Start-ups or Top Product Companies?

Where Should You Start Your UX Design Career in India?

If you are a young designer in India who’s just graduated from a design school or someone who is already working but aspiring to transition into a UX career, it’s likely that you’ll face this familiar dilemma, “Should I work for a startup or should I try to join an established tech or product company?”
Whether you are hoping to be placed off-campus or actively applying for entry-level UX positions, here are some pragmatic pointers to consider when faced with this dilemma; 

Startups

Startups in India are a bit of a gamble for UX design newbies. Even if one offers you good money, it is worthwhile to understand what stage it is at. Early-stage startups may sound like fun but can be unpredictable.

Not all startups are convinced that product design is a core function of product development. Yeah, I know! Funny, right? In my experience, design is not quite a top priority, at least in the initial stages as the startup bootstraps.

When I joined HolidayIQ.com in 2012, a travel startup, I had responded to a job post for UI Designer. Although not quite an early stage, design was still not top of mind with the product leadership there. I did a bit of upselling to have them consider me as a design lead instead of a UI designer. After a bit of negotiating, I finally joined them as head of design – no, don’t let that get to your head! Startups are known to offer Head of Design roles without batting an eyelid. You need to be prepared to tease out the exact nature of the role, on the ground. As Head of Design, I was an Individual Contributor for the most part of the 2 years I spent at the travel startup. I was fine with the arrangement since I knew what I was getting into. Eventually, I was able to put together a small team, but more importantly, I had the satisfaction of setting up a design process and culture for the org to follow once I left. The previous 3-year stint at Yahoo! I’d imagine contributed in a significant way in my foundational work at HolidayIQ.com

As of 2018, Nasscom reported a total of 7200 startups operating in India. As you consider startups for your first job, be clear if you are joining promising early-stage ones, stable late-stage ones or top unicorns. This is a list of late-stage ones I have compiled based on anecdotes through people I know on my social and professional network as well as colleagues present and past who have worked at some of these startups. I would recommend you do your own research before you embark on job-seeking.

  1. Redbus
  2. Cleartrip
  3. BookMyShow
  4. UrbanLadder
  5. Ola
  6. InMobi
  7. PhonePe
  8. Zomato
  9. Commonfloor
  10. Practo
  11. Freshworks
  12. Swiggy

If you are in it for the long haul, the startup ride can be an exhilarating one. Fun workplace, buddies for colleagues, meaty challenges and handsome rewards for the sacrifices you are prepared to make on the work-life balance front. Or not. What you can achieve as a UX Designer in terms of professional and material growth could differ vastly depending on who’s at the helm of the company, whether or not design has a seat at the table, how it is funded, what kind and at what stage it is at.

Pros:

  1. Easier to get hired provided you have a decent portfolio of work even if it’s mostly academic projects.
  2. More autonomy – you might be the only designer on the team or part of a small team
  3. Opportunity to be a pioneer in establishing a UX culture
  4. Easier access to leadership. Fewer hoops to jump through to get design approvals
  5. Generally, good money including stock options but the latter may not count for much in the early stages.

Cons:

  1. Generally, lack of design culture.
  2. Ambiguity around the role of a UX Designer
  3. Possibility of cashflow issues between rounds of funding impacting your monthly paycheck
  4. Lack of formal training and learning opportunities
  5. Work-life balance if important to you can be missing
  6. Absence of design peers or mentors or lack of access to the wider design community.

Product companies

Campus placements are a way for top IT-based product companies like Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft to cherry-pick the best talent. A plum job at one of these giants is generally also a safety net for someone starting out. With large and distributed design teams, an established design culture, these sought-after companies are considered top design-driven organizations and offer clear career paths for designers and tremendous opportunities to grow as design leaders.

Not everybody is fortunate to be picked by the big 5 though. Then again, like me, you personally may favor the close-knit environments of smaller organizations but with similar levels of stability as large organizations. I feel pretty much at sea when working in a large organization. Yet, a few of my most rewarding stints have been with large product/tech orgs like Yahoo, Amazon and LinkedIn.

And so, if you cast the net wide enough, you’ll find opportunities in some of the best IT-based product companies  of the world outside of the elite top list, right here in India. Some of these are also known for having robust design processes and solid teams with tremendous potential to grow as a UX design leader. They have efficient and objective design hiring processes and interviewing with them can be a learning experience in itself whether you get through or not. Apart from the top companies including the big 5, here’s a curated list of companies particularly known to be design-driven orgs, in no particular order – again based on anecdotal insights from designer-colleagues and friends who have worked or working at these :

  1. Adobe
  2. SAP
  3. Intuit
  4. NetApp
  5. Bluejeans
  6. Samsung
  7. Atlassian
  8. VMware
  9. IBM
  10. GE Digital
  11. Intel
  12. HP

And many more…

Pros:

  1. Stable cash flow – salaries credited clockwork at the end of the month –  most times even before the month ends.
  2. Employee-friendly policies including generous leave, work from home, maternity & paternity policies
  3. Work-life balance
  4. Well established design culture and processes.
  5. Formal training programs and well-defined career paths
  6. Opportunity to be part of a global design community.
  7. Large-scale and global impact of your work
  8. Better design review processes

Cons:

  1. Tougher hiring bar 
  2. Can be overwhelming to navigate multiple teams, goals, and processes for a newbie 
  3. Cost of coordination and remote collaboration challenges due to different time zones.

Ok, now that you have the essential lists, the question still remains about timing. In my experience, It’s a good idea to have some 3-4 years of work experience under the belt at a larger organization before plunging into a startup stint. The startup founders will be thankful for the added confidence and honed design thinking you’d bring after a seasoned tenure at an established company. Who knows, if you play your cards right, you might join them as a design co-founder!

Ultimately, the choice between a startup leap of faith versus a calculated move to join a product org is a function of what career growth means to YOU, personally. So know your strengths, learn on the job and constantly hone your design chops. It’s a job-seekers market, so be assertive but humble as you call the shots in negotiating a meaningful design role – UI versus UX, etc. – and compensation.

If you’ve had a great experience working as a UX Designer at a startup or product company in India that’s not in the above lists, I would love to hear about it in the comments.
For those seeking their first job or a new stint, good luck and enjoy the ride on the UX bandwagon!

Leave a Reply