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EPISODE 18: Design as a Superpower (w/ Mercer Studios founder Kevin Twohy)

The Startup Stack
EPISODE 18: Design as a Superpower (w/ Mercer Studios founder Kevin Twohy)

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This week Louis talks with Kevin Twohy, an independent product designer and the founder of Mercer Studios. In his decade-plus designing products for clients like Fitbit, Casper, Everlane and The New York Times, Kevin has learned a lot about the iterative nature of design work. 

He shares some of those insights on this week’s pod, including budget tips, process considerations — & why a beautiful prototype can be a dangerous thing.

It’s a little counterintuitive, but I do think that design also has risks. Meaning it can sometimes be used as a tool to make a bad idea look kind of okay.

-Kevin Twohy

🎙 Highlights Include

  • What is a design agency?
  • How long do companies generally contract with a design agency?
  • What are the benefits of hiring a design agency vs. a freelance designer? How do you know which you need?  
  • What is a standard product design process?
  • What are the biggest emerging product trends of 2021? 

This Week’s Guest

Kevin Twohy of Mercer Studios on The Startup Stack

Kevin Twohy

Founder & Principal @ Mercer Studios

Kevin Twohy is the founder & principal of Mercer Studios, a product design agency specializing in zero-to-one product design strategy. Kevin’s clients include Casper, Mirror & The New York Times. 

The Startup Stack’s Host
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Louis Beryl

CEO, Co-Founder of Rocketplace

Rocketplace is a curated marketplace of high quality professional service providers. A 3x founder, investor, and board member, Louis began his tech career as a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. When he’s not working or podcasting, Louis enjoys cooking for his family. His pizza, he’d like you to know, is incredible. 

Full Episode Transcript

The Startup Stack – Kevin Twohy_Final

[00:00:00] Kevin Twohy: The Startup Stack – Kevin Twohy_Final

The designer is walking into the big presentation, uh, lots of folks in the room and pitching to the big boss. And he goes through his presentation, hits all the notes and it’s a great success. Everyone claps, the boss loves it, comes over after and says, you nailed it. You always have the best fonts the best type faces. That’s amazing. And the designer says, thank you. And so the boss says, how do you get them? And the designer says by courier.

Louis Beryl: [Laughing]

Kevin Twohy: That was a Kevin Twohy original.

Louis Beryl: So, I think you should stick with being a designer. 

Kevin Twohy: Okay. Thanks. [Laughing] 

Louis Beryl: This week, a conversation with my old friend and one of the first product designers I ever worked with Kevin Twohy. In his own words Kevin’s business, Mercer Studios is the world’s smallest design agency. It’s a fair description. After all Mercer Studios is an agency of one and that one is Kevin. But [00:01:00] as a product design and strategy studio, Mercer has carved out an enviable position with clients including big well-known brands like Casper, Fitbit, Everlane, and the New York Times. What I’ve heard also has a small podcasting operation, New York Times. Good for you. We’re here to give tips, just shoot us an email anytime. Kevin’s here to talk about design and the products he’s working on right now, and to give us a sense of what’s next. Like what are we all going to be consuming in 2023? So many questions. So little time let’s get started. To start why don’t you tell us a little bit about your firm and your agency Mercer Studios.

Kevin Twohy: Yeah. So I run the world’s smallest design agency. It’s mainly just myself and I do have a, sort of a rotating cast of other folks that I pull in, uh, from time to time to help, but it’s mainly just a one man show. And I definitely… 

Louis Beryl: I mean  let’s not sell yourself too short. I mean, you’ve worked with some truly amazing clients, not [00:02:00] just, you know, my former startup, Earnest, but you’ve worked with Casper, you’ve worked with Mirror, you’ve worked with Fitbit, Everlane, and the, the list goes on and on. 

Kevin Twohy: Yeah. I mean, I’ve been very lucky in that regard had some, some of those clients starting out when they’re really small, some of them when they were already big established, the main thing that I’m trying to focus on these days is what I sort of call zero to one product design and strategy, which mainly means just starting from scratch, iterating through various stages of implementation and ending up with a finished product that’s in the market and doing basically all of the design work that’s involved in it adjacent to that process. And that’s sort of the part of when I was in-house at smaller startups, the part of the, of building technology that I loved the most and gravitated towards the most. So that’s sort of what I’m focusing on now through my studio.

Louis Beryl: Yeah. And so if you’re working kind of in that [00:03:00] zero to one stage, I imagine that the clients you’re working with are actually pretty early. I’m wondering, you know, how early are they when you start working with them? 

Kevin Twohy: I mean, I try to articulate, or at least communicate that it’s never too early. The earliest would be, you know, a founder who has, you know, a Google doc or some kind of rough scratch notes of where they want to go. Sometimes it’s actually. It’s good to have some flexibility about definitely how we get there, but it’s good to have some flexibility and not be precious about the exact final shape of what we’re going to make, but clear idea about what the opportunity is and what the market is. So, you know, many of my projects start out just with that. A founder, maybe there’s an engineer involved at that stage, maybe not, but we start completely from scratch with no brand identity off often, no name and certainly no product design or software that’s built already.

Louis Beryl: Tell me, how did you end up building your own agency?

Kevin Twohy: Yeah, well, I mean, I try to work and [00:04:00] position myself and think about myself and talk about it as an individual. More often than an agency, but with all of the advantages of an agency where appropriate, which usually means just the ability to elasticity the ability to scale up and scale down really quickly and flexibly without passing the cost of that onto the client. So I don’t want to retain a massive staff of sort of illustrators and motion graphics people and branding folks all the time and then pass that cost onto the client. So I try to kind of have the best of both worlds of targeted. Generalist individual contributor with the advantage of the agency, agility of a small agency where possible. So I’m actually kind of tried to resist as hard as I can becoming a quote unquote agency like hiring and scaling up. And it’s actually kind of. Uh, hard to do because you, you, after a while, if you have a little bit of luck, you’ll have more work coming in, then you can take on as an individual. And so the natural thing to do, and I think [00:05:00] for a lot of people is to hire, to meet that demand. And so, for me personally, I’ve tried not to do that and tried to sort of retain the autonomy and the kind of precision and focus of, of being a solo consultant or solo plus some helpers consultant. So that’s something I’ve had to sort of actively resist doing, cause it is sort of the natural reaction to demand rising it’s scale up and get larger.

Louis Beryl: I think we’ve heard that from other firms before that actually one of the easiest things to do is to. To grow the firm, but to keep it small, can be more challenging. What are, what are some of the other challenges that you have faced over the years in building your business? 

Kevin Twohy: The one that we just talked about, the resisting, the urge to scale up too quickly. I think that that’s a potential trap. It’s either where you want to go. If your goal is to grow a large agency and take on larger and larger projects or move into new territory, you know, [00:06:00] there are certain things that. Transparently. It just cannot be done by an individual and certain things that take a large team to pull off, or if you want to go for larger and larger accounts or budgets. So that may be where, where one wants to go. But if it’s not, it’s very difficult to resist in starting out with whether you want to call it freelancing or consulting or running a very small agency. There’s a really, I think of it like a flywheel. It takes a lot of energy to get going. Once you get it going, it sort of can be self-sustaining. Less and less energy applied to it but getting that flywheel spinning can be, can take a lot of energy and can take a fair amount of time. 

Louis Beryl: So… So let’s dive into that for a second. Tell us some of the things that you did to really get your flywheel spinning in our audiences. A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs like yourself. To build their own firms and agencies. What are some of those tricks to getting the flywheel spinning for you? 

Kevin Twohy: I mean, I think one key is you need a lucky break to start [00:07:00] out and you can.

Louis Beryl: Okay step one find lucky break.

Kevin Twohy: Yeah. Well, ways to try and find a lucky break. I think is through networking. And in, in most cases, someone will have had a prior job. Maybe they were working, in-house doing the same type of thing. Or they worked at an agency doing a similar type of skill. So start with those connections three out.

Louis Beryl: So create your own luck. How did you do, what was your lucky break? 

Kevin Twohy: Exactly like that. I had a couple folks from either prior full-time jobs or, you know, I did a brief stint in the agency world that, you know, knew someone who needed a freelance designer. Everlane was actually one of my very first clients ever. And that was a lucky connection when the company was just first starting out. I knew someone who knew Michael Preysman the founder, and they needed a freelance designer. So that was a lucky break. And that was a very lucky break because.The company was not very well known at the time. And there was sort of a rising tide not necessarily due to my work at all. Just the company [00:08:00] was taking off and went gangbusters and became a sort of household name. So that was a lucky break in the sense of getting my first client, but a really good first. And a fortuitous first client to get. So, you know, starting with personal connections and getting your name out there and trying to be top of mind for as many people as possible. And one thing I would say is you, you only need one or two to pay off. And after that, I think the strategy changes much more towards, you know, like you said, making your own luck by turning clients into new clients and trying to find ways that you’re ensuring that every client project you take on, but gets at least one more.

Louis Beryl: I want to talk about product design and strategy for a second. Cause I let you know, I look at your portfolio. I know your work that you did with Earnest that was in financial services. You know, you’ve worked with Milk Bar that’s in baking. You’ve worked with Mirror in fitness. We’re talking about Everlane in clothing, [00:09:00] Casper and bedding. I mean, how do you think about the type of design you do? Is it physical products? Is it the websites where people are buying things with, what, what do we mean by product design and strategy? 

Kevin Twohy: I would think in general design and the type of design that I do as a means of solving business problems, and specifically for me and the client, it’s a process by which to solve business problems together. So the types of projects I look to take on, especially nowadays have. Some core component that involves the product design and technology, but usually that’s coupled with some adjacent problem or adjacent industry that also is itself a media problem. So like for Mirror there’s the entire world of fitness. You were mentioning for a Casper that’s, e-commerce. There’s a big project we’re working on with the New York Times now that has a huge editorial and journalistic component to it. So [00:10:00] using software as a lever to solve some other real-world or business problem. And I think a key, a key thing that I look for in projects is, you know, I think of them as sort of call it type one or type two types of design work. Type one is a design as a raw material. The client will tell you what to do. So we, when we worked together on Earnest, that was almost 10 years ago and I was just getting started so that Earnest was mostly a type one type of client for me. I had the raw core competency to make wire frames and do product design but you knew mostly what to do. And you were telling me what to do more than the other way around. So that’s sort of type one and you need those types of clients to get going and start building up a client base. But ideally over time, you start moving towards these type two clients where they’re paying you not mainly not for that raw material of making wire frames, but paying you for your experience and skillset and judgment that you’ve built up. By doing a [00:11:00] lot of those type one clients. So I kind of look for technology butting up against some meatier problems. So the end is not just an app it’s software plus something else that coupled together can, can create a niche or solve a problem. And then that type two type of work where it’s like consultative by nature. And not just design output for its own sake.

Louis Beryl: Can you tell us about maybe one of your type two projects that you’re particularly proud of? What was the challenge you faced and the solution you came up with? 

Kevin Twohy: One that I can talk about in that, that dovetails with that in the abstract, this project with the New York Times it’s not out yet. So I can’t talk about the details of, of the product, but it’s a great example of co, using design and the process of design to co-create something that couldn’t have been specked out at the beginning. So we’re working with this team of journalists and folks on the audio team and on their editorial team to figure out together what the shape of the [00:12:00] product is that, that we should make. And so the form that, that takes is usually we will, uh, make something as a provocation, a prototype, and then we’ll show that to them and say, well, what do you think. If you start out just asking them, hey, what should we make? You’re not going to get anywhere. It doesn’t get the generative creative process going, but you can show them a prototype. That prototype is not software to be built. It’s software that serves the purpose of us making something together. And as soon as you show that to them, ideas start to come up and light bulbs start to go off. And so, you know what? It might be interesting if it worked slightly this different way, and then you’re sort of off to the races. So using product design and prototyping to facilitate that process is really interesting to me just because that’s something, like I said, you can’t really hire an agency to do it. It can’t be done in a meeting. They can’t be done it through a brainstorm, it has to be iterative and it has to be a sort of loopy by nature. And that’s kind of a hallmark of the type of, of projects that I like to take [00:13:00] on where there’s not necessarily a clear view or a direct path towards the solution. 

Louis Beryl: So this is so interesting before we talked about, and you really like to find clients at the zero to one stage. And now you’re now you’re working for The New York Times. Huge, huge company. I’m excited to see this work with the New York Times cause I loved The New York Times, read it constantly, but you know, how do you think about that transition of your work or is it kind of not about that at all in this case?

Kevin Twohy: It, it is very much in the, uh, same umbrella as zero to one product design projects. This one was starting from scratch. Right? When I came on and in this industry, you’ll hear a lot of larger companies saying, oh, you know, we operate like a startup inside of a larger company. It’s like a common trope in this case, it’s actually true. And they have this, you know, incredible, very nimble, small. Uh, but growing product team on this project and it was, they specifically wanted someone to come in and, and get the product going [00:14:00] from zero. So in many ways it’s a really ideal client for me because I also get, like I mentioned, I like to look for design and technology butting up against some other interesting problem. And in their case, there’s so much to learn and it’s such an interesting place to be adjacent to. And that’s part of the reason I like looking for projects like that, that are in some interesting domain, like whether it’s Milk Bar or The New York Times is you get to learn and they pay you to do it. It’s shocking. But you get to pick up so much, whether it’s interesting process or just sort of like details of how they get their work done, that you get to take with you.

Louis Beryl: So we, we have a lot of, a lot of our audience, a lot of entrepreneurs out there. I was actually five minutes before our podcast today. I was reading an email from an entrepreneur and, you know, they’re all looking for designers. They’re trying to hire designers. What advice would you give to a company out there that is looking for design help? You [00:15:00] know, when should they be bringing someone in house? When should they be working with someone like you or, you know, an outside firm. What, what’s the right moment for that? 

Kevin Twohy: I think just to the last question you asked about, when should you work with a freelancer versus working with an agency? It’s a great question. It’s one, I get a lot and in general, there can be exceptions, but I would say things that agencies can be really great at often are, you know, large problems where I mentioned earlier, sort of like straight lines, clear view. We think we have a clear view of what we want to get accomplished and a fairly linear path to get there also things where more horsepower or bandwidth. So more people, larger teams can help you move faster. So if we double the team, we can get this done in half the size, you know, not all. Problems are like that specifically early stage product design, where you’re validating as you go by definition is iterative and is not really like [00:16:00] that. The team being twice the size will not get you there. And half the time also agencies, you know, if you’re a larger org and part of what you need to buy as part of this design work is crafting a narrative and a rationale that can be sort of echoed through the org to create internal alignment and buy-in which sometimes it’s kind of like characterized as political stuff, but it’s very real. And the skill set of telling a story around the design that can be bought into and get everyone on the same page. Agencies can be great at that. So that’s, those are some situations where I would look to potentially hire an agency. Conversely, if you know where you want to go, but the path is very unclear to get there. If you need someone who can work like a, a team member when you need it, but potentially have some agency like attributes, like scaling up a team. If you need someone who’s highly tolerant of ambiguity and changes, it might be best to work with find a independent designer or a freelancer to work with the tolerance [00:17:00] of ambiguity and changes. I think you want, if you’re in early stage product design, where you are likely to learn new things and change your mind. You want to be set up in a position where you’re not going to be penalized for that. And that that’s really hard to do is sort of fixed scope, fixed bid type projects that are common in an agency world.

Louis Beryl: How long do you typically work with clients for?

Kevin Twohy: I would say if there’s an average to get a consumer from scratch a consumer project to market and in the hands of customers and a couple of cranks after that, the average would be maybe a little under a year, eight months to a year and that’s from scratch. Putting some broad contours around what we’re going to build and validating it getting engineers to come join us to build it out prototyping iteratively until we feel like we’ve got something that’s ready to go to market and then launching it. That seems to be a sweet spot for how fast it, it obviously depends on the scale of the project. Mirror on the other end of the spectrum I’ve been working on for over three years [00:18:00] and of course that’s well after launch, but some engagements tend to go longer if you’ve got a good, a great fit. And there’s, there’s still interesting work to do ahead of you. 

MUSIC INTERLUDELouis Beryl: Hey, do you like our show? I do too. If you want to support The Startup Stack? The best way to do that is by subscribing and rating us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us also sent Dad jokes, or if you have them actual good jokes to Feel free to send us feedback there too. A company is out there. The, you know, they’re meeting designers, whether those are independent or larger agencies. What are the, what are the questions that they should be asking? How should they really evaluate whether a designer’s going to be a good fit for them and their company? I mean, it’s, it’s so tough, right? I mean, you see these portfolios, they look amazing. Your, the client lists like amazing, but how do you differentiate? 

Kevin Twohy: I think what I look for in evaluating clients, I think it’s sort of [00:19:00] probably a list of various similar questions and the flip side of the same coin. I’ve got a little survey that I ask clients to fill out right when we start working together. And one of the first questions is, who is responsible for the success of this project? And, you know, the answers can be you the designer, me, the client, or us together. That’s. And so I think that is a question that clients should ask a designer that they’re hiring. Who do they see as being responsible at the end of the day, where the buck stops the success of the project. And I actually think any of those answers are okay, but you don’t want to mismatch. You don’t want. Well, I actually, I was hiring a designer and I thought they were promising me. This was going to work out and the designer thought, well, you’re the one supposed to tell me what to do. So you want to figure that out early on.

Louis Beryl: Do you have a specific one you like, or are you happy with any of the three? 

Kevin Twohy: I love us together which I think tends to lead to a good balance of accountability and results. As a designer I can never take full [00:20:00] 100% accountability for the success of a, of an entrepreneurs, product or idea, but I kind of want to take on projects where I can take a lot. I don’t want to also say, well, you know, I colored in the lines just how you told me to and best of luck next time, you know. I want to take on, make their priorities my priorities take on the responsibility together. And that puts you in a position to say, you know, something is going the wrong way, or you think it’s going south to say, hey, you know, we, at the beginning we said we were both going to be responsible. And I think as part of that responsibility, I need to say, I don’t think this is the right move. And, and that, that actually leads to, you know, what else would you look for in a designer? And it runs both ways, but someone you can disagree with do a quick ego check, or do you feel that they’re going to be offended or hurt or wounded if you disagree with them or you don’t like what they make, that’s something to check for, you know, is their identity too tied up in the design work? I think a good gut check for process is useful. What is their [00:21:00] process and how much do they care about process? And again, that’s another one where there’s no right or wrong answer, but you need some type of match on that spectrum. If you are an entrepreneur and you want to move really nimble and really quick, and you don’t want to do, you know, a Google venture style design sprint but you hire a designer who’s really big on process. You might rub each other the wrong way. And then I think last, last thing that comes to mind on that is just try, especially if you’re hiring generalists, which a lot of early stage folks probably are. And this goes for both hiring individuals and agencies, they will all be able to do a lot of things for you. And I think they expand their reach in terms of clients they can serve by, by listing a lot of capabilities and competencies, try to figure out what their core superpower is, and you can do, for agencies you can do that by looking at past work or asking past clients for individual designers. Often you can find it out just by talking to them and trying to figure out what, what do we think this person is [00:22:00] a truly a superstar at? And if they can do all the things adjacent to that, that’s great. But you want that to match up with the shape of the problem you’ve got. If you have a really.Thorny process and operational agility problem that’s going to take a bunch of task flows and hairyUX mapping to figure out you don’t want to hire a stellar pixel level visual designer.

Louis Beryl: So what’s your core superpower?

Kevin Twohy: It’s maybe adjacent to the core. It doesn’t happen in Figma I’ll, I’ll put it that way, but I think it kind of flipping it on its end, figuring out what is this client really here for? What do they really want? And building up the trust early on that I’m on their side truly on their side and our incentives are aligned and then, you know, figuring out the right moment to use that trust.

Louis Beryl: I really like this responsibility framework that you’re [00:23:00] talking about. I liked the little mini survey, I think that’s, I think it’s really insightful for creating alignment. And for me in particular, I think creating alignment is one of the, the key attributes and. In working with anyone. One thing I’m wondering as well, though, is how do you set expectations with the clients? 

Kevin Twohy: So one, uh, that survey, like I mentioned, one of the first questions who’s responsible for the success. That’s just one vertical and there’s probably three, four or five other key attributes where you want to at least have a conversation. At a high level to get alignment, at least that we’re on the same page. One key thing with the way that I price projects or the way that I bill is I don’t do fixed bid projects. Mainly for the reason I touched on earlier, you know, in this early stage zero to one product design. By its own nature it is loopy and iterative and circuitous and I don’t want to set up a framework where we get [00:24:00] penalized for, for learning things and changing our mind. So if we’re working together on a project and we learned something through the prototype that we make, and we have an aha moment and say, oh my God, we were going in direction A and based on what we learned, I think we should hard pivot and go direction B. I want to be in a position to say, yes, I’m with you. Let’s do it. Not, oh well, you know, you remember in our initial statement of work, we said, we were going to do this. I don’t want to do that. But what that means is early on, we do need to get to some shared understanding of how long is this going to take. Otherwise, there’s no way for, for the client to estimate what the total cost is going to be. So getting alignment early on, I do some upfront like heavy workshopping, which is mainly just getting in front of a whiteboard together in pre-COVID times for digital whiteboard. Now let’s just map out the entire surface of what we think we’re going to build and you can get to a, I think I can get to a pretty tight, ah week’s level estimate [00:25:00] if nothing goes wrong and we don’t learn, we don’t have any revelations. It can be on the order of X weeks to get there. And let’s map it out in a rough schedule. And based on the weekly rate, it’ll be about this cost. So it kind of gives them the benefit of being able to budget, but also we all know things come up and plans change. So getting alignment on that and then one other good alignment question I ask is just, uh, what’s the worst thing that can happen. So in this project, what is success? But I think even more important is what is your biggest fear about hiring me to do this work? What’s the worst that could happen. And it’s not always what you think. You know, sometimes I had a client say once the worst thing that could happen is if you, we do this work together and it’s success a success, and then you go away. Uh, and that was sort of, my plan actually was how I work. And so that was way before we got deep into it that identified a misalignment. They were hoping [00:26:00] to find a full-time head of design through this project. And it’s best to get that out.Early on and they’re better off finding someone who has that same intention.

Louis Beryl: This might be a dumb question. Is there something about design or a design term that you wish all entrepreneurs knew before they’ve even met you?

Kevin Twohy: I don’t know about a term, but th the thing that comes to mind, that’s a little counterintuitive and I might get punished for saying this, but I do think there’s a lot of design and design as a super power or a tool inside of organizations also can pose a lot of risk. Meaning it can be used as a tool to convince folks internally. It can be used to make a bad idea look kind of okay. And…

Louis Beryl: Ohhhh design for evil!

Kevin Twohy: Designed for evil or designed for, you know, nefarious purposes or just it’s risky. And so, and this is a risk you can perpetrate on yourself, you know, you have an idea [00:27:00] and let’s go into design and the prototype that you make sort of highlights the potential upsides and it hides all of the emergent downsides. It can, it can be risky. And so knowing when to invest in design and knowing when to invest in what type of design, uh, is, is sort of a tricky sense to, to develop. And sometimes I think. It goes against a lot of founders intuition and sometimes ego to say, even as a designer, the best thing we could do is as little as design as possible, get it above the threshold of embarrassment and get it out there in the world. And anything beyond that, we might actually be going into a dangerous territory because all we’re doing is sort of drawing. 

Louis Beryl: Design could be a super power, but with great power comes great responsibility.

Kevin Twohy: Exactly!

Louis Beryl: I want to talk a little bit about trends we’re seeing. So you have obviously got a tremendous amount of e-commerce and with COVID we’ve [00:28:00] had an e-commerce explosion, but we’ve got, we’ve got other, other enormous trends happening right now with people not going into the office and all of the remote work, people shopping online in a way they have never before. I mean, You know, what are you seeing out there that you think is, is really a lot different than when you started? 

Kevin Twohy: One thing I’m seeing a lot of now is the intersection of what you mentioned COVID and remote work and, and how that has accelerated the trend of remote work. And a lot of The adoption of tools and, and techniques that go along with that. So the intersection of that with sort of the status quo of process, like inside of company process, and that it’s sort of like the water going out, the tide going out, and it reveals which, which of this process was actually helping us ship product and push the business forward. And which of it was actually just sort of [00:29:00] a strange tradition that we did and when it’s eliminated nothing bad happens. So that’s can be very revealing. I think it’s painful for a lot of teams that, that weren’t staffed up or teamed up or tooled up to do it before COVID happened. But I think folks are realizing really quickly. You know, some things that just, we stopped doing it and nothing broke. Some things that magically start to actually get easier or certain employees that thrive in, in that remote environment through like written communication or async communication. So I think that’s really interesting. And just aside from just the tools themselves and the techniques themselves, what things companies were doing that we never would have figured out. Actually, this was a little bit of, um, learned behavior that, that wasn’t helping us. And now we can adjust or, or get rid of it.

Louis Beryl: ?Do you have any like projections for 2021? I mean, what, what are you, what are you seeing that’s coming? What what’s being [00:30:00] frequently requested or, you know, by clients 

Kevin Twohy: I think what ,going on that same theme, one thing that it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a lot more variance and variety. And you know, if you take the standard like venture backed startup model of maybe you put a deck together, you raise a pre-seed, you use that pre-seed to hire a designer and an engineer and you build something and you use that to raise a series A and you’re sort of off to the races and it’s fairly linear in terms of the relationship between money and W2 employees. I, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more kind of variance and innovation on that. So, for example, I think there are some businesses that are just sort of slow burn businesses that might take four or five, six years to build. To build up a flywheal. It might be actually very low cost to operate. So you don’t really want to go hire a team of seven and pay them for seven years. You might want to actually just pay up [00:31:00] front to get some tooling bill and capture an audience and slowly maintain it over time into a large business. It’s sort of like if you think about. Uh, when you see construction on the street or architect plans, a new building, you hire a construction crew, you build it and then. The crew goes away because the building is built. It’s a little odd. I think the, the assumption, the default assumption is that every employee you hire, you will need the thing that they do in perpetuity, unless you fired them. Right. It would be weird to pay the construction company like at the Guggenheim to just stay there forever. So I think a little more flexibility in terms of building companies with part-time folks or, you know, solo founders who remain solo for much of the lifespan of the business and bring employees on for a season or a contract or on for a specific task. Uh, and I think the speed with which is sync remote tools are being [00:32:00] adopted dovetails with that, for sure.

Louis Beryl: Yeah. That’s a fascinating perspective. What about products? Are there big trends you’re seeing on the, you know, I was one of the people designing these kind of new products at the cutting edge of stuff. Is there anything that you see coming in the next year or two that the rest of us, aren’t seeing? 

Kevin Twohy: Two things that come to mind immediately. One’s more simple, which is just asynchronous communication. So Loom, I’m sure most folks listening to this probably know at is, but it’s a asynchronous sort of screen sharing and video recording. So it’s kind of like, you know, if you’ve watched, if you were watching a YouTube channel of someone explaining how to do something with the screen and their little face in the corner. It allows you to make those very easily. And before Loom came along, I was recording QuickTime videos. Exactly like that. It’s just, it makes perfect sense. Especially if you have a team working in a different time zone, but there’s, there’s so many other benefits, you know, they persist after the meeting is over. So someone new joins the team and said, oh, hey, what did you guys discuss in that product [00:33:00] review? Well, there’s a video of it and it can be instantly sent. You can send it to a stakeholder, you can send it to an executive, see what they think. So there’s so much power in that kind of async high bandwidth type of communication. So I love Loom. I think that’s going to take off like crazy, but, you know, in the technology sector, but also just for other things, too, I think with that, you know, the pendulum, I think might swing both ways in terms of, uh, Slack and people’s fatigue. Constant low bandwidth async communication or excuse me, synchronous communication. So I think people have notification fatigue and are sort of wishing in some cases, could we go back to email or at least go back to more thoughtful high bandwidth forms of communication that are, that are thoughtfully composed. So I’m seeing some of that. The other one that has been going on for a while, but it feels like we’re just on the cusp of, is when I started out earlier in my career, like I think for Earnest, I think I was doing [00:34:00] those designs and Adobe Illustrator or InDesign. Or like I was saying earlier, bang two rocks together.

Louis Beryl: [Laughing]

Kevin Twohy: It feels like the stone age. So now, you know, sketch came along and that was an incredible, you know, it has been an incredible run with a purpose built interface design tool that has primitives that I shared with… 

Louis Beryl: I think you said when I asked you what design tool we were using 10 years ago to design those first prototypes of Earnest. you said we’re using sticks and sand I think is what you said.

Kevin Twohy: It feels like it’s, uh, evolved so quickly, you know, like Sketch that shares primitives with the underlying engineering materials. So it knows what a responsive design is. And then of course, Figma where, you know, most designers I know are spending most of their time. Now, still though, for the most part, we’re drawing pictures of interfaces. And the chasm is between where design leaves off and engineering picks up. And of course they all have tooling around. You know what they would call handoff where, uh, [00:35:00] there’s great inspection tools for engineers and annotation tools and all that, but still fundamentally the model is you draw a mostly static image of what the interface looks like. At one point in time, all logic is outsourced to like a ticket, maybe the logic lives in JIRA. And it’s in many cases up to the engineer, the engineer and the designer together to figure out. Okay, once we turn this into working software or what should happen under these series of conditions as opposed to designers actually working directly, direct manipulation and specification on the raw material itself. And I think that is just starting to dip the toe into designers, working more on the actual representation of, of the product and not a static image of it and it’s come really, really far. But I think we’re just starting to enter into that phase where, where that’s going to become more valuable.

Louis Beryl: Is that your favorite design tool Figma? Or do you have a favorite? 

Kevin Twohy: Yeah, I’m all, I’m Figma these [00:36:00] days for all, you know, screen design. And it’s great for, you know, some things adjacent to screen design, doing brainstorms and design reviews and design crits and things like that. Yeah. The only gap there that I have sort of been missing is just that I miss from in-person interaction is just the whiteboard and the fidelity and ease of use. Even if you’re not, if you don’t know how to draw, you know, I don’t know how to draw, but people feel like they can pick up a whiteboard marker, even if they’re messy, meaning non-designers and with a tool like Figma folks don’t have that, it doesn’t have that walkup usability. So it’s, it’s, it is a barrier and it feels very one-sided. So InVision has a tool called Freehand that’s a whiteboard tool. That’s quite good that I use for that, like specific use case.

Louis Beryl: You know another big trend we saw in 2020 was around diversity and inclusion. How do you think about that when you’re designing products to really, you know, be inclusive to all people and how does it influence your [00:37:00] designs?

Kevin Twohy: When you were asking about how do you start out and you’re trying to build a flywheel. And the answer is you need one or two lucky breaks. The lucky breaks are not evenly distributed, and they’re not even really lucky. You know, you get the luck that’s commensurate with sort of your network and where you grew up in the school that you went to. So a big part of my work, both when I’m building little ad hoc teams for my clients, but more often these days where I have more work coming in that I can take on. And one of the things I try to do is, is offer, you know, referrals or recommendations for other folks that might be great. So I maintain this big database of freelance or independent folks in product design, but also adjacent branding, iconography, illustration, and that kind of thing. And one of the little check boxes I have on that is are you an underrepresented minority in the technology industry? And I always just try to filter by that whenever I’m composing a list of folks to [00:38:00] recommend, and that’s kind of one tiny way to try to distribute a lucky break a little more evenly when you’re passing on projects or referrals or building your own little ad hoc team, instead of going to your immediate friends or folks that you worked with on a, on a client in the past, you know, trying to be conscious about who you’re referring and giving potentially a lucky break to especially folks that are, that are just starting out. Like I said, that’s those first referrals and first clients, after that, it becomes a lot easier to make your own luck by just doing a really good job.

Louis Beryl: If you could go back and give yourself some advice, as you were starting out, going out on your own, what would be the advice you would give to yourself?

Kevin Twohy: It took me longer than I would have hoped to learn, to trust my instincts about, trust my sixth sense about when something is BS and when it isn’t, [00:39:00] I mentioned, I did a couple years stint in the agency world and I spent that entire time, you know, there’s a first a learning curve around. Okay. well, I don’t know any of these words. I don’t know anything they’re saying, and I just had to do a bunch of Googling and figure out, okay, I see. Now I know what that word means. It still doesn’t make sense to me, but at least I know what it means. And I see these projects, they’re pitching for huge clients. And just thinking like, my gut tells me this, this is not going to work, or this is not even really a good idea, but it plays and thinking, well, these folks are very senior. They’ve been around a lot longer than me and there’s gotta be some reason why this actually makes sense. And in many cases it didn’t turn out that way. It was just that the incentives and the business structure was built up such that there was not really any accountability for it being a bad idea. And that happens a lot, you know, when incentives aren’t aligned, but the key point being, you know, if you’re starting out and you have a gut instinct that something doesn’t make sense to you, it’s something that’s really worth [00:40:00] listening to. A term you learn or a best practice, especially that you learn and you say, huh, that’s I’ve never done it that way. And, uh, I don’t, I don’t really actually understand that or corporate speak. I think after a certain amount of time absorbing those things and using the phrases yourself, you kind of lose the ability to have a blank slate, canvas and recall your first reaction to them. And I think often people don’t give themselves enough credit. I know I didn’t give myself enough credit for, you know what I may not be an expert designer, but I think I’m a pretty smart person. This doesn’t make any sense to me. So I think that just trusting your instincts earlier on about what makes sense to you and what might be full of hot air. And then the other that goes along with it, just trust her instincts about what you think you’re good at and what you derive enjoyment from doing. 

Louis Beryl: Kevin. This was awesome. I really appreciate all the time today. It’s been, it’s been awesome watching your career developed since you know, the decade ago we worked together and [00:41:00] it was really fun catching up today. Thank you so much.

Kevin Twohy: Likewise. Thank you very much. 

Louis Beryl: For more on our conversation today, visit We upload a new episode every week, so if you haven’t yet make sure to subscribe to The Startup Stack in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to them. Thanks again for joining us. See you next week. 

Announcer: The Startup Stack written and edited by Hannah Levy, produced by Leah Jackson.