Tue, 24 December 2019
How Clark Valberg and InVision are bringing founders’ creative ideas to life, and leading the way for remote workplaces.
Clark Valberg can tell you the exact date that his digital product design platform, InVision, launched. It was also his wedding day.
In hindsight, it’s telling that Valberg was able to successfully overlap these professional and personal milestones—InVision is known for its culture of work-life integration, with a 100% remote workforce nearing 900 employees. Eight years later, both InVision and Valberg’s marriage are still going strong.
When Valberg first launched the platform in 2011, it was meant to be a simple prototyping tool for his creative agency. Today, the company offers a full collaboration suite, InVision Cloud, that has redefined how companies design their products.
In addition to collecting over $350 million in funding and a being valued close to $2 billion—officially making it a unicorn—the startup now boasts over 5 million users and is the platform of choice for 97% of Fortune 100 companies, including major names like Amazon, Starbucks, and Uber.
Along the way, the company also redesigned the way its employees relate to the workplace, demonstrating early on just what’s possible in a remote company culture done right.
A Graceful Stumble
Before Valberg was known as the CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s most beloved tech companies, he ran a New York-based creative agency called Epicenter Consulting, from 2003 to 2011. It was a design and development shop that created websites for software companies. However, there was one issue their team consistently ran into when working with clients—incorporating feedback.
Valberg found it challenging to bring his clients along on the design journey, which meant that the first time they saw their website or app was after it had already been coded. That made the feedback process difficult and inefficient. This got him wondering: How could his team show designs to their clients earlier and more often?
That’s how the idea for InVision came to life. It was created to put all their designs into a platform where clients could see and comment on them — similar to how a Google Document allows multiple people to collaborate within the same project. This was a huge step forward compared to the standard method of sending out designs in PDFs or as screen shots.
Valberg had zero intention of turning this product into a standalone business. It wasn’t until someone inside his agency suggested sharing InVision with other companies that the thought even crossed his mind.
At first, Valberg resisted the idea. He figured people wouldn’t be open to drastically changing the way they worked with their clients. However, he was eventually swayed and put out feelers to see if people would bite.
As it turns out, people were interested. While Valberg was pleased with the response, it still hadn’t occurred to him to turn InVision into a full-time business. After all, his agency was doing extraordinarily well and bringing in $1 million in revenue each year. Again, fate stepped in and a designer Valberg worked with suggested raising venture money. And again, Valberg brushed off the idea.
However, the designer persisted and made an introduction to angel investor Daniel Wolfson. Immediately, Wolfson saw the potential of InVision and connected Valberg to investors at FirstMark Capital. From there, a deal unfolded rapidly.
All of these events were, as Valberg puts it, a graceful stumble onto the path that he’s on today.
By the time Valberg secured his seed round of $1.1 million, users were signing up by the hundreds every day. This was when he realized that he needed to go all in on InVision. His wife took over his agency and successfully ran the business until 2018, while Valberg went through the next eight rounds of funding and elevated InVision to its esteemed status.
Ahead of the Curve
One of the characteristics that differentiates InVision from other companies is its 100% remote workforce. While the concept is more common now, it was considered bizarre back when the company first launched.
The idea originally came about as a talent hack. When the startup was in its early stages, Valberg and his co-founder, Ben Nadel, spent entire days taking engineers out to lunch to woo them into being their first developers. They quickly discovered how competitive the New York talent market was—especially with a behemoth like Google opening up their new office next door.
They sat down and asked themselves—what do we have to do over the next six months to be successful? They came to the conclusion that their focus needed to be completely dedicated to finding product-market fit and product development. However, they didn’t have the resources to address either of those priorities with the amount of time they were spending on recruiting. So they decided to hack it.
Valberg recalled working with many contractors at his agency. They were extremely talented but lived in far-off places, like Phoenix, Arizona. What if they hired those folks and let them stay where they were? Valberg reached out to the freelancers he worked with in the past and, instead of pitching a job, he pitched a lifestyle.
According to Valberg, it wasn’t the remote work that was appealing; it was the shift to life-work integration that his company offered. Valberg recognized that work-life separation wasn’t realistic in today’s society. Instead, he decided to focus on offering a flexible lifestyle that would allow employees to better integrate their work and home lives. The idea resonated. The co-founders hired 10 people remotely in less time than it would have taken to hire two people in New York.
“At the time, this was a big, scary idea. It’s a question about trading complexities. We can handle the complexity of this extremely challenging market and end up overpaying for talent that wasn’t necessarily the quality we needed. That feels like a war you can’t win. Or we could figure out this remote thing, which felt like a design challenge,” Valberg says.
Clearly, this strategy has been a huge success for InVision. The company is anticipated to reach 900 employees by the end of 2019 and doesn’t have plans to slow down. Valberg recognizes this as an inflection point in their growth, and he remains extremely conscious of the problems that may pop up from scaling, HR, and culture perspectives. However, he believes the advantages profoundly outweigh the challenges—and his team is ready to lean into any they run into.
Solving Problems With Bad Ideas
At a design-forward company like InVision, creativity is paramount. But even the brightest minds experience slumps and roadblocks. That’s why Valberg and his team have a secret weapon in their back pockets for any time they get stuck in a rut. It’s called “bad version.”
This phrase, which has become a cultural mantra at InVision, is a permission slip that says, “What I’m about to say might not be a great idea, but that’s OK.” Valberg says his team uses it whenever they hit a wall during brainstorms. Most of the time, the wall is a result of people holding back their ideas out of a fear of judgment. “Bad version” serves as a catalyst for the creative process and empowers people to share less-than-perfect ideas without fear of judgment.
Valberg recalls one time he was in a room with five other marketers, designers, and engineers. They were trying to figure out what to call the new plugin they created for Sketch and Photoshop, and they were stuck. To break the rut, someone said “bad version” and suggested the name Craft. The person who suggested the idea didn’t think it would end up being the name of the feature. But, as Craft users know today, it did. More importantly, it sparked the conversation and allowed the team to consider other options.
Valberg uses “bad version” at home with his wife too. He says it gives each other permission to not be right and asks the other person to help expose the best part of their idea. In other words, it’s a way of encouraging healthy conflict. This is a mindset Valberg hopes more people will adopt for work, life, and beyond.
“You probably have decent ideas that you’re just unwilling to share at that time for fear of judgment. That doesn’t make you an insecure person, that makes you a human person. … We become so fixated on arriving at the right answer, that we forget it’s a winding road.”
Clark Valberg’s 3 Tips for Scaling a Remote Workforce
When the InVision team gets together in person, it’s not about getting work done—for them, the real work happens in the cloud. Instead, in-person time is used to get to know each better.
Valberg believes that sharing this experience positively translates to the online environment, which is why in-person gatherings are an important part of every remote workforce. That’s why InVision has an in-person all-hands once a year and encourages employees in the same cities to get together regularly.
InVision is a truly global company. Its presence extends across the United States, South America, Europe, and beyond. Which means they have to take time zones into consideration. However, they don’t let those differences limit their teams.
For instance, InVision is mindful of not having geographically-bound teams work on projects together. So while they might not group an engineering team in Australia with one in San Francisco, that doesn’t stop them from hiring engineers all over the world.
Of course, using the right project management software and communication tools is key to maintaining a remote culture. Valberg believes these tools can make remote cultures more efficient than working in physical places.
Consider the amount of time spent gathering people physically for meetings. People run late, dip in and out of the conference room, and have to quiet down before diving into the agenda. Whereas, tools like Zoom enable people to start meetings within seconds and allow everyone to take advantage of any dead time in between. “If I’m five minutes late to call you, you don’t have someone waiting and twiddling their thumbs doing nothing,” Valberg says.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Sophia Lee