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min read
May 21, 2024


Do you really need an in-house design team?

Navigating the hurdles of hiring an in-house design team in early-stage startups.
Adarsh Maradiya
May 21, 2024
min read
min read
May 21, 2024
Adarsh Maradiya
COO, Co-founder

Let’s try to understand the problem through a hypothetical story:

Thomas liked the food at a local eatery. Having an entrepreneurial mindset, one day, he thought of opening a restaurant, even though he had no experience in the food industry. He went to his favorite eatery and discussed this idea with a sous chef who worked there. After some negotiations, Thomas hired this sous chef as the head chef of his new restaurant.

Because of Thomas’s budget constraints, the chef’s salary was a heavy amount to pay. Once the chef started working, he wanted expensive kitchen tools, not because of his culinary skills but because he was used to working with these tools. And then came the demand for additional staff. Thomas, lacking the expertise in hiring a cooking team, let the chef choose his own team. It wasn’t long before Thomas saw none of this spending was paying off — the chef and his quickly assembled team just couldn’t cut it.

A few days later, after having spent a lot of money, Thomas realized his business had run out of funds, and he had to close it.

Now, if you were asked what went wrong, you might point out, “It was hiring the wrong chef.” You might also have solutions for hiring a good chef, for instance, through a good hiring agency. But what if I say that wouldn’t have made much of a difference?

Seasoned business owners will spot several red flags in this story. But here’s the kicker — Thomas had put a sous chef in charge, expecting him to run the whole show. That move came from Thomas’s lack of experience and the absence of expertise in a completely different and complex domain. He didn’t realize managing a restaurant’s kitchen needs more than just cooking skills — it needs someone who can lead and manage a whole team of cooks efficiently.

Now, how is this connected to tech businesses hiring a full-time designer? If you are already running a business, then you must have understood a few relevant points; let’s cover it all:

First, understand how design works


Designers come with their own set of skills. Some are great with visuals while some excel at understanding users. Similarly, some get the tech side, some can manage projects, strategize, or unleash creativity. To create a product that fits in the market, you need a mix of all these skills. This is why design is a team effort. But here’s the challenge: you won’t find a designer who’s an expert in everything, no matter how experienced a designer is, one or two designers can’t cover all sides. It takes a diverse team to create a meaningful product, especially in startups where they are trying to build products from scratch.

Domain expertise

Another key point is that designers often specialize in certain industries. For example, someone who’s great at designing SaaS (Software as a Service) products might not be the right fit for Edtech, Retail, or OTT platforms, even though they’re all called product designers. And here’s the tricky part: to land a job, some designers might say they’re experts in a field they don’t have experience in. This can be hard to filter while hiring if you haven’t worked with designers for a long time.

In-house designers at early-stage startups

Now let’s look at why in-house designers might not be the right choice for an early-stage startup:

1. Need for Diverse Expertise:

Effective design in tech requires a diverse team with skills from UI/UX to graphics, product design, and even animation to create a meaningful product, especially in early-stage startups trying to refine their product. Assembling an in-house design team with such a broad skill set is not a financially viable option, making it impractical for most startups.

2. Finding Industry-Specific Talent:

As mentioned above, designers often specialize in areas like SaaS, Edtech, Fintech, and so on. For a new startup, it can be tough to spot these specific skills. Even hiring agencies might not guarantee that you get a designer matching all of your specific requirements.

3. Tool and Resource Investment:

Setting up an in-house team means buying expensive top-notch tools and resources — like PCs, design software, and other expensive subscriptions. Most of these costs aren’t just one-time but recurring expenses that keep adding up with updates and training, which prevent startups from getting a return on their investment.

4. Design operations:

Managing design operations is challenging because you have to handle many tasks. You need to plan projects, make sure deadlines are met, and ensure that the new design team works well with other departments. Balancing creative demands with the business side can also lead to conflicts. Plus, there’s the added work of hiring, training, and managing projects within the team.

5. Retention of Talent:

The tech world is highly competitive, and retaining great designers can be difficult. Startups invest their time and resources into training young designers, only to have them leave for larger corporations — offering better perks or less workload.

6. Cultural fit & rational thinking:

The primary skill of a designer is being creative. But, there’s a tricky conflicting part: being super creative sometimes means not thinking as rationally. Designers often have their strong points of view and might not fully agree with the business side of things. This can make managing designers tough in a fast-moving startup environment, where direction and requirements constantly change.

Wrapping Up

Hiring a designer (like the chef in our story) without knowing how to manage them can be tricky. Finding the right person and managing them, plus the costs involved can impact a startup’s budget, work efficiency, outcome, and, eventually, the startup's future.

So, if hiring a full-time designer isn’t the best move, and going for a freelancer is even worse, what should a startup do?

The smartest choice is to work with a design agency that knows your industry domain well and a design service provider that has experience in developing similar products as yours. This way, you get the needed expertise without the hassle of managing staff or worrying about the fit.

Here’s the best one — (full disclaimer, we might be a little biased!😜) Drool, a design operations and management service that handles all your design needs from start to finish. Specializing in working with early-stage tech startups.

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Written by

Adarsh Maradiya

I'm a Product designer turned entrepreneur. I am leading operations at Drool where we manage design operations and management for Tech startups.

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