a 10-year winding journey to live the calling
My love for design started to show at a young age, and it became undeniable at high school – when every Saturday afternoon, my only half a day rest per week from my super demanding studies, I would religiously visit the foreign language bookstore in my home town, only to engulf myself in the design books for hours and hours, standing.
Years later, I came to Sweden to pursue my graduate study at KTH. One day, a classmate came to show me a personal website he had done himself. It is a pleasant website with his stories and photos, nothing too fancy really, but I was completely mesmerised – "so someone like me can also single-handedly build a website?!" This realisation was the kickstart of an intense period of learning photoshop and HTML all by myself.
Soon enough, my personal website was born, a site with my photos, trips, journals and even singing recordings. I like it a lot myself and I was very proud. But I never thought it would go on to attract
18 MILLION visits in total. Looking back, it was a near-impossible feat, especially when this was in 2004, before the invention of Facebook and sharing was not easy. Yet, I didn't know anything about monetisation so didn't earn a penny out of this. It happened quietly online, so I didn't even celebrate it properly! The very important thing it did to my life though, is to instill a strong confidence in me that I can design things that a lot of people like.
After getting my first master's degree in IT, which is something my parents believed in, I decided to pursue another master in Art and Technology – something I felt I owed to myself. Before I even finished my studies, I started my own company to build my own design career. Starting a business all on your own is tough enough, starting it in a new country with zero existing network made it even tougher. The contrast became so stark when most of my KTH classmates went to have comfortable well-paid cooperate IT jobs at Ericsson, DHL etc, while I had to struggle so much to make the business stay afloat. As hard as it was in those years, the prospect of not doing design was scarier than the prospect of not having a steady finance. I chose to keep on fighting.
The more designs I did, the easier it became. My client base grew steadily, to my delight, it was almost exclusively through word of mouth, and I even managed to acquire high profile clients like Spike Edney (keyboard player of Queen) and top art galleries in London, Stockholm, Milan and Beijing.
This was before the mobile hype, designers were not burning with jobs. Even though the freelance career was working, I still couldn't truly relax into believing that I could live on design comfortably. So I made the choice to try the Chinese Art business in London. After working in Christie's and building a valuable network of world-class dealers, I decided to give it up, because I didn't satisfy me in a deep way. After that, I became a liaison selling wooden villas from Sweden to China. After closing a 20 million kronor deal, I was asked by the company, which had a turnover of 3 billion kronor, to be their sole agent for the Chinese market. The financial future looked so bright, but I chose to quit. Again, I was just not happy enough without creating my designs.
My decisions of forgoing seemingly perfect opportunities bewildered a lot of people around me. But I suppose this is how life works – only when you dare to give up the things you don't truly want, the things that are meant for you will have the space to show up. One month after I quit the export business, when I went back to the state of feeling both insecure about the future and firm about the direction, I met Niklas, the founder of Instabridge, at a random hackathon and the whole design career trajectory got dramatically changed.
I loved this idea so much that I decided to jump in after Niklas had pitched to me for only 5 minutes, when the company was only one month old. The original team of five started off passionately from our kitchens. We had our fair share of unpaid14 hour work days, made 3 versions from scratch, learned a ton along the way, but 2 years later, we still found us puzzled and frustrated by the hard truth that even though each new version got much better than the one before, none brought in significant traction, our users didn't really get the app, and we only had 6 months of runway left.
I took the lead for product/UX design and was responsible for designing the last iteration before our money ran out. We couldn't admit defeat yet, we still loved this idea and we still believed in its potential. For me personally, I just couldn't give up yet, before I designed a product that I could be truly proud of.
After some "app soul-searching", we decided to completely desert the old version and make a new one from scratch. I learned from the giants and tried my best to up the game. This time, the goal is to design "the world's best wifi manager". With the support of the whole team, we turned it into reality step by step.
What happened parallel with the startup struggle was a big trauma in my personal life. Six months into the Instabridge journey, I lost my biggest love and my best friend–my mother. I am an only child living on the other side of the world and the grief was soul-crushing. The situation was dire. In order to save myself and to rebuild a life without her, I was left with no choice but to dig deep into psychology, and learn everything I could about how the human heart and mind work. I travel far and often, but my most epic journey was definitely done on my tiny sofa, where I devoured books and interviews about grief, shame, pain, as well as acceptance and self love.
I suppose all the learnings, experiences and frustrations had accumulated to a certain point and exponential growth happened. The app design went on a different quantum level and suddenly the psychological side of UX design also lit up like an light bulb. My version helped the app to reach its crucial first million downloads and it took off from there. All of this combined consolidated my transition from a web/UI designer to a true product/UX designer. (The full Instabridge story can be found at the bottom)
Now, I have come back to life with full passion and Instabridge has had more than 27 million downloads, and is backed by investors like Tim Draper (early investor for Tesla, Baidu, Skype etc.) and Creandum (early investor for Spotify). I still remain a shareholder of the company, but went on to pursue a consultant career to make more apps great in a new era that digital design has exploded.
I remember when I just graduated from my second master and decided to make web design as a living, a wealthy older friend questioned me:"Gu, you have two masters from two of the best universities in Sweden and you just want to do websites?" I answered "Absolutely". I am so grateful for the younger me who dared to insist on living the calling and dared to stay in the unknown. With every step of its ups, downs and detours, it made me who I am today. To live my calling is not an easy journey, but for sure it is a worthy one.
WHAT PRODUCT DESIGN MEANS TO ME – The 5 key learnings, which are applied here in redesigning Natural Cycles, from revamping Instabridge and reaching its crucial first million downloads
NATURAL CYCLES REDESIGN - Applying the 5 key learnings from the Instabridge journey to redesign the world's first contraceptive app
THE FULL INSTABRIDGE STORY (LONG READ) - A detailed and honest story about the Instabridge journey: the challenge, the approach, the solution, the reflection...