For growth stage

Fractional design leadership for startups

I'll rapidly untangle your UI mess and teach your team how to build products customers love—for far less cost than a full-time design leader.

Every great product team has three parts: product management, engineering, and design/UX.

Early on these roles are filled by founders. But after a few years companies have generally reached product/market fit, raised some capital, and grown their team.

At this point feature development tends to slow down and product quality begins to suffer—especially if that design function isn't strong. Founders have less time to spend with teams, engineers have bigger code challenges, and new hires add to the confusion.

I help these teams learn healthy design and product management habits. Afterwards they ship products faster, waste less engineering time, and make development a more peaceful, efficient process.

Get in touch

Looking for other services? See product development and design coaching

Client profile

  • Team: 10-100 employees
  • Funding: Series A or B
  • Product: launched, with early product-market fit, entering scaling phase


These are the values and mindsets that have guided me when scaling teams.

  • Design with purpose - We don’t design for design’s sake; we design for our customers, for business, for our society and our world. Shipping software is never enough—we’re not done until we make an impact.
  • Focus on craft - You don’t need a design team to build software, but you need one to make software great. The designer’s job is to learn and hone their craft. Craft is a designer’s unique superpower.
  • Embrace the adventure - Startups are wild places. For this to work, we have to learn to be brave, take healthy risks, stay curious, move fast, grow from mistakes, experiment, kill our darlings, stay flexible, question our assumptions, get outside our comfort zone, and try new things. Stay hungry, stay foolish.
  • Process over product - Professionals know that great work doesn’t happen in a single stroke. Great results are the natural, emergent effect of great communication, short iterations, good feedback, and continuous improvement. Get those things right, and the rest will follow.
  • Kindness matters - Like any creative process, design requires vulnerability and willingness to be wrong. So without an environment of kindness and integrity, we can’t make progress. This doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes have difficult conversations, and it doesn’t mean we always feel good—but we always have our teammates’ support, care, and respect.

What I do

Design process "in-a-box"

Adopting a few design best practices can save months of work, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a lot of pain.

I teach teams the techniques I developed as a Director of Product Design: how to get in front of real users, prioritize a features based on impact, write design briefs with clear goals, run inclusive kickoff meetings, create low-fidelity prototypes, give and recieve feedback, and collaborate with engineers.

The Product Design Health Checklist

17 things great design teams tend to have in common on request

One-on-one design coaching

Hiring your first couple designers can be a bumpy road, especially if they're junior or haven't worked at a high-growth statup before. I do 1:1s with designers to develop their skills and help them communicate with their team.

How to get unstuck (for product designers)

A big list of things to try when you’re out of ideas

Feedback 101

How to give—and ask for—great design feedback on request

The books I recommend to designers

What to read when you’re learning (or struggling with) design

The hardest-won lessons for junior designers

What talented designers struggle with when they join teams on request

UI design for complete beginners: common mistakes and easy fixes

The checklist I used to create a design for a successful startup on request

The “Idea Funnel” in product design

When to go broad—and when to focus on request

Engineering concepts every designer should know

Essential knowledge for anyone who designs software—regardless of your title on request

Building design systems

If your product is looking cluttered and coding UI is slowing you down, it's probably time for a design system. I help build basic color/type guidelines and a library of reusable UI components.

Using programatic color scales to generate UI colors

A better way to standardize colors in your design system on request

Hiring designers

Hiring designers is hard, but hiring exceptional designers is much harder. I teach companies to attract designers, source top talent, review portfolios, write evaluation criteria, run interviews, and do leveling.

What makes natural design talent

The hardest things to teach junior designers

13 ways to hire designers

What I've tried--and what worked on request

Why your company still has bad design (and how to fix it)

Five tough truths for executives — and three steps they can take to make things better on request

Product strategy

For companies with big goals and high urgency, I can serve as a temporary full-time design leader or head of product.

Good, bad, and horrible reasons to build a feature

Avoid vanity features by prioritizing your roadmap the right way on request

Rules for running design concept sprints

How to focus roadmaps, energize teams, improve quality, and innovate quickly on request

Telling the story for product vision storytelling

A clear vision of your customer’s journey is one of the best ways to lead your team to success on request

Know your bias before you build

Your job title makes you susceptible to bad product decisions

In-house design leadership

For companies with big goals and high urgency, I can serve as a temporary full-time design leader or head of product.

What design leaders actually do all day

The 13 roles of great managers on request

Why your company still has bad design (and how to fix it)

Five tough truths for executives — and three steps they can take to make things better on request

Just looking for help building your product?
See lean product design

What my clients say

I've hired Sam for design and executive level storytelling projects at JSTOR twice. He was my first choice because he focuses on organizational impact and hard work, never about his own ego. He’s the only consultant I've ever been completely comfortable bringing onto my team, and working daily with our executive team when called for.

When kicking off my flagship UX strategic initiative as a new VP, I needed someone who understood customer storytelling deeply, yet could manage VP and product stakeholders in a large organization. Our project was a huge success, shared with the entire organization and set forth our platform strategy from the point of view of happy customers. As a result, all the OKRs for our entire 300-person org were driven in large part from the story Sam wrote and illustrated with us.

Sam’s more than a great designer, he’s an expert in coaxing out product strategy and prioritization. He never ends a phase without asking if I’m completely satisfied with the work. I’m regularly looking for more ways to bring him back to support our team!

Matt MacQueen
VP, Product Design and User Experience at ITHAKA/JSTOR
prev Motorola, Google, Coursera

When I started leading our company's new branding project, I immediately thought "We need Sam!"

I'm Frodo, and Sam's my Gandalf. Sam got me addicted to talking to our users and injected a powerful dose of energy and clarity into our brand story. His contributions to our workshops were the most impressive part of our project, getting reactions from our executives like: 'Yes, that's exactly it', 'You really got to the heart of who we are', and 'Oh my god, this is brilliant'.

I’m so grateful to have Sam on this project, I don’t know where I would be without him (probably pulling my hair out).If you're struggling with a big design project, my advice is this: get yourself a Sam.

Liza Pagano
Art Director, Ithaka/JSTOR

I had the chance to work with Sam as a hiring manager as I was recruiting and hiring Designers for his team at FarmLogs.He brought a level of deep thinking and reflection that made him a true hiring partner in every sense.

He was always thinking strategically about how we could improve our recruiting process and candidate experience. He was also open to experimenting and trying new ways of finding and attracting talent. At the same time, he made a conscious effort to solicit feedback and iteratively improve his own interviewing and recruiting skills.

Any team would be lucky to have him and I'd love the opportunity to work with Sam again in the future.

Lauren Davaloz
People Success Specialist, Aha!

I began reflecting on how the hell I got here, going from a scared college freshman to shipping several features at Google this summer & currently working on a high profile Microsoft AI project.

Despite being an UMSI UX student, it was ENTR 390 that taught me the most about what a career in UX might look like. It was the most well taught, high functioning and practical course I've taken at UMich. My future projects & portfolio write-ups that would later get me these dream internships were all modeled after the one I made for 390.

I know how much work you three put in this course, and I want to convey how grateful I am for it. And beyond the basic design process and projects, you three also put an emphasis on ethics, inclusivity and accessibility in design that is so often overlooked in most courses.

Dania Abdulhamid
Designer at Microsoft, Google

I worked with Sam while he consulting for a startup where I was an intern. And I don't think it's too dramatic to say that his coaching alone made my internship feel worthwhile.

He was a great coach and mentor, guiding me through different phases of the design process. As industry tools come and go, it's this type of high-level thinking that I know will serve me well for a lifetime.

Thank you Sam!!

Linde Huang
Human-Centered Designer at Michigan Medicine

I worked with Sam very closely for a couple of years at FarmLogs. He was a really talented product designer, a very good partner to engineering, and his commitment to the product was inspirational.

One thing I admire about Sam’s approach is that he doesn’t design a solution before deeply understanding the problem domain. Before starting work on a new product, Sam starts by asking a lot of questions to understand what it is that we are trying to achieve—only then does he start designing the product. I saw many examples of Sam turning really complex problems into intuitive designs at FarmLogs.

Sam is also easy to work with and doesn’t take feedback on his work personally. Sometimes this quality is easy to overlook! He would make a great addition to any team and I recommend him highly.

Mayank Agarwal
Engineering Manager at Robinhood
More testimonials

Working together

I work as a fractional design leader, which means I take on a only a few clients at a time. I charge a flat per-month fee for most engagements.

Contact for rates and availability