Figma: A Random Walk in Palo Alto

Figma’s first conference, Config 2020.

On June 25, 2013, Dylan Field, one of my favorite interns from LinkedIn dropped by Wealthfront headquarters in Palo Alto to catch up and get some advice about his new startup, Figma.

At the time, I was up to ears with work as the new CEO, trying to sell the crazy idea that someday millions of people would let computers, rather than humans, manage their money.

But I always take time for people, particularly students just coming out of college and embarking on a career in Silicon Valley. So I met with Dylan for an hour, and we walked around the City Center in Palo Alto talking about his new company. The next day, I sent him a note asking if there was any more room in his seed round, offering to help him with product, growth, and recruiting.

Yesterday, that company (Figma) was acquired by Adobe for $20 Billion.

From Intern to Founder

In 2010, Dylan was an intern at LinkedIn, on the data science team overseen by my friend DJ Patil. However, search & data science were closely intertwined at LinkedIn, and since search was an area that I was responsible for, I spent a lot of time with team brainstorming new ideas and working through product problems. For some reason, I distinctly remember that Dylan was the first intern to ever make me feel old, based on one offhand comment about how he was too young to see the Star Wars prequels when they came out. 🤦‍♂️

Regardless, Dylan was brilliant and delight to talk to about almost any topic, and we kept in touch loosely through social media when he went back to school. He ended up interning at Flipboard, a company that happened to be founded by an engineer from Apple who co-taught CS 196P at Stanford with me, their first class on iPhone development. Dylan stayed close to the data science team at LinkedIn, and so we ended up with more than a few reasons to stay connected. I had left LinkedIn to take an EIR role at Greylock, so was just starting to become an active angel investor.

All of this led to that one walk around Palo Alto.

The Figma Pitch

There was no deck involved, and the meeting was not about fund raising. As it turned out, Dylan had already largely raised his seed round. In fact, a TechCrunch article came out about it that day. Going into the meeting, I had absolutely no idea what Dylan was working on, and knowing Dylan, it literally could have been anything and it wouldn’t have surprised me.

Instead, Dylan & I talked about the transition from Desktop to Web 2.0, and whether now was the right time to bring graphic design to the cloud. John Lilly & I had discussed a hypothesis about this while I was at Greylock, and it was one where I had come to have conviction. The basic premise was that the combination of Web 2.0, Social, and Mobile had finally created the possibility of building truly useful and user-friendly collaborative software in the cloud that was an order of magnitude better than desktop software and would finally drive the migration of professionals to web applications. More importantly, we believed that the history of desktop software contained clues to which types of software would be converted first: productivity applications (late 70s/early 80s), then enterprise applications, graphic design & desktop publishing, and finally personal finance. In fact, this theory is part of the reason I spent 2012 exploring the idea of bringing financial software to the cloud, eventually leading me to the sector now called “fintech” and my role at Wealthfront.

As we talked about this theory, Dylan then shared with me one of those simple insights that seems so obvious in hindsight, but was anything but obvious at the time. He told me that with WebGL in the browser, he thought now was the time to move graphic design to the cloud. As someone who had spent significant time in grad school on computer graphics, my initial reaction was very negative. In my mind, graphic design was incredibly compute intensive, to the point where professionals used highly optimized $10K workstations, multiple GPUs, and optimized data storage to get the local performance they desired.

Dylan was not deterred. He explained that the heavy compute was the exact reason why moving to the cloud made sense. By providing high powered machines in the cloud, anyone could get access to an almost arbitrary amount of power without spending $10K, and latency & bandwidth had progressed to the point where shipping the UI bits to the client was a solved problem.

He was right.

It was a simple moment, but I had to admit that multiplayer gaming had already solved problems of low latency, collaborative UI, and that it might be possible to extend that to the web now. Graphic design wasn’t just going to move to the web – eventually it was going to be better, faster, and cheaper online. On top of that, collaboration would be the killer feature that desktop couldn’t match.

The initial product idea, a photo editor in the cloud, turned out to not be the right way to ride this wave. But in the end, Dylan & team were intelligent and flexible enough to clearly iterate to a product that not only is riding that wave, but is also defining it.

Silicon Valley is about People

When I graduated from business school, my first job was as an Associate at a venture capital firm in Menlo Park. 2001 was a rough time to start in venture capital, but I was excited because I loved the idea of investing capital with founders when everyone else had pulled back. Our office, however, was too large, built out for a boom that had been cut short in 2000. As a result, they gave me a choice of offices.

I picked the one no one wanted, adjacent to the reception area. People thought it was too noisy, but I always left the door open. The reason was quite simple: when founders came in, I wanted to overhear how they treated our receptionist. You can learn a lot about a person based on how they treat people with less power when no one else is around.

Success in Silicon Valley is a dizzying combination of skill and luck, execution, and timing. But first and foremost, it is about people. One of the reasons that the most successful software cultures struggle to avoid hierarchy, is that the rapid change in platform capabilities means that the half-life of experience is brutal. The best solution for a problem five years ago may not be the the best solution today, and it very likely won’t be the best solution five years from now. As a result, young engineers approaching problems for the first time can sometimes see opportunities that the most experienced can’t. Other times, a “new” problem can actually just be a rehash of a problem that was common decades ago. The key is always to work the problem, and always work to avoid the destructive HiPPO anti-pattern. (HiPPO = the highest paid person’s opinion)

These days, online discussion is filled with debates about impressing your boss, impressing your CEO, impressing the company. To me, this misses the real opportunity. For most people, their best opportunities are likely ahead of them, and the connection to that opportunity will mostly come from a co-worker, a “weak connection,” and likely someone who isn’t above you in power and hierarchy.

Dylan was an intern, and not even an intern on my team. There was no obvious reason for me to spend time with him, other than that he is an amazing human being. Very intelligent, and also very kind. A long term, first principles thinker, but also someone who gets his hands dirty building. Ambitious, not to be a billionaire, but ambitious to make a difference and have an impact.

As an angel investor, I tend to look for a strong, authentic connection between a founder and the product they are building. For me to invest, I have to believe the founder is not only tackling a problem big enough to generate venture returns, but also is someone who is intelligent, trustworthy, and ambitious.

Dylan might have been an intern, but even as a teenager, he was all three.

A True Silicon Valley Story

Our careers are built based on the overlay of networks that we build. Every school, every job, every company is an opportunity to connect with people. It will only be obvious with hindsight which connections will generate the most value in your career, but try to remember that everyone may have something you can learn from.

There were quite a few executives at LinkedIn, and more than a few interns. There was no way to predict this type of outcome. Nine years ago, I became an investor in Figma, and two years ago Dylan became an investor in my new startup, Daffy. Roles change fairly quickly, but relationships with good people last decades.

Congratulations to Dylan, Evan, and the whole Figma team. This acquisition is just one more step in the fulfillment of a broad vision to elevate design in every organization. 🎉

It’s a true Silicon Valley story, and one we should all be rooting for.

One thought on “Figma: A Random Walk in Palo Alto

  1. This is 100% you, Adam. You’ve always made time for people and are consistently willing to test new ideas: requiring people to THINK big and to be accountable too those ideas. The positiveresults of building strong relationships and solving world changing problems are evidently clear. Wish you well.

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