+ How Figma acquired 4M+ users with its community-led growth strategy
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Since Figma’s official launch in 2016, it has been growing at an exponential rate, reaching a $10B valuation last year.
Even though Figma is technically a B2B SaaS company, it still has many characteristics that resemble a consumer startup. Most of all, it’s a community-focused company that has built its growth engine on trust and authentic relationships with users of its community. As an avid fan of the product, I am excited to tell this story and break down how Figma has grown into, I believe, one of the most legendary companies of this generation.
In this post, we will dive into:
Dylan Field’s backstory
Unique insights behind Figma
Figma’s differentiation strategy
Figma’s community-led growth framework
Dylan Field, the serial intern
Before co-founding Figma, Dylan Field was a ‘serial intern’.
Senior year in high school: Generalist intern at O’Reilly Media
Summer after high school: Engineering intern at Indinero
Freshman year in college: Research intern at Microsoft
Summer after freshman year: Data intern at LinkedIn
Summer after sophomore year: Engineering intern at Flipboard
Junior year in college: Design intern at Flipboard
Following his last internship at Flipboard, he dropped out of college (Brown University) to pursue his entrepreneurship dream with the $100K aid from the Thiel fellowship.
The simplified version of the story is that Dylan was frustrated with the design tool he was using at Flipboard so he wanted to build a cloud-first design tool in the browser that works like a Google Doc. However, it’s not exactly the whole story.
At the time of applying for the Thiel Fellowship, Dylan wanted to change the world by creating better software for drones to monitor traffic and catch reckless drivers.
“I am going to change the world by creating better software for UAVs. After I finish at Flipboard, I will cofound a company with the smartest programmer I know and work on this problem. In the meantime, I am learning as much as I can about the UAV space and adapting ROS (http://www.ros.org/wiki/) to low-end drones.
This is a crazy idea. I’m looking forward to working with the Thiel Foundation to make it a reality.” - Dylan Field
This idea was quickly discouraged by his co-founder Evan since the hardware development cycle and regulation in the industry are annoying, and most importantly, they couldn’t come up with a drone idea that didn’t hurt people or violate their privacy. Check out this LinkedIn post here to learn more about this Thiel fellowship application.
Around the same time, Evan started to do a ton of research into WebGL in early 2011, when it was first released. It was a new technology that would allow developers to build real-time, interactive applications on the web browser. For example, Evan built an Image Filters tool that allows you to adjust your photos in the browser with 10 different image filters.
Evan showed a demo to Dylan, who was instantly hooked. They decided to go all-in on this new WebGL technology and build products on top of it.
The other unique insight was that browser-based creative tools had the opportunity to disrupt the entire creating tooling industry, specifically interface design.
Around that time, the industry was dominated by InVision and Adobe’s suite of creative tools. They were mostly native applications. It was not that easy for non-designers to just jump into a design file and collaborate in real-time. The bet was that if they could build design software on the browser, they could reduce the complexity of using a design tool and make real-time, online collaboration effortless. It was previously not technically feasible to build such a product and WebGL made it just barely possible.
The bet has paid off big time. Figma has been devouring competitors’ market share at a rapid rate in recent years. According to a survey done by UX Tools in 2020, almost 60% of designers use Figma, a giant leap from <10% just five years ago.
This storyline has played out many times - a new entrant leveraging a cutting-edge technology to create a 10x better product and dethrone the incumbents. Another example is Uber. It was founded at a time when mobile apps were just started to gain some traction and they created a mobile interface that allows everyone to get a ride with a click of a button on their phone, disrupting the traditional low-tech taxi industry.
On the product level, Figma has three important differentiating factors:
1. High accessibility
Figma reduces the switching cost from other platforms by making the experience very accessible. Users, regardless of their level of design experience, can jump into a Figma file and get started with prototyping and wireframing. They don’t need to download any apps since they can always access the file on any browser as long as they have internet access. Figma also has a free tier that allows any user to continue experimenting with the platform at their own pace without feeling pressured to upgrade right away.
Figma’s high accessibility expands the top of the funnel and ensures as many people as possible get to experience the magic of the platform.
2. Multi-player mode
According to Dylan, Figma is building a digital space for people to collaborate and connect in the future of work. The design process is intrinsically a multi-player process and Figma really thrives in that area. For examples:
Users can easily invite anyone to join the file and they can comment on the wireframes as if they are just commenting on a Google Doc.
You can start a call directly in the file with other users without the need to use Zoom
This multi-player mode increases stickiness, since not only are the designers using Figma, but also the product managers, the engineers, and the executives. Everyone is getting value from the platform regardless if they are part of the design team or not.
3. Community features
Figma’s strong and passionate community is why they are so big today (a topic that I will dive into in the next section). On the product level, Figma has built different community features that allow Figma users to find useful design resources from the community within the app.
For example, Figma Community is a page that has a curated list of templates, widgets, and plugins created by the community that anyone can leverage for their own design projects. It’s like Dribbble for Figma.
These features are making the platform more social and helpful for users, thus further enhancing retention and engagement.
Today, Figma has over 4M users.
Besides having a great product, Figma has achieved tremendous growth due to its unique community-led growth strategy. Figma has a vast network of loyal fans that constantly rave about the company and spread the word on Twitter, Medium, and substack (what I am doing today).
The passionate Figma community today does not just appear out of the blue. In fact, it’s the outcome of years of community building and relationship nurturing. Having a world-class product certainly helps, but that alone is not enough to foster a strong community.
According to Figma’s Chief community officer, Amanda Kleha, Figma used a four-step approach for community building:
Learn and explore
Immerse and learn
Elevate and amplify
Enrich and repeat
Step 1 - Learn and explore:
During the early development phase of the platform. The Figma team started out by identifying the most influential designers in the design community and reached out to them to get feedback on the product. They kept track of the feedback with a focus on what those influencers thought regarding the most important elements for building the product.
The team also hired an internal evangelist who was also an influencer in the community and had a podcast. The evangelist helped Figma spread the word and also gather feedback from many of his designer friends.
Figma team also tried to make the product testing experience fun by making it into a game. For example, they made a game called Pixel Poing for which they invited designers to design silly things on a live stream for people to watch.
In the first phase, it’s not about selling the product but rather reaching out to people in the community and finding people that can foster long-term trust with the community.
Step 2 - Immerse and listen
Once the product matured, Figma also started hiring designer advocates who were not really influencers but people who were passionate about the product and served as liaisons with super users.
In phase two, another focus for Figma was to meet fans in different parts of the community. Dylan would fly around the world to meet users face to face and work with local evangelists to host informal meet-up events. Besides IRL meetups, many people in the company also proactively interact with fans on Twitter to foster trust and create lasting connections.
In this phase, it’s about being intentional with listening to a diverse set of users and making them feel heard.
Step 3 - Elevate and amplify
By stage 3, Figma had gained many users and seen tremendous growth. The focus was to amplify the voices that represent the value of the community and create spaces for users to connect with each other.
They started running an annual conference Config that invited users to come to interact and learn from each other. Users were given the platform to speak about their experiences and share their learnings.
Step 4 - Enrich and repeat
Today, Figma has many passionate local communities. The focus now is to provide the resources for the local evangelists.
They built a platform called Friends of Figma that makes it easy to join a local Figma community or start one.
Figma has built a successful community due to its focus on long-term relationship building and creating authentic connections. You can’t hack a community. It takes time but the result is well worth it.
To close out this post, I wanted to leave you with a quote from Dylan Field.
“Zooming out, the browser isn’t just about better workflows or improved collaboration. Working in the browser is part of a multi-decade global shift from physical spaces to digital spaces, massively accelerated by COVID-19.
Like physical spaces, digital spaces help us connect to one another. Unlike physical spaces, digital spaces have no walls: by default they are non-hierarchical. Everyone is invited to brainstorm, build, and play together.” - Dylan
See you next time 👋,
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