I’ve met Tom Lahat in his new office in Tel Aviv, in the midst of an extensive hiring round. His startup just recently doubled its size but Tom is still full of energy, he tells me that he plans to fill 20 more positions by the end of the year. Tom, Chief Product Officer at Tailor Brands, a fast growing design startup that he co-founded together with Yali Saar, CEO, and Nadav Shatz, CTO, started his way as a graphic designer. Today, his startup designs branding for over 500,000 business worldwide, and is the first company to design all of its branding 100% automated, using only algorithms to do its work. It generates personalized business cards, presentation etc… Their site is really cool and if you need branding for your business, I suggest you check it out.
Starting out as a designer, ending as an entrepreneur. How did that happen?
I always loved design, I was one of those kids who spent their nights learning how to use Photoshop from random sites, staying awake until 3am. By the age of 13, I was spending all of my nights designing. When my parents bought me my first camera, a Nikon Coolpix, my days were officially lost too.
I started by creating designs for friends, some started a band and needed a sticker, others had a project they were working on and needed presentations. When those friends grew up, their projects became serious, and I started designing logos and branding. Those were my first real “jobs”. And when you don’t get paid, you have the privilege to experiment as much as you’d like. It’s always cool to see that some of these brands still exist today and are using the same old designs I’ve made.
I joined the army like most Israeli guys, did non-design related work for three years, but couldn’t drive off my fascination with the field. I sketched, drew, photographed, but didn’t really understand that what I was doing could be considered “work”. When I finished my service I met a friend who was flying to the U.S to study graphic design. As stupid as it might sound, I was shocked by the fact that I could actually study design full time in school. I mean, somebody was going to give me a degree for something I already love doing? So, I packed my bags, called up Yali who was my best friend at the time, and told him we’re moving to NYC to study at Parsons.
It started out great, but it didn’t take more than a year for both of us to quit. We got accepted to a startup accelerator In Rhode-Island with an App we worked up during the weekends. And the opportunity to work on something that might end up being more than just a school project was too enticing. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what does it mean to actually start a company, but I convinced myself that it would be much more interesting than hitting another deadline.
The accelerator provided me with the chance to make every possible mistake you can do while running a business, and the app failed after just six months. It was one of the best schools I’ve ever attended. I spent days on days creating pixel perfect icons before we even had a business plan, added features without having a clear idea of who actually needs it. All were pretty novice mistakes, but something about that naive approach nurtured amazing passion that I try and mimic in every project I’ve worked on since. After the accelerator ended, and the app died, we moved back to NYC. Yali and I teamed up with Nadav and started working on what later on became Tailor Brands.
Where did you get the idea for Tailor?
Before moving to Rhode Island I went WOOFing (volunteering at organic farms in exchange for room and board) around the east coast. After realizing I have zero farm skills, I decided to offer my design skills instead. Every farm I visited needed something. For some I designed a logo, for others it was a new site. Seeing how quickly these designs made an impact on the business, and on the way the farmers viewed their business (realizing they have a brand for example), made me see there is an unfulfilled need for design everywhere.
So, when we (the team) sat down and thought about what’s going to be the idea for our next adventure, I said “I think we can automate design”. We all fell in-love with it for different reasons, but the combining element was that we all loved trying to solve something that was considered impossible.
Starting every business is a little bit impossible – What was the main challenge you faced?
It’s true, there are endless challenges in starting any business, but the problem that I find most challenging to solve is imitating the conversation designers have with their clients, and mimicking it automatically.
As a designer I believe that a big part of our role is guiding our clients through the rational behind our artistic decisions; Why their design is perfect for what they want to achieve. That’s why we ask about the business, about their goals, values etc.. One of the most important parts in the design work is creating a bridge of understanding, a personal connection between the designer and the client.
So how did you manage automate that personal connection?
We are still trying, and we’ll keep perfecting it with every day that passes. We try to implement in every aspect of the site, from our brand language, the user interface, the way we design our products and even the loaders in between pages. The fact that users want design that is fast and affordable doesn’t mean they don’t want to feel that throughout the creative process – eventually the design we are making will be their face, their identity – so it better be special for them by the time we are done with the process.
In addition, I think that the way we approach products in Tailor makes a big different, as opposed to many companies out there we don’t try to simplify Photoshop for our users or create a simplified editor – we try to think how does an in-house designer would work with you and imitate the same feeling in the service we provide.
How did a creative soul adapt to the hardcore business world?
It’s always funny for me to think about how we started Tailor – my main goal was never to start a business, but creating something that will make me wake up every morning and enjoy what I’m doing. I approached Tailor as a graphic designer, and still approach it the same way today. It’s true, I did start using new words like MVP, UI, Agile, but at the heart of things I’m still a designer, despite of my daily routine a Product Manager who needs to also be business minded.
Tailor Brands was started by 3 friends. We didn’t have any prior experience running a business, but we trust each other to look out for one another. When one fails, the other picks up, and that’s how we make the business grow. When we tell people that all of the partners lived, worked and went out together for 2 years they are pretty shocked we are still such good friends.
What do you like most about working at Tailor?
The thing I love most about Tailor is the fact I never stop learning, as a designer and as a co-founder. The process of growing from 3 cofounders to a team of 25 people is unbelievable.
Weren’t you afraid of starting your own company?
I try to take the same energies and naivety that I had when I was building my first app and apply it to everything I do. In the last 3 years I moved continents 3 times, moved 5 apartments, lost 10 kilos, had 2 nervous breakdown, dropped out of school, and the only thought I had in my head was “this is absolutely fucking amazing”.
What inspires you?
1. My co-founders. I really look up to them. Looking at us work just makes me happy. We all have such a different opinions about how to build the right products. We argue, we make up, and I believe that’s what makes Tailor so successful.
2. Brands that change their own industry – It’s amazing to understand that Wework, for example, is a real-estate company, that rents out spaces for people to work. But the brand they built around it it so much more than it. I can also talk for hours about Airbnb, Mailchimp and Tinder, but I think you get the idea.
Any tips for entrepreneurs?
First of all, that your team is your most valuable asset, spend all of your time building the right crew, and really ask yourself what each partner brings to the business. Second, keep your Naivety close to your Paranoia. Know you can succeed, but understand that any moment everything can fail.
Tailor Brands is a super-cool product, and the story behind it is very inspirational. I had a lot of fun talking with Tom about it, and it really gave me a good perspective about design and entrepreneurship, and a lot of motivation.
What do you think about automated design? Let me know in the comments below.