Nov 2, 2023 · 16 mins read
I’ve always read stories about Designers wanting a Seat At The Table, yet when they get one, it turns out to be a superficial one. I can happily say I got a Herman Miller-quality seat and it turned out to be the most rewarding 4 years of my career so far. I’d like to tell you about it, in case you find yourself in a similar position today. Also, reminiscing about my time at Sounder just feels right.
In 2019 I quit my previous job at Framer and went to look for what’s next. My plan was to pursue a Design role in New York City, as I always wanted to. This is how I ended up choosing Sounder, a pre-seed stage podcasting startup that had the mission of giving every Creator a voice. Their mission was super ambitious, and so were their demands for me.
While I set out to work in NYC, I started working remote as we didn't have an office yet in NYC (and I do have one where I live). Then at the start of March 2020 something weird happened (Covid) which made this mostly a remote journey. I didn't get to experience NYC until Europeans were allowed back in at the end of 2021. I stayed until March 2022. It was a short stay, but a beautiful one.
Leadership immediately made clear that the requirements were high for this role: they needed someone Senior who would give it their all. I wouldn’t have seen myself as a Senior Designer back then, but during my interviews with other companies, someone wise gave me a hint at what level I was at.
You are a junior when you don't know what you don't know. You are a mid-level when you know what you don't know. You are a senior when you know what you don't know and you know how to learn it." — Thanks Wes
I figured then that this role at Sounder could propel me headfirst into being senior. I was very excited to get the opportunity to learn a tremendous amount, while working with a small team and on so many different things.
I want to make a point that, while it could read like I'm tooting my horn about my product design skills, I didn't feel quote a "senior" in the area of visual design itself. I've always felt very junior in that regard and had reached out for advice to people I look up to (Jeroen, Krijn, Freddie). They all told me “You really need to focus on that one thing if you set out to do that better” (which should have sounded like "doh" but I found it very insightful) and so I set out to focus on that in this role.
After joining Sounder, though, it became clear that the need for a full-stack generalist was highest. We had so many aspirations but so little resources. Our users (small/indie Creators) mostly weren't design-minded people but did need a lot of smart tools at their disposal. Of course, we would always ship good working software, but it would never be as pixel-perfect as we — as designers — would like them to be. And even though our users didn't notice, our design and engineering teams definitely did (always telling ourselves we'd get back to it later, but never actually getting there).
I soon got asked to join the Leadership Team. And I was definitely very junior at that! I figured it was an even bigger challenge, but one I'd have to learn someday — May as well be now. I went all-in (as I tend to do!) and took on all the facets of company-building that the team would entrust me with. All credit to Sounder, as they did put a lot of trust in me and had tons of patience, allowing me to fail countless times until I would eventually succeed at the given task.
The responsibilities given included not only being part of the many, many more meetings (which heavily got in the way of my Maker time) but also helping out with anything and everything culture-related, making sure everyone in the team was feeling heard, that everything was clear and that the relations between the US-based and Serbian-based teams were always well. I'd help out with investor-and-partner meetings, doing demo's, and taking a leading role in marketing at times we found ourselves without a lead for that (writing newsletters, maintaining the website, helping with Support). Basically, I took any task that wasn't attended to and made it my own.
All these things were incredibly time-intensive, stress-provoking, and, well, humbling. This was primarily during Covid, so most of this wasn't in-person. To be fair, that is also why I think I was able to do a somewhat decent job at all of this. So many long weeks and it felt like the most challenging education I’ve had so far.
When I joined the company I also got to manage two more junior designers on the team. This was a very new experience to me and it took me an incredible long time to do an okay job at it. I struggled primarily because I would often feel I couldn’t actually focus on things I wanted to build and instead was figuring out how to get others to figure out how to make what we needed (while we're a startup and are always left with too little time and the need for going faster). I do want to stress that I don't specifically mean the visual design aspect — as they are much more gifted at that then I am, but teaching them user experience, business and product thinking often felt like a really big time investment.
After trying 'managing' for almost 3 years, I was able to offload most of those responsibilities to our head of product so that I could focus fully on building things*. Which really was a joy, but looking back, managing them and seeing them get incredibly good at these new skills is probably what I appreciate most about my journey. I'm so proud of them and I'm sure they'll do great things in the future.
* I want to note that, while I was happy to no longer need to do leadership and management, I did find it incredibly important to get a feel for it, as I intend my career to be a long one in which I want to try many different things, so I'm sure I’ll encounter management and leadership soon enough again. I also believe this has been the biggest improvement in my people and communication skills.
During my 4 years at Sounder we had started out building a mix of B2C SaaS tools, which all originated from a humble-but-lively Podcast Platform (that we designed from the ground up, my first experience of doing so from zero) to later on offering a suite of tools that supercharged every Creator. There were a bunch of things that we would create, see if it would work for our users, and else we’d sunset. There’s so many things! But I wanted to highlight a few:
Whereas all Podcast Platforms felt stale and corporate, we were able to offer a truly customer-focused lively platform that really just exuded joy. It was one of the first platforms that would automatically transcribe all of your podcasts to help aid in the Discovery-problem.
An MP3 fully responsive Podcast Player that can be integrated on your website so you could easily embed these. With novel features like searching through every podcast for any kind of keyword you were looking for, sharing highlights of your episodes, or being able to directly subscribe to the many different platforms.
Realising Creators didn’t have time to create and update their own website, and also platforms like WordPress feeling like a burden to users, we decided to offer the option to just automatically generate podcast webpages, fully powered with SEO based on their podcast transcription. We would do the heavy-lifting for the user, and they would automatically get their own branded place on the web. Fully customizable, of course!
One of the main painpoints we heard from our creators was that marketing is really hard and time-intensive. Especially when you make podcasts on the side! While the market for podcasting tools was still really novel, we looked at what’s around and figured that it was hugely impactful for our Creators to automatically make highlights of their podcasts and to be able to share them on social media. During a hackathon the idea of Videobites was born, and through numerous iterations it lead to one of the most fun and rewarding projects at Sounder I’ve lead the work on.
I’ll finish casestudies for these projects in due time, but I'm happy to walk through them on a call. Schedule a call with me here.
Then came November 2022 and we decided to focus solely on B2B. Our leadership loved what we were doing in B2C, and we had many beautiful projects on our roadmap for it, including a complete redesign of our platform. I was really excited about those projects! But it was about to become a very bad time for raising venture capital and we had to focus on what we saw had the best potential for product-market fit, and that wasn't the Podcast Platform.
We decided to put all of our resources into making tools for the agencies, publishers, and brands we had worked with over the years to help them find podcasts they could run their campaigns on. A huge problem (Brand Safety & Suitability) in a huge industry (Advertising), which had no great solution yet in the audio space, but we had worked on a skunkworks project over the years that seemed to really solve these problems and so we set out to design Audio Insights.
The final big project under my wing: redesigning a B2B SaaS platform that needed to feel very premium-but-minimal for brands and agencies to be able to search through all their podcasts to determine what fits best for their campaigns. The main problem to fix here was that we had so much data that we wanted to structure it in a minimal and user-friendly way, but also to give the user a peek into each podcast without them having to actually have heard of it before.
Also, it may sound like typical VC-funded-startup-blabla, but we did make a really good deal for the Creators that we hosted on our Podcast Platform. We didn't just disband it, we worked together with one of our strategic investors to have our users come over to their podcast platform, got them all a premium membership there and helped with moving over so that there was little-to-no friction for them. We've received many emails with gratitude and that they felt it was a good solution. It really was a win-win-win!
While it felt like a win-win-win, it didn't feel like that to me. I had joined this company with the mission of giving every Creator a voice; and in my mind that meant the small-to-medium Podcasters. It was invigorating to hear about our users being able to transition into becoming a Podcaster full-time and that we made (parts of) that possible.
I remember having user research calls (which, being Amsterdam-based but US-oriented company meant evening calls) would give me a renewed boost to stay working until deep in the night to noodle on what I had learned. That kind of energy is really addictive and makes my job a breeze.
But after our pivot our main constituents were Agencies, Publishers, and Brands and to me, that felt like helping Facebook sell ads. I do believe we need ads for a great open free internet (you'll never catch me with an ad-blocker), but I just don’t see myself working in that industry. My career is very important to me and to do my job well I need to care deeply about the users I create things for, and each month it felt like that was getting harder (dare I say, it started to feel like work?). I figured I wouldn’t be able to do a great job much longer.
So I told my CEO that I would finish everything we needed for Audio Insights v1 and when we were sure it was in good hands I’d transition out. That time finally came in June of 2023 and I was able to take some time off and 'touch grass'.
I’ve had some time to think of what I want to do next and I wrote a bit on that, which you can find here. I’m fully recharged and want to double-down on learning new things and achieve things that today I don't think I would be able to do.
Sounder Team — thank you so much for all your trust in and patience with me. I sincerely will never forget this journey and I’m so proud of what we've made and what you will make in the future.
Thanks for getting all this way! I'll update my portfolio soon with more projects, case studies and (hopefully) will start writing out my thoughts related to product design, technology and business. If you'd like to stay updated on this then please leave your email below. If you want to reach me directly I'm always happy to connect via Email, Twitter (Nay, X), LinkedIn (blergh) or you can schedule a call.