Startups try to chip away at Adobe’s dominance in design tools


The number of software design jobs is exploding, and that means more business for Adobe Systems Inc. The company behind Photoshop has seen its stock price soar 76 percent in the last year and revenue surge as it provided new tools to customers and landed the difficult transition to cloud software.

Despite Adobe’s decades-long grip on creative industries, venture capitalists are betting they can help startups outmaneuver the behemoth and grab slices of the multibillion-dollar market. The latest to secure venture capital is Figma Inc., which makes a sort of Google Docs for designing apps. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers led a $25 million investment expected to be announced Thursday, the first deal from the newest general partner, Mamoon Hamid.

A class of startups are looking to chip away at Adobe’s dominance with an emphasis on simpler, lower-priced apps that can run in a web browser. In addition to Figma, there’s InVisionApp Inc., Bohemian BV’s Sketch, Zeplin Inc. and Bootstrap. Hamid said software like Figma’s can infiltrate companies by appealing directly to designers, similar to how Slack Technologies Inc. and Box Inc. found employees to champion their apps to management. Figma “is not a company that’s limited in market size,” Hamid said. “The primary risk is execution.”

Companies are placing a higher priority on app design. Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google collectively grew their art and design headcount by 65 percent last year, according to a research report compiled last month by John Maeda, a design executive at WordPress blogging software maker Automattic Inc. At corporate-software provider Atlassian Corp., there was one designer for every nine developers last year, compared with a ratio of 1 to 25 in 2012, according to Kleiner Perkins’s 2017 Internet Trends report. International Business Machines Corp. made an even bigger leap, with one designer for every eight developers, from 1 to 71.

Adobe, which invented the PDF format and has been operating longer than Google and Facebook combined, is the biggest beneficiary of this design renaissance. The company reported a 25 percent sales increase last year to $7.3 billion, with more than half of that coming from its Creative Cloud offering used by designers. Adobe expects to maintain that pace this year and sees the market reaching more than $24 billion in 2020. “They don’t have that much competition,” said Anurag Rana, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “If you are a serious developer in this area, you do everything in Creative Cloud. You’re not interested in trying to save $4 a month or whatever the price difference is.”

InVision, a design-tool upstart founded in 2011, has managed to attract about 3.5 million users. Software made by the New York startup is used by employees at Airbnb Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., Netflix Inc., Inc. Twitter Inc., Visa Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. Bloomberg BNA is also a customer. The company has raised more than $235 million in capital, nearly half of which came two months ago from Accel, Tiger Global Management, Iconiq and other backers. “The part of the market we’re spending the most time on isn’t where Adobe is,” said David Fraga, InVision’s chief operating officer. “We’re maniacal about being shoulder-to-shoulder with our customers to understand what’s working and where the gaps are in workflows.”

Dylan Field co-founded Figma with his computer science instructor Evan Wallace after dropping out of Brown University to join a fellowship program funded by Peter Thiel. Field built an internet meme generator, which eventually transformed into Figma. Field said his design software is now mature enough to compete with Adobe on speed, simplicity and collaboration. Like Google Docs, Figma allows multiple users to work on the same project simultaneously and save version histories. This is key. Adobe XD doesn’t have either capability. An Adobe spokeswoman said the company would eventually add them but declined to say when.

Figma doesn’t have a single salesperson and only started charging for its product in July. Field said he wants to hire senior executives and a sales team to expand beyond students and small teams to large companies. The company aims to generate about $5 million in revenue this year, said Hamid, who’s joining the board. Figma currently has paying customers in 75 countries, including workers at Microsoft Corp., Slack and Uber.

At least a dozen other Thiel Fellows are also using Figma for companies they’re creating with the $100,000 grants they received from the billionaire. “The money was super helpful because we could start the compay right away and get a clear idea of what to focus on before we had to deal with fundraising,” said Field. “Even more valuable was the community.”