In the earliest stages of company-building, folks often worship at the altar of speed — launch an MVP quickly, gather hoards of customer feedback and start pivoting your way into product/market fit. The sooner you can get your product out there, the better.
But the path to building Figma was an exercise in patience. Founded in 2012, Figma didn’t actually start shipping software to beta users until 2015. After launch, it took another two years to add paid pricing tiers — and a couple more to bring on a sales team.
But taking a longer, winding path to launch a product doesn’t mean that you keep customers at arm's length along the way. As Claire Butler will tell you, community was core to the company’s GTM strategy early on — even while still in stealth. As Senior Director of Marketing, Butler joined Figma as one of the first ten employees and the company’s first business hire. She began shaping the company’s bottoms-up growth strategy and laying the track for a vibrant community before the product was even publicly available.
When it comes to building community, folks tend to treat it as an afterthought, such as an online user group or a few in-person events to tack on later, after they’ve found product/market fit and built up a strong user base. But as Butler tells it, community is what enabled Figma to enter a crowded category and start making waves right away. “Community is such a fuzzy word and there’s no standard definition. How I define community is that it’s not a set of specific programs or a Slack group. It’s an approach to building and your go-to-market strategy that orients around fostering a passionate user base who’s going to power up your product adoption,” says Butler.
In this exclusive interview, Butler imparts tons of lessons about how to build and cultivate a community along each phase of the startup journey — from the earliest innings of the company, all the way to bringing on a sales team and targeting more enterprise deals. She shares the specific creative tactics Figma used to energize the design community and build organic momentum when the product was just beginning to take shape. Butler flags some of the key decisions that paid off along Figma’s journey — including making the call to finally emerge from stealth, introducing pricing with the right gating strategy and finally bringing in a sales motion. Let’s dive in.
PHASE 1: WHEN EMERGING FROM STEALTH, AIM FOR BUZZ — NOT PERFECTION.
Butler joined Figma about six months prior to the company emerging from stealth — on the heels of the company quietly building for over two years. While the product wasn’t yet out in the market, the Figma team started planting seeds for the community that would sprout later. “In stealth, you don’t have your own community because you don’t exist in the real world yet. It’s about building individual relationships with people in communities that have already taken shape,” says Butler.
For Figma, that meant tapping into the robust design community. Butler spent her first months on the job tagging along with the company’s CEO and co-founder Dylan Field in early customer discovery chats. But the pace of these conversations didn’t follow the typical sales script. “We mostly skipped over the traditional ‘problem discovery’ portion of the conversation, and just jumped straight into the product demo. Designers want to cut to the chase and get their hands on the tool,” says Butler.
The Figma team was playing the long game here. “If you’re a designer using a particular design tool, you’re going to be in that tool eight hours a day, every day. You have an incredibly high bar to switch to using a tool full-time. We knew that Figma was not yet ready for total team-level adoption,” says Butler.
So rather than setting a goal to close deals, these informal chats were all about gathering feedback and sparking some inspiration. “We wanted to build credibility with the design community by really taking their feedback to heart in the early days. When we demoed we were looking for how excited the person was to learn more about Figma. At that point, a design tool had never been built on the internet — it was always an offline desktop app. We were really rethinking some of the primitives of how a design tool might work,” says Butler.
When’s the right time to step out of the stealth shadows?
Butler admits that one of the biggest challenges of being in stealth for so long is keeping the momentum and team morale high. Figma leadership deployed a few tactics in the early days to keep energy levels up, even when it felt as though they were building in a basement.
Bring in the customer's voice. “Dylan and I were typically the folks who were talking to potential users, so it was really important to amplify that voice to the rest of the Figma team. We would all have lunch together every day and Dylan and I would make a point to talk about what we were hearing from our customer discovery calls during those team meals.”
Show and tell. “When our engineering lead joined, he started this new tradition where every Friday engineers would have an opportunity to show off what they built or designed that week. It was important to showcase their work and get feedback from the rest of the team, especially when we didn’t have a strong cohort of users sharing their feedback with us yet.”
Plant the cultural seeds. “Another ritual that became really important to Figma’s company DNA was called ‘Three Things.’ Each week, one person would share the three things that made them who they are today. It was an incredibly powerful way to get to know the people you were in the trenches with, building this product and company together.”
And while these techniques helped ease some of the bumps of building in the dark, there was a growing push to get the product out into the world — warts and all.
Part of the reason why we chose to go out of stealth was team motivation. If you’re just tinkering and building all day every day without much user feedback, it’s hard to stay motivated.
The Figma team focused on two barometers to assess their launch readiness.
Generating buzz. “We really didn’t want to launch and just hear crickets from our audience. So as we continued hosting demos, I was looking for strong positive reactions — even if they weren’t quite ready to use Figma full-time in their day jobs. There started to be a series of meetings where designers would literally push Dylan out of the way during the demo so they could test Figma out themselves. That was a signal to me that designers were excited to try it, even if we hadn’t finished every single feature on our wish list.”
Quality, not quantity. “Our board pushed us to focus on getting one team to use Figma full-time — which meant a lot of 1:1 customer engagement and doing the things that don’t scale. We finally hit this milestone when Coda agreed to use Figma full-time. I remember driving back with the Figma team up to San Francisco after spending the morning with Coda in Palo Alto. We were buzzing off of the energy from signing our first big customer deal. Then we got a call from the Coda folks, and they said Figma wasn’t working. Our CTO immediately turned around and drove all the way back down to the Coda office to try to fix it himself. It turns out that the Coda team was having a network problem, and it had nothing to do with Figma at all. But our CTO spent hours debugging the Coda engineer’s computer just to show his commitment to the customer.”
Leave perfect at the door.
But the decision to finally launch from stealth meant kicking the can down the road on one critical feature. “It was obvious to the team that the most important feature for Figma would be multiplayer — the ability to co-edit a file at the same time. We knew it was going to take us a long time to check off every single box that a customer could come up with when comparing us with other design tools. But we believed that if the customer could experience the benefits of multiplayer (and not juggling multiple versions of the same file) then that would be enough for them to switch to Figma,” says Butler.
But three years into stealth, and still far off from multiplayer being ready for customer adoption, the team decided there was enough momentum to launch anyways. They put a plan in place to keep the community engaged while they continued building out the multiplayer functionality.
It became more important to get Figma out to the public. It wasn’t perfect yet, but we’re going to launch anyway and then keep building alongside our community.
PHASE 2: LAUNCH DAY IS IMPORTANT — BUT DON’T NEGLECT YOUR FOLLOW-UP STRATEGY.
Rather than try to generate their own buzz for launch day, the Figma team tapped into the vibrant design community — particularly #DesignTwitter, a digital watering hole. But this was decidedly not a haphazard social strategy where Butler hoped to post a few tweets that magically go viral.
“We got pretty analytical about it — Dylan even built out a custom script to help us break down the different nodes within the design Twittersphere — the typographers, the iconographers, the illustrators, the product designers and how much influence they wield,” says Butler.
And on launch day, it was an all-hands-on-deck social blitz. “One designer had attended the Rhode Island School of Design and reached out to the dean at the time, John Maeda, to see if he’d learn about Figma and talk about us that day. Our Head of Engineering previously worked at Medium and reached out to Ev Williams. We just took every angle we could to reach design folks with a large audience,” she says.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the Twitter chatter was all praise (it never is). “I remember when we first launched one of the comments was, ‘If this is the future of design, I’m changing careers.’ It wasn’t all positive, but people were talking about us,” says Butler.
When you’re entering a crowded market, it’s a huge advantage if you can find a way to gather folks together and rise above all the noise.
With the benefit of hindsight, Butler pulls out one piece of the launch strategy she would have changed. “We launched Figma as a closed beta. It was nice and made us feel good to have folks signing up on the waitlist for the product. But if I could do it again, I would have made it an open beta so we could get as many folks into the tool and increase our velocity of customer feedback,” she says.
Tailor your early content to your early adopters.
The next step was building upon that launch momentum and staying in touch with the design community — even those who weren’t quite ready to make the full-time switch. For this, the Figma folks turned their attention to their content strategy.
“Authenticity is important with any audience, but I’ve found that especially designers tend to hate traditional SaaS marketing. They don’t want fluff,” says Butler. “We had to think about how we might speak to this audience in a different way, so they understood that we’re not just trying to sell them BS. We are building something that’s going to be useful to them.”
For Figma’s early content strategy, they dove incredibly deep into technical content — even going back to one of their very first blog posts. “One of Figma’s designers was extremely passionate about grids, and he authored a post called ‘Grid Systems for Screen Design.’ He wrote about the father of grids, Joseph Müller-Brockmann, who had influenced how Figma approached its grid design. Personally, as a marketer by trade, I had never heard of Joseph. I’m certainly not going to be able to write a manifesto on grids and how they should work in a design tool. But the Figma designers cared deeply about this, and it was my job to open up space for them to share their point of view, and that in-depth content really resonated with our audience,” says Butler.
This was a non-consensus approach to content at the time, when companies like HubSpot had built up credibility by putting out “how-to” content. “It’s about tailoring your strategy to your audience, not just copy-pasting another company’s successful content strategy,” says Butler.
A lot of technical audiences do not want how-to content. When you’re trying to attract early adopters, shape your content strategy for technical folks and give them an inside look at why you built the product the way you did.
PHASE 3: POWER UP YOUR FLEDGLING COMMUNITY WITH EARLY EVANGELISTS.
With the word out about Figma’s launch, the next step for its community-driven approach was getting more hands on the product. For this, they brought in their first designer advocate. To find the right evangelists, says Butler, don’t just post a job on your careers page — create opportunities for these folks to come into the fold organically. “We wanted to get together with users who had been in our closed beta and liked the product. One day, we tweeted something like ‘Does anyone want to come over to the Figma office and grab pizza with the team?’ We had about 10 people show up to geek out about Figma.”
One particular attendee stuck out. “Brent really loved the product and believed in the future of design through Figma’s lens — so much so that he agreed to come work for us as our first design advocate,” says Butler. Eventually, the designer advocate role grew within Figma’s org and is now a larger team within the marketing organization. But in the early days, this first designer advocate became the face of Figma to the wider design community.
One of his first missions was to get designers to try out the tool with a little friendly competition. “Every Friday, Brent would bring in a few of his designer influencer friends to compete with each other live in Figma in what we called Pixel Pong. It was a really fun, lightweight way to showcase the tool. We would Livestream the different showdowns so that folks could watch along, and people voted for the winner on Twitter,” says Butler.
Figma also continued to bang the launch drum — rather than opting for a one-and-done announcement strategy. “Often the new features that we were launching would be considered small updates in a traditional marketing sense. You might think that no one is going to care about this little feature update — but designers care. When you’re in a tool eight hours a day, if it takes one extra click to do something, you’re multiplying that by hundreds of tasks,” says Butler.
“In crafting and refining the tool, we thought deeply about those small updates that would really impact a designer’s quality of life. And then we would share those updates widely. For other companies, some of these feature launches would not be worth mentioning. But we treated them like a big launch to continue to build that credibility with the design community and keep nudging folks to try the product,” she says.
PHASE 4: WHEN ADDING ON PRICING, KEEP YOUR PRODUCT’S MAGIC MOMENT FREE.
Back when Figma was storming onto the scene, companies like Atlassian and Slack had built tremendous businesses with bottoms-up growth. Figma took a page from these same playbooks — the product was completely free in the early days, and they didn’t add a paid tier until two years after launching out of stealth. “If folks weren’t ready to use Figma full-time in their day job, they could use Figma for free for a side project. You could use the tool in a lower-stakes way and come back to Figma repeatedly over time,” says Butler.
As Figma’s power users started to bring the tool into their organizations, without any sales assistance, it was time to expand beyond Figma’s free pricing. But the decision on what to gate at the paid level took a bit of trial and error. “The first time around, when considering what to put in the paid tier, we wanted to gate the features that you need for a design team, versus what you need as an individual designer. So in the first iteration of the pricing model, the free tier limited you to only having two users collaborating on a file together, but you got unlimited projects. And in the paid tier, you could have many more folks collaborating on a file,” says Butler.
But this initial strategy wasn’t quite working — and it goes back to the team’s early intuition on what would be Figma’s secret sauce. “By limiting the number of folks who could collaborate on a file in the free tier, we weren’t enabling people to experience the magic moment of multiplayer collaboration,” says Butler. So the Figma team flipped the script. “We reversed it so that in the free starter tier, you could only have a couple of files, but you could have an unlimited number of people collaborating in that file.”
When you think about gating your product, consider how you can funnel customers toward your magic moment and get them to experience that as quickly as possible.
PHASE 5: STICK TO YOUR COMMUNITY ROOTS — EVEN AS YOU MOVE UPMARKET.
It wasn’t until another two years after introducing pricing (and, at this point, four years after launching out of stealth) that the Figma team decided to introduce a sales team. The catalyst for doing so was that the bottoms-up motion had worked — perhaps a bit too well. “We had empowered so many folks to bring Figma to their organization. But eventually, we got to the point where Microsoft and Google and all these big companies would have clusters of Figma users all over their organization, but they weren’t connected to each other at all. People were just putting Figma on their credit cards all across the enterprise,” says Butler.
So Figma’s newly-added sales motion teamed up with the designer advocates to smooth over roadblocks. “We never focused on pitching teams and selling into the front doors of an organization — we focused on individuals and empowering them to bring Figma into their companies,” says Butler.
Here’s how the handoff would often look: “Our designer advocate teams would talk to users and build one-to-one relationships with folks like Parker, who works for Uber and says he’s a Sketch user 100 percent. But as we continued to release new features, our designer advocates would keep the conversation open with Parker,” says Butler. “Eventually, Parker gets onboard and becomes a Figma advocate, bringing Figma to his team at Uber. Parker eventually leaves Uber, and he wants to bring Figma to his next company. He reaches out to our sales team to help him get his new company on board.”
Your customer is the one who knows how to overcome barriers in their organization. They know how to get other folks on board. Focus on getting the end user excited and helping them remove roadblocks, rather than trying to sell from the top down.
The bedrock of self-service laid the groundwork for sales to be a gentle assist — not a steamroller. “When we finally put together a sales team, they had access to so many organic leads and were able to help folks navigate their own internal orgs. These individual Figma champions needed someone to help share the load with things like security or a complex contract process,” says Butler.
Expanding to the enterprise also meant expanding the product beyond the designer customer profile. “Figma spent a lot of time spinning up features like commenting and presentation mode in this phase — tools for designers working with all different stakeholders,” she says.
WRAPPING UP: REFRAME WHAT COMMUNITY MEANS.
While founders tend to think of community as a nice-to-have, especially in the early days, the reality is that you’re already probably doing some sort of community-building even from the first customer conversations. “When you’re pitching your product to users and gathering feedback, that’s an exercise in community. You’re starting to identify the types of folks who could be your early adopters. The next step is just connecting those folks to one another,” says Butler.
Before you get overwhelmed by the need to spin up a whole events strategy or Slack group, harken back to Figma’s low-lift idea of bringing folks together for a couple of slices of pizza in the office. “Building relationships with these evangelists will lay the groundwork for a vibrant community later on, when you can then layer in a more robust strategy. In the beginning, don’t be afraid of the things that don’t scale,” she says.
This article is a lightly-edited summary of Claire Butler’s appearance on our new podcast, "In Depth." If you haven't listened to our show yet, be sure to check it out here.