For early stage

Your nimble, strategic design partner

I take founders’ big visions and turn them into simple products customers love

A lean design process makes finding product-market radically faster than the standard startup product development process.

I help founders distill and illustrate their product vision, get to the root of what motivates customers, rapidly prototype ideas, and get them in front of real users.

Let's build something great togetherGet in touch

Client profile

  • Employees: 1-10
  • Funding: Pre-seed or seed
  • Product stage: technology is built, looking for product-market fit

My process

Phase 1 - Product strategy kickoff

Everything starts with a deep dive into who your customers are and what they want. We define our goals and rapidly iterate on solutions.

  • Describe your ideal customer and what makes them buy
  • Interview experts and potential customers
  • Identify points of opportunity or customer pain in the journey map

Key partners: founders, customers, and domain experts

Goal: guide the design and development phases; surface assumptions and risks early; discover the root motivations behind your target market

Deliverable: customer archetypes and journey map

Phase 2 - Iterative design prototyping

Once we’ve done a first-pass at modelling the business, we lean on our educated guesses and start building.

  • Generate ideas together on the best way to solve those pain points
  • Rapidly build low-fidelity, interactive design prototypes
  • Gather and update designs based on feedback from the team on what's working and what isn't
  • Test prototypes with real customers and get sales objections

Key partners: founders and customers

Goals: validate our assumptions with real customers before we spend more money; narrow our scope to the most impactful features; design an experience that people want to use and share

Deliverable: low-fidelity interactive design prototypes

Phase 3 - Agile software development

Pair with engineers to build products

  • Design a system of reusable UI components to make engineering go faster
  • Help engineers with front-end (like CSS)

Key partner: engineering

Goal: build an incredible product that gets real-world traction with customers

Deliverable: real code shipped to your beta users

Phase 4 - Preparing the pitch (optional)

Usually the last step is to help founders to raise more money.

I use the deck format I’ve used time and again with other clients to craft a great pitck. The deck is designed to establish the value of the opportunity, demonstrate product progress, and cover standard questions from investors like team and next steps.

  • Formalize lessons learned into a clear business proposal
  • Make slides into a focused, clear, compelling story you can take to investors
  • Design a beautiful deck that makes a strong impression

Key partners: founders and advisors

Goal: raise money on founder-favorable terms so you can scale your business

Deliverable: pitch deck in Google Slides


Design concept sprints

I design broad, high-level concepts for experimental features. These are great for exploring new products, testing with users, presenting at board meetings, and using in pitch decks.

Rules for running design concept sprints

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

Good, bad, and horrible reasons to build a feature

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

Feedback 101

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

Full-stack feature design

I work as the designer on feature teams, distilling complex problems into simple UIs that users love. I specialize in working quickly and making life easy for engineers and PMs.

Designing a product in 15 minutes

Rapid design prototyping example

Design is mostly about emphasis

11 ways to make the important parts of your design stand out on request

The “Idea Funnel” in product design

When to go broad—and when to focus on request

How to iterate badly

9 mistakes product teams make on request

Minimum viable brands

I create beautiful, functional visual brands for startups that aren't ready for big, expensive brand projects.

Hacking a minimum viable brand for startups

How to get a 'good enough' visual brand for a fraction of the time and cost on request

Front-end web development

I love CSS (yes, really) and pairing with engineers code features with simple, maintainable code.

Firefly: Build and deploy real web apps in minutes

I built a Firefly and React boilerplate for front-end developers

Design audits

What parts of your product are blocking engagement? I help teams find (and fix) problems using design critiques and usability tests with real users.

Pitch decks

I help my clients raise money with pitch decks that look great and tell the company's story as a compelling narrative.

Want to level-up the team you already have?
See how I scale design
How I workDesign agenciesFull-time designers
Agile process

Ship on day one, then iterate; engineering is unblocked early, design research happens in parallel

Waterfall process

Big upfront research phase, then a separate design phase; engineering often blocked until after design

No process

It depends on their startup experience—most just deliver work at their own pace

Flexible budget/scope

I book time in small blocks so I can quickly scale up or down as we go

Fixed budget/scope

Agencies need high utilization, so they schedule big projects up-front

Fixed hours

Staff designers work 40 hours/week, regardless of need

Strategic partner

I use design to validate hypotheses and find value for the business

Low strategic ability

Focused on “how can we build this”, not “what should we build”

Low strategic ability

Focused on making things look good and polishing details

High startup experience

I've done this before and made all the mistakes already. I tailor my work to your growth stage.

Low startup experience

Many agency designers come right out of school with no work experience

Low startup experience

Designers who haven't worked at startups learn by making mistakes on the job

Embedded in your team

I work alongside your team; customer insights and new skills stay in-house

Behind a wall

Isolated from your team, lessons stay with the agency and die when they leave

On your team

In-house designers focus on building features over growing the team

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

Sam is a UX god.We were blown away by how quickly he broke down our complex goals into a simple, beautiful, intuitive design.

Not only did we launch an awesome product on time, but the work went way above and beyond our expectations. He taught us a ton about building great products, and he laid the foundation for our engineers to keep building great designs. Our only regret is that we didn't book more of his time!

Jason Corso
CEO and co-founder, Voxel51 A.I. Platform

Sam is an incredibly talented product designer and coach.

He was instrumental in helping FarmLogs design a product and brand that quickly became recognized for our ease of use, igniting years of rapid growth for our company.

Jesse Vollmar
CEO and co-Founder, FarmLogs

We needed that je ne sais quoi that would take our product from functional to fabulous. Turns out, it was Sam.

I initially contacted Sam because I admired his work at Farmlogs, and we needed a similar level of design polish. But what we got was so much more: a better understanding of the journey our prospects take before they become customers, a documented design language that we are applying not just in our product but across our marketing materials, and an appreciation for what is needed *at our business's stage of growth*. I could not recommend Sam more highly.

Dawn Verbrigghe
Founder and CEO, Jottful

When you are ready to transform a big idea into a new product, Sam is an outstanding design and thought partner. He will help you navigate the ambiguity of invention, and he helps to translate your ideas into tangible user experiences that people can see and interact with.

Sam is uniquely able to help navigate the uncertainty of creation, and the “putting pencil to paper” in terms of UX design and product development. Oh, and he’s efficient and works fast!

Shawn Hardin
President, Kitchentown

I'm Frodo, and Sam's my Gandalf.

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
More testimonials

Let's build something great together

I'm well practiced in sizing my work to most budgets, and usually start with a small engagement. I bill with a mix of flat rate and per diem depending on project size.

I only work with a couple companies at a time, so availability can be limited.

Contact for rates and availability