaboration” also happened to be the core driver of Figma’s growth.
Think about the days of Photoshop and Sketch. You would have PSD and XD files flying around which prevented non-designers from getting involved in such conversations easily. Discussion around design was clunky and cumbersome.
With Figma, all the designs were served from the cloud. That meant it was readily accessible for viewing in a browser. Everyone from the CEO to a Director of Engineering to a Product Owner not only saw the same file, but they could review/leave comments in real-time as the design evolved.
Naturally, Figma’s utility kept catapulting as more users from a company joined the fold. This eventually activated four types of network effects:
Intra-group network effects
Designers could easily share their work with other designers. This increased the footprint of Figma within a design department.
Cross-group network effects
Designers would loop in non-designers like C-level execs, engineers, QAs, BAs and PMs for collaboration, thus, exposing Figma to a wider internal audience.
Inter-group network effects
Then, as one team in an organization adopted Figma, other teams would get inspired and start adopting it too to drive design conversations.
Inter-company network effects
Companies that worked with partners, agencies, subsidiaries & other affiliated companies would use Figma to communicate design. This successfully transported the “seed” to other groups outside the original company starting a chain reaction.
Image source: Kwokchain
Lesson: a SaaS product that is designed to become exponentially more useful with more team members on board has the benefit of growing rapidly without the need for reward-based growth loops.
7. Designed a strong Product-led Growth Motion
Figma is a masterclass in Product-led growth.
The freemium tier helped eliminate the friction in user acquisition. Their ideal customer profile (Designers & to some extent, product managers) got to experience the product instantly within minutes of signup.
This opened a channel to hook new users and keep offering them value to a point where their needs grew to make the Professional tier a viable option.
Moreover, the self-service & onboarding flows of Figma ensured users got to their aha moment in the shortest amount of time. The intuitive design of the tool lowered the learning curve too.
8. Upscaled with Enterprise Sales at the right time
Figma is a shining example of how combining a PLG model with a top-down sales-led motion can create massive business acceleration.
When a product needs to go upstream to capture high-value accounts, a lean sales team can be a great asset.
To do this, firstly, Figma had to design an enterprise offering. They did this by creating a separate tier (Figma organization) that addressed corporate needs like shared fonts, billing, security, user management & centralized file management.
Launching this tier alone generated a fair amount of inbound demand. Several companies were able to set themselves up with enterprise accounts without sales intervention.
On the other hand, a team of account executives (for outbound sales) and Account Managers (key account executives) was setup to pursue users already using the product to upgrade them into enterprise prospects.
To help prioritize accounts to pursue, Figma’s engineers created a system to highlight Product-qualified leads to sales reps. This grouped users by organization and then used Clearbit data (for demographic/firmographic info) along with usage metrics to flag high priority accounts.
Lesson: A product-led growth model doesn’t mean you’ll never need a sales unit. Corporate entities will need a human to discuss options with when it comes to high-ticket annual contracts.
9. Fueled the growth with Communities
In 2019, Figma launched the Figma Community. This gave a common space to designers where they could share their Figma designs & find inspiration from others.
Communities made the process of re-using someone else’s design frictionless. Users just open the design and instantly start editing the file. This added tremendous value as designers were able to get useful head starts on their projects.
This was accompanied by the “Friends of Figma” initiative that created hyper-local groups around a specific design interest in a certain campus or geography. Over 300 community advocates then drove these cohorts and coordinated local meetups & moderate Slack channels.
Figma’s communities played a strong part in spreading the word far and wide, especially in recent times. This word-of-mouth created a snowball effect in terms of design submissions.
As the number of design templates ballooned, Figma created landing pages around these design types (e.g. wireframes, iOS designs, diagrams etc.) and drove massive traffic organically to their marketing site via SEO.
Lesson: An active community is the most cost-efficient acquisition channel a product can own. It also is barrier to exit for designers who rely on such communities to get better at their job.
10. Expanded product footprint with a developer platform
Previously, Adobe, Sketch and other desktop applications forced users to download plugins as files and install them separately. This created friction in adoption. Figma solves this by making plugins live in the cloud meaning they were instantly available once installed on an account.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, for a lean team of developers to satisfy every feature request out there, especially when they are specific to a small percentage of users. That’s where a strong developer platform comes in handy. Involving the developer community meant Figma was able to make the product far more valuable in a very short span of time.
From creating charts to custom maps, from importing data into designs to embedded chat, plugins catapulted Figma’s utility.
Having said that, Figma had to battle the challenge of ensuring security, usability and stability of these plugins. It solved this by taking a leaf out of Apple’s playbook by centralizing the approval process.
Lesson: An engaged developer community can quickly expand your product’s capabilities (and your strategic moat) provided they have the APIs and tools to do so.
The massive acquisition will forever place Figma as a case study for PLG products.
Even the current commotion around the creative community about Adobe potentially disturbing Figma’s open culture only shows how passionate and possessive the users were about the movement. That’s a PM dream - to build a product that’s an indispensable extension of people’s lives.
My key takeaways from Figma’s story:
The brain-hive between the design & engineering team is one of the biggest assets available to a Product Manager. Learn to leverage it.
Building SaaS? Think self-serve, onboarding & product-led motions. But don’t think it’s simple. Designing tiers that organically push users to upper brackets as they grow is where the magic is.
When possible, connect your users with each other. That sense of community is a hook that’s hard to replicate.
Network effects baked into your product’s fabric > contrived growth loops.
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insightful as always. thanks Aatir for sharing your thoughts
Great write up Aatir!