What Makes a Software Company Successful?

Posted a couple of months ago
Seven-ish min read about Tech

It was a busy week on Design Twitter last week. There've been plenty of hot takes about the news of Adobe's acquisition of Figma. Many designers who use Figma were very concerned about it: with some threatening to go back to Sketch and some feeling that Figma had betrayed them all together.

Add to that plenty of takes from investors, design leaders, and product folks sharing opinions on the top 10 things that made Figma worth a whopping $20 billion for Adobe to purchase, a lot of them not understanding the backlash from designers at all.

Some view this deal as a massive failure, while others view it as a massive success. With both sides trying to convince each other this deal means ~something~ one way or another, which is it? Did Figma really win here or is it their doom?

In reality... it's neither! This deal mainly means one thing — a handful of people made a lot of money and maybe a bigger company will make more money one day. This is a great thing for the people who are benefiting from it, but does that actually mean Figma can finally be deemed successful?

In the tech industry, and in society at large, it's the norm to equate financial gain with success. Funding rounds, revenue, vesting rounds, stock prices — the talking points swirl around us constantly so it's easy to believe.

But financials (while important) are just one indicator of success. Some would tell you that it's the most important indicator, but I would suggest you zoom out a bit.

Gif of Pete Holmes on stage saying: Life makes no sense. You're on a planet right now. You think you're in America? Zoom out.
From Pete Holmes: Dirty Clean

By zooming out you might see the reality is that Figma actually has been successful for quite some time if you apply a different definition of success. Because success in software, in my eyes at least, isn't a destination, it's a state of being.

I know that sounds cheesy as hell, but hear me out.

To me, success isn't about a lucrative exit or a shiny feature launch, it's being able to sustainably operate in a way where you're providing a useful service to people that makes their life a bit better than it was before.

And boy has Figma done that.

I think many forget how the era before Figma was much more fractured for software design. Needing to manage & sync files, merge updates, and export screenshots for folks who didn't have access — collaboration had many barriers.

Figma blew this out of the water by tearing down those barriers through real-time collaboration. It changed the way many of us work and made design inherently more open and collaborative.

While many were critical of this at first, it's made it much easier to bring people along on the design journey and harder to gatekeep the design process overall.

On top of that initial industry-shifting feature, they kept iterating. They made core performance remarkably better, added tools to make it easier to design at scale, and built a robust API and plugin ecosystem that allowed folks to customize Figma to meet their specific needs.

All of that was done in collaboration with their customers.

Early on I had the opportunity of getting to test early features, roll out Figma at companies, and give feedback to Figma along the way. I was astounded at how open and thoughtful the people building Figma were. People like Sho Kuwamoto showed so clearly how they truly cared about our design workflows and what it could unlock if they could help make it better.

With Figma advocates like Joey Banks being hands-on and helpful in the community to designers like Jenny Wen dialing in the details on FigJam to take a tool that might have felt daunting to a larger audience and make it feel simple, approachable, and enjoyable — you can feel the care put into the work.

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing Azeez Alli speak. He talked about what it looks like to divest from old ways of thinking and how to invest more in building with people instead of just for people. He described this further by saying that he's replaced the word "empathy" with "care" in his practice.

The framing of care can truly be applied to many settings: from trying to understand how we make our spaces more equitable and inclusive, to how we create things that are actually useful and pleasant for the people using it.

And when we zoom out and look at the big picture, shouldn't that be the thing we strive for? Shouldn't that right there be the goal of software?

There has been discussion for a while now about how designers need to get better at "business." I've definitely seen designers struggle with how to balance their own vision for what software could be with that of business leaders and have seen this surface in many people's heads as a binary choice: I'm either fighting for the user or I'm succumbing to business demands.

Yet if we change the framing, we can see a world where business is thought of less as just a monetary return and more as an enabler that allows companies to keep operating to create something useful for people and feels rewarding to create.

A way I've tried to help folks think about how to lean into this is by asking yourself: what is at the intersection of what I care about, the goals of the company, and the problems we're solving for the people using our software?

Overlap between your goals, company goals, and user goals

If you can focus on this area, success can become a much clearer measure and essentially boils down to answering some form of these questions:

  • User: Are we unlocking a better life for our customers?
  • You + Company: Are we able to keep doing that sustainably?

By changing this way of thinking, financial results are not the actual measure of success but rather a means to an end that allows you to be successful in caring for people who are find your software to be useful and beneficial to their lives.

If you apply that to Figma the fact that so many people spoke out about the news isn't actually a bad thing, it's a great thing! It means that their customers are engaged and find the product and company so useful that they feel a strong affinity towards it.

In this aspect, I hope Figma continues to succeed. At the end of the day, I would imagine any company would much rather have a passionate user base than an apathetic one.

None of this is a new way of thinking by any means. Folks like Sean Ellis have used a form of usefulness for years as a bit of a barometer to determine product/market fit through questions like "How would you feel if you could no longer use [product]?"

However, the mindset shift is about reframing usefulness to be a key indicator for success rather than just a leading one. By doing so, financial results become something that is in support of usefulness rather than the ultimate end goal.

This mindset might not resonate with everyone — many folks are fine with the status quo of profit driving the world, especially if they consider themselves a beneficiary of it.

But if you're wanting a bit more for the world and for yourself, let's try challenging the definition of what success looks like and start reveling in a state of success that empowers care for people over chasing numbers that at the end of the day, really don't mean a damn thing.

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