My 3-year rollercoaster ride at Blitz.
I still remember watching the NA LCS Final at the Instant Esports (former name of Blitz) Viewing Party back in August 2015. I rooted for my team along with hundreds of other fans, and most of all, saw validation for this company that my friends Rick and Jonathan put their heart and soul into. I told them at the event that if they ever need a product designer, feel free to reach out to me any time.
3 months later, I joined Blitz as their Lead Designer. It really felt like I was joining a rocketship. I saw the validation — they had finished Y Combinator and raised a $2M seed round. I loved the team — they had the skills that I didn’t have as a startup founder when I worked on my previous startup Iris. Most of all, I was passionate about the product — I have been an avid esports fan since 10, growing up at the hub of esports, Korea.
I learned quickly that designing at a seed-stage startup is not quite like joining a rocketship. Looking back, it wasn’t a smooth sailing for sure. It was a rollercoaster ride full of changes, mistakes, failures, successes, wins, and of course, learnings. As I conclude my ride at Blitz and embark on my next journey, I’d like to share some of these learnings over my three years at Blitz (acquired by Discord November 2018).
1. Design is more than just about art or ease of use. It’s about empowering a business.
Often, designers are told that design is not just about making things look good — it’s about making things work well. This still overlooks a crucial, perhaps the most important goal of design: design is a means of creating a successful business.
Ideally, design should accomplish all three goals: aesthetic goal, product goal, and business goal. At its most basic level, design must be visually pleasing and create delightful experiences. The intangible value of beauty, delight, and craftsmanship actually have tremendous effect on users, as we can see from Apple, Slack, and Stripe.
But what separates product design from just an art is that it must help users accomplish a desired task. Users will not use your product if it just looks good and doesn’t work. Great user interfaces are not necessarily fancy or novel. It just works — like tried and true interface norms like tables and bottom navigation bar.
It was only after working at Blitz that I learned design’s ultimate goal is to create a successful business. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if your design looks good. Heck, it might not matter if your product is super easy to use and works damn well. In the end what really matters is “will the company meet its business goal?”
Here’s an example — in almost every user interviews or surveys, the #1 user pain point has always been “How can I improve myself as a gamer?” We explored what we can do to help users, like the Missions feature below.
We ended up never working on Missions because growth was a much more pressing business priority. Gamer improvement is a feature that mostly impacts our retention, but our retention was already great at 50% 10-week retention. Our growth, however, was stagnating. We had weeks when our WAU flatlined when we never shipped content, our main driver for growth. In order to grow exponentially, we needed a feature that could bring us inherent product virality, and that’s why we shipped Clans.
As a product designer, you will be constantly bombarded with problems with prioritization. Sometimes you will be in situations where you must sacrifice the visuals for the sake of functionality. At an early-stage startup where every moment is a fight for survival, a more pressing prioritization is between features. So many great ideas, but so little time and resource. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind your immediate business needs and goals.
Figure out what’s the most important metric for your company now. Your ultimate goal as a product designer is to use design to move the needle for that metric. That’s the success metric for your company, your product, and your career.
2. Sometimes it’s ok to be NOT perfect.
As designers, it’s in our nature to obsess over each pixel and pay attention to every detail. When I used to work in a design team at a much larger company, I got to do just that — spend days and weeks pixel-pushing and polishing each and every interaction to create the perfect experience.
At a startup, however, things are different. You get to ship features in just 2 weeks instead of 2 months. At the same time, you are working with just 1–2 other frontend engineers instead of a whole team of engineers. Because you are resource-strapped, you don’t have the luxury to create that perfect experience you desire. And you know what, chances are that extra 2 weeks of pixel polish probably won’t affect your company’s success as much as you’d think.
When I first joined Blitz, I worked on a complete redesign of the Instant Esports mobile app. The whole engineering team worked really hard on it — in fact, we spent the entire 2 weeks just pixel pushing to create the perfect design for our Explore page. The app looked and felt great. After nearly 3 months of work (which is a lot of time for a startup), we finally released the all-new Instant Esports app. The result? It had negligible impact on our metrics — both retention and growth.
The redesign taught the entire team a valuable lesson. Sometimes we must be willing to ship things even if it’s not perfect. Shipping 2 weeks earlier to get users’ feedback early and iterate is much more valuable than spending 2 weeks on fancy cards full of diagonal lines and sexy masks.
As a designer, it hurts me every time I see off-pixel instances in our app. In fact, I could write a 10-page doc with a list of aesthetic and quality-of-life improvements we could make. But before I’m a designer, I’m a product designer, and that means that I know there are bigger priorities than pixel perfection.
I’ve gotten pretty used to the production app not 100% matching my Sketch file. And that’s okay.
As a product designer, you will be put into situations where you must make a compromise — a compromise between a designer’s desire for craftsmanship and product desire for achieving a success metric. In most cases, the right answer for a startup is the latter. Think for yourself what metric your new fancy font or animation will influence. Retention? Growth? It probably will impact an intangible value of delight. Sometimes, delight is a luxury for a resource-strapped startup.
3. Freedom comes with responsibility
One of the best perks of being a designer at an early-stage startup is that you get to have tremendous amount of freedom. You get to be the mastermind and own everything design, from product to branding (yes, business cards too.) I was really excited to join Blitz for the opportunity to have an infinite canvas for design. Over time, however, I learned that freedom comes with responsibility.
When you are designing and producing great work, you will enjoy all the freedom you have. But not everyone is perfect, and there will be times when you get stuck in a so-called designer’s block. And if your design doesn’t deliver results, it’s ultimately on you. There’s no one else to blame, and no one else to help you.
There were many times when I designed something, and I knew it didn’t look and feel right. When I walk over and show it to my teammates, they would say the same. “It just doesn’t feel right.” “It doesn’t look good.” And yes, the dreaded “Can you make it pop?” These kind of feedbacks rarely help a designer. It gives us whether we are on the right track or not, but doesn’t really give us a better sense of direction. So then I am off on my own, sitting at my desk for hours trying to figure out the why to the problem.
One way I tackled this is by hosting design critiques with other solo designers at early-stage startups. We all work at small startups where showing our work is perfectly fine, so we meet every Wednesday to get a third person’s point of view. We share our work by briefly explaining what the design does, why we are working on the design, and the problem or the question that we currently have. It’s almost like a therapy session, really. If you are a solo designer at a startup, I highly recommend holding design critiques with other solo designers. It’s going to help you with your designer’s block and improve your communication skills as a designer.
4. You have to get out of your comfort zone.
I consider myself a product designer first and foremost. That is, I specialize in creating user interfaces and user experiences, and my skillset has developed over the years to specialize in that role. When I joined Blitz, however, I had to get out of my comfort zone to wear as many hats as possible, depending on what the team needed at the time.
Here’s a list of everything I did over my three years at Blitz:
- Product design: This is an obvious one. My main day-to-day task.
- Graphic design: Creating YouTube thumbnails, video overlays, marketing graphics, etc.
- UX research: Analyzing quantitative data via Mixpanel, user interviews, and user surveys.
- Frontend dev: I acted as a second frontend dev from time to time using HTML/CSS/React.
- Esports analyst: I wrote the script for LCK (League of Legends pro league in Korea) analysis videos.
- Translator: I went down to LA to translate Korean players’ interview.
- Presentation Designer: Spent hours going back and forth with Rick (our CEO) cranking out pitch decks for our funding.
- …and I probably left out a few more.
Many of these are something I am not used to, especially graphic design. Coming from product background, I consider graphic design to be a very different skillset. I can explain why certain product design is effective or not. To this day, I still struggle to grasp why and how a certain graphic design is aesthetically pleasing. Yet, I had to step outside of my comfort zone and learn a thing or two in visual design to help our content team, like creating Youtube thumbnails, video overlays, marketing assets, and more.
Working at Blitz was an incredible opportunity to expand my skillset and try something new. I have dabbled with Photoshop more than ever. I got a chance to learn React. I interviewed with nearly a hundred users and read through thousands of user surveys. Heck, I even got to meet and talk with many esports players in real life. I don’t think I would have been able to do so many different things at any other company.
5. Expect changes. Lots of them.
One of my key traits as a person is that I love making plans. I make plans on a daily, weekly, quarterly, and yearly level. As a side-effect, I find myself hard to get used to changes in plans. Well, working at an early-stage startup, I really had to get used to these changes.
Here’s a thing with early-stage startups: most long term plans change. It’s because in early stage, your top priority is to find product-market fit. You must adapt like an amoeba that constantly try to change shape to mold yourself to user needs and business opportunity. The only thing that stays firm is the company vision. The rest — the features, the product, everything — is open for change.
Throughout my three year journey at Blitz, we have changed courses many, many times. We started out as a mobile app that curated third-party esports news and offered latest schedule. We then had a soul-searching moment when we pivoted twice. (one of the pivots was a completely random one: a topic-based messaging app.) We eventually came back to esports, and started producing our own esports content — think Vox but for esports. This year, we shifted focus back to product by creating a desktop app that helps gamers make better ingame decisions. TL;DR: we worked on something new almost every half a year.
The upside to this is that I got to produce lots of stuff. I have pretty much worked on every possible platforms — iOS, Android, web, and desktop — and tried all sorts of styles — light, dark, flat, shadows, serif, sans-serif — you name it.
On the other hand, there were times when we had to scrap what we were working on and move to another opportunity immediately. So many unexpected factors caused last-minute changes, such as:
- Time-sensitive opportunity: Fortnite grew in popularity this summer, and we wanted to catch the wave to seize the market before teenagers (the main playerbase for Fortnite) go back to school.
- External factor: We worked on a feature that depended on League of Legends’ new tournament system, Clash. Unfortunately, they postponed the launch of Clash indefinitely and we had to scrap the feature.
- More pressing business need: Our latest metric showed that growth is the most important business concern, so we funneled all our resource into our growth feature Clans.
If you are used to concrete yearly, quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals, you are going to have to get used to sudden changes at a startup. One week you will be working on a desktop app. Next Monday, your team might decide to scrap that and work on something completely different.
Changes are part of the startup life. Get used to it.
Looking back at the past three years at Blitz, it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my career. I had a chance to grow so much as a designer, and learn valuable lessons I probably couldn’t have gotten anywhere else in the world.
This is not just because I joined a seed-stage startup — it’s because I joined Blitz. I personally felt a strong attachment to their product and vision as an esports fan. I resonated with the users’ pain points, and that made me fully invest my passion into the product. And of course, I joined Blitz because it was the best team that I could ask for. The Blitz team is the most talented and wholesome team I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve learned so much from them, from product and engineering to marketing and content.
If I were to give an advice to anyone looking to join an early-stage startup, I’d say you look at three things:
- Team: Does the team have what you don’t have? Do you think you can learn a lot from the team? Do you have the right chemistry?
- Vision: Are you passionate about what the team is working on? Do you resonate with the vision and the pain point? How much do you know about the market?
- Validation: How confident are you in their product and the market? What’s their current metric? How much room for growth do you see in the market?
I am super excited to share that Blitz has been acquired by Discord and I will be joining Discord to embark on a new journey. I consider consumer startups to face three quests: 1. Finding product-market fit. 2. Scaling to market. 3. Monetization. At Blitz, I’ve been working on the first quest, finding product-market fit. At Discord, I will be working on the third, as we tackle monetization. You can learn more about it here.
Looking back, Blitz has been a chance for me to hone my craft and grow as a product designer. I consider Discord as an opportunity for me to put my learnings into action, making an impact on millions of gamers, and take Discord’s business to the next level.
I can’t wait to continue my learnings at Discord, and share the lessons in my journey along the way.
Here’s to Blitz.