I first met creative entrepreneur Julie Zhuo at Facebook when the company had just a few scrappy offices in Palo Alto and we were celebrating a couple hundred million users. Julie started at Facebook as an engineering intern, worked her way up to Vice President of Design, and then made the jump back into the startup world with her new company, Sundial. (Somewhere along the way, she also carved out time to write a Wall Street Journal best-selling book, The Making of a Manager.) Recently Julie sat down with me to talk about why she made the entrepreneurial leap from being a successful designer to a startup co-founder; lessons she has learned from high-growth startup environments; how to manage imposter syndrome; and tips for hiring excellent design talent.
Sundial helps companies understand the story of their data to make better decisions. "The reason I got into this game in the first place is to see great products get built that improve people's lives, and data is an enormously important tool," Julie says. "With every product you work on as a designer, you'll see a thousand things you need to improve. When it comes to building great products, diagnose with data and treat with design. Data helps startups understand the problems and what matters most — and then you can get into a design mindset to solve for that."
During her career, Julie has interacted with hundreds of designers and has a few tips she's learned from great design leaders: Stay curious, trust the process, and ask for feedback. "When it comes to staying curious, ask yourself: What do I need to learn, who do I need to meet? How can I understand what they go through? Designers who ask for feedback are more likely to arrive at their destination sooner and more predictably."
"With every product you work on as a designer, you'll see a thousand things you need to improve. When it comes to building great products, diagnose with data and treat with design."
Having worked together at Facebook during a time of rocket-ship growth, Julie and I witnessed the challenge of organizational change that comes with scale. In these situations, she advises that expanding your network as your company grows can be enormously helpful. "The advice I give is to go out and talk to people. Step out and see if there are people who have had growing pains and experiences scaling at other companies."
High-growth startups attract great talent, and it's normal to feel imposter syndrome when you're surrounded by so many accomplished people. In fact, up to 82% of people have experienced imposter syndrome at some point. In these situations, "There is so much power in saying 'I am struggling, I am overwhelmed, I am not sure what to do,'" Julie observes. "I reached this low point after I had my first baby and was gone for four months. Instead of seeing that my team was thriving, I took it as a sign that I wasn't adding value. But sharing with my manager and talking to other women who had been through the new baby experience, I realized that I was being too hard on myself, and gave myself permission to feel those things and go through that challenge. Now, whenever I struggle, my first instinct is: who can I talk to who has been through this?"
The sheer number of open design roles today can also feel overwhelming for job candidates as well as prospective employers. I talk to founders who think they need great design to attract great designers. I think it's actually the opposite: allow your prospective hire to bring their design power to the company. Julie advises, "Have a vision for the product — something that's big and bold. I learned this through our time at Facebook. At first, I thought how you attract great candidates is to talk about how awesome your product is. That makes people feel like you don't have any interesting problems to solve. Often, great designers would tell me that wasn't an interesting pitch. Where is the challenge?" Julie and I agree strongly about this: Talk about your vision and also what the hard challenges are. That will attract exceptional people.