Obviously the big tech industry news this week is Adobe’s killer-merger of Figma for $20 billion. There’s already a lot of insightful thoughts on what it means for the software industry, but the most interesting one I’ve come across is from Adam Nash, an early investor in Figma as then CEO of Wealthfront. His blog post is a fascinating read.
For me, this story has brought up a couple of things that I know I don’t think about enough.
Firstly, the initial product market fit probably isn’t going to make it big, and it’s ok to take the time and thought to pivot towards the right direction. Figma was supposed to be a cloud-based image editor to take on Photoshop (that in itself is a bold thing to attempt), rather than the UI/UX design collaboration platform it is now.
What’s more interesting is that Figma is a result of applying existing technology in a way which (in hindsight, of course) really isn’t a big brain leap. WebGL exposes low level access to graphics hardware through the browser, which at the time wasn’t novel - apparently it became a thing in 2011. I remember these APIs resulting in a pretty sudden onslaught of fancy rendering pet-projects on Github and browser based mini games, which didn’t need additional security footguns installed like Adobe Flash/ActiveX/Silverlight.
Where Figma found success was applying this ‘conventional’ tech in a slightly new way; of course that concept itself is also not new. Throw in some cloud grunt and a couple neat tech stack features - C++ cross compiled to JS with emscripten and now to wasm, and you end up with a pretty great experience doing what was traditionally considered ‘heavy desktop app’ workloads, but now in a browser. There was also the various Adobe-being-Adobe moves over the years that meant a small but consistent door was left ajar for many users to at least be open to Adobe alternatives, especially post CS6, than their marketshare would suggest.
The takeaway here is that as engineers, we tend to approach an idea with the same heavy skepticism and pragmatism as we (rightly) do to a technical problem (alternatively and accurately known to product guys as depressing negativity). Always picking holes and pointing out where things won’t work; but perhaps we’d do well to take Alex’s advice and try to ‘work the problem’. That’s probably why to me, it feels so difficult to even come up with any half decent ideas. And probably why intern-founded privately-owned startups exiting at $20B (and in less than a decade!) is quite a rare occurrence.