How JustPaid Harnessed Design During the YC Batch
JustPaid's cofounder Anelya Grant shares design's role in their journey during the most recent YC batch.
JustPaid is an AI-enabled fintech that allows founders to automate their billing and financial back office. They allow startups to upload and parse sales orders into structured data, generate invoices, handle dunning, and handles revenue recognition.
They recently completed the Winter 2023 batch of Y Combinator, where they brought NUMI in to help them hit their Demo Day milestones.
The Founders as the First Heads of Design
JustPaid applied to the Winter 2023 Y Combinator batch with just an idea in August 2022, was accepted into YC in November, and wrote the first line of code in December.
While they knew that they knew that design would be a key part of JustPaid’s success, they didn’t jump immediately to bringing in external design help. They decided they first needed to see that people needed what they were building.
“We needed to validate our idea”, says Anelya Grant, co-founder of JustPaid. “Having just enough working product that users see it solves a real problem for them. At this point, we were looking for early adopters who really don’t care about the design.”
Anelya captures a key aspect of design’s evolving role in a startup’s life. At the earliest stage, the startup’s most important job is proving they’ve built something people want.
This is the seed from which all other design work will grow, including interfaces, design systems, the brand, the website, onboarding, and sales collateral. Within the jargon of the design discipline, this phase is called “customer research”. What we’ve seen time and again is that “customer research”, or “talking to customers” cannot be delegated away from the founders.
Especially in the beginning of the journey, when it’s the single most important design work to be done. At this beginning phase, the founders are the head of design (and probably of everything else, too!).
Figuring Out What Customers Want First
Founders can delude themselves into thinking that their product isn’t growing because of “bad design”. The truth is, if your customers don’t need what you’re building, a great design system or a stellar marketing site won’t fix that.
Once JustPaid found its “first 10 customers who really love us”, Anelya says, it was time to “give them a user experience they really deserve.”
Only after they determined that customers needed what they were building did they bring in external design help.
Bringing on Design Expertise at Just the Right Time
Once JustPaid felt like they were building something that people want, they had conviction that in deepening their investment in design by bringing in someone to help the founders.
Had that design investment come before, than it would have come with significant risk that it would be pointed in the direction of a product roadmap that customers don’t need.
Why didn’t JustPaid’s founders Anelya, Daniel, and Vikas just handle the design themselves?
“Neither me, nor my cofounders are design-focused. We do appreciate beautiful websites, and we do appreciate when working with a platform is frictionless.”
So in the weeks leading up to Demo Day, JustPaid decided to bring on NUMI to help with design. NUMI, having gone through YC’s Winter 2020 batch itself, knew how precious every minute leading up to Demo Day was.
Design Improvements in Parallel to Demo Day Fundraising
“In terms of design, we just wanted to have [product] onboarding to be done”, Anelya says. “But to be honest, it was not as important for us as connecting with investors.”
This is another crucial aspect of managing the design process leading up to Demo Day: keep the scope small. Ultimately, unless you’re certain that the design work will have a material impact on your Demo Day outcome, you should try to eliminate it.
“Investors were ok with just experiencing our marketing website, which was one of the first things we built. Of course if we had had more product it would have been easier. But we weren’t fully there by Demo Day [product-wise], and it didn’t hurt our fundraising goals at all.”
JustPaid understood the center of their universe, which was hitting their Demo Day goals. They worked with NUMI to get important design work off their plate before Demo Day, namely designing a thoughtful onboarding flow. But otherwise, their main focus was on investor outreach to hit their Demo Day goals.
Advice for Startups in the Batch
Anelya has key advice for any startup going through an accelerator that feels like design is blocking their progress:
“First, build the functionality that your users desire so badly that they’ll suffer through any lack of design that you have.
And if you’re like us, where the founders don’t have any design experience, I wouldn’t try to do the design all yourself.
Finally, don’t be shy to engage with communities, get feedback. Try to engage with as many people as possible.”
Whether you’re in the current Y Combinator batch, going through another accelerator, or even gearing up for a fundraise - there are probably places where you feel like design is keeping you from hitting your goals.
Founders should remember that they are their startup’s head of design, that the most important design work to be done is engaging with as many customers as possible, and that they shouldn’t try to tackle the output part of design by themselves.
If you’re in a batch or gearing up for a fundraise, you don’t have to go it alone. Besides having been through the Y Combinator Winter 20 batch ourselves, NUMI has helped plenty of startups in your position (in YC and beyond!). Chat with us to see if we can help you hit your milestones faster using design.