As Google Docs did for word processing and GitHub for code, so Dylan Field’s Figma is doing for design. Employees at companies like Netflix, AirBNB, Zoom and Discord are all users.
BY ALEX KONRAD
In April, Dylan Field had his craziest day since he skipped out on Brown University to try his hand at startups nearly a decade ago. At the virtual conference of his design software company, Figma, popular with customers including Airbnb, BMW and Zoom, he announced just its second-ever product, a tool for online whiteboarding sessions punnily called FigJam. Hours later, he found out his wife, Elena, was pregnant with their first child.
Field, 29, had spent the majority of the pandemic listening to Figma’s users. While he has traveled as far as Ukraine and Nigeria to visit clients in person, he passed the time during lockdown reading customer support tickets, scanning feedback from sales reps and responding to users on Twitter. By October, he had a plan.
Figma’s main product provides a virtual canvas where designers and others make visuals in real time. But there was no way for them to use Figma to diagram early ideas or create flowcharts. That’s where FigJam comes in, serving as a digital version of a home or office wall covered in Post-it Notes. “With a brainstorming session, you’re trying to create this really fluid space and get everyone into a headspace of ‘Are we in flow? We’re going to have fun. And we’re not trying to worry about pixels,’” Field says.
After a six-month sprint, Figma had enough input from customers such as Discord, Netflix and Stripe to launch the public beta test version of FigJam; Field pegged it at 25% complete, expecting it to evolve over time. “When you’ve done it enough, it’s almost like the market is going to extract the product out of you,” he says. Already, Figma has added audio support to chat with teammates; another frequently requested feature that moved up in priority: a timer.
Adobe popularized software for designers back in the 1980s; by the time Figma, No. 7 on this year’s Cloud 100 list, came around, designers were also turning to Sketch out of Europe and to InVision (No. 52). Figma, launched in 2016, already has millions of users and expects annual recurring revenue to more than double this year from $75 million in 2020, according to sources. Joe Biden’s campaign managed all its visual assets via Figma. And when toilet paper ran out across the U.S. in 2020, Kimberly-Clark drafted reorder forms using Figma’s tools.
In June, the company raised $200 million from investors, valuing Figma at $10 billion. Forbes estimates that Field and cofounder Evan Wallace, 31, each own about 10% of Figma, making them near-billionaires. (Forbes applies a 10% private-company discount.)
The mission today is simple: As Google Docs did for word processing and GitHub for code, so Figma is doing for design. “The entire economy is going from physical to digital, and design is just the latest chapter,” Field says. “And design is a team sport—it’s collaborative by nature.”
As a high school student at a tech-focused magnet school in Sonoma County, California, Field built robots and websites for friends. He later wowed executives at a LinkedIn summer internship by helping devise a social-impact program. As part of Brown’s undergraduate computer science group, he met Wallace, who had impressed his own summer employer, Pixar, by devising an algorithm to render a ball bobbing in a 3-D pool. After an internship at Flipboard, Field dropped out in 2012 to take $100,000 and start a business as a Thiel Fellow (Wallace joined him in California after he got his degree). Over the years, they tried a handful of ideas, including software for drones and, at a low point, a meme generator. Finally, they researched taking on Adobe’s photo-editing apps, building a tool for supporters to paste themselves into photos of Barack Obama.
Field then set his sights on Adobe’s widely used Photoshop for editing all kinds of images, using technology to do so in a shareable Web browser, not a desktop app. That idea was enough for Flipboard board director Danny Rimer’s VC firm, Index Ventures, LinkedIn then CEO Jeff Weiner and others to lead a $4 million seed round in 2013. Rejection by ex-Mozilla CEO John Lilly, an investor at Greylock Partners, was perhaps as valuable: Undeterred, Field asked to keep meeting with Lilly for feedback; after Lilly made an offhand comment that former Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen might have helpful advice, Field tracked down and spoke to the veteran. “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.”
What’s proven harder for Field: moving decisively on all that intel. The test version of Figma’s product took years to launch, and many frustrated employees quit before it did. Asking questions is great, Field’s mentor Weiner told him, but not at the cost of trusting your own instincts.
When it came to charging for Figma, Field’s intuition told him to hold off and keep tinkering with the product. But when a user at Microsoft warned that Figma’s adoption was slowing at the tech giant because of doubts that a free startup tool could be trusted, Field acted faster. Going back into research mode, he opted for a model, inspired by Australian software outfit Atlassian, of simple tiered pricing of $12 or $45 per editor (many users still opt for the free version).
Later, when some big-name customers, notably Google, asked for volume discounts, Field jumped on the phone to explain why Figma wouldn’t budge. “People come around and understand, or they don’t and they don’t go with us,” he says.
Today, with $200 million in fresh funding, Figma must decide how to prioritize international expansion (already 80% of users are outside the U.S., and its latest round included global-minded strategic investors, such as Brazil’s Base Partners), potential acquisitions (it has bought two startups, including one that revamped Figma’s mobile app) and new features to help it achieve its goal of becoming an end-to-end solution. FigJam, itself a work in progress, helps on the front end. More work is needed on the other end, turning the designs into finished products.
That later stage is the company’s future, but Field is careful not to look too far ahead. With such a broad and growing customer base, Field says there are “a million” things his users would like him to build. Address too many and Figma’s tools could end up disorganized. Most workdays, Field checks Twitter for mentions of Figma and design, or reads customer support tickets as they come in. “Not all of them are happy, because here’s this thing they want fixed, and that gives me a pulse on what’s going on,” he says. “And the people that are happy, that’s when I get really stoked. And that motivates me so much.”
Always looking for balance, Field was early among tech-company bosses to settle on a hybrid plan for employees to be together in Figma’s new headquarters on San Francisco’s Market Street two days a week. Said Field on a July visit: “We’re getting into it with eyes wide open.”
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