It’s easy to talk about success. No wonder there are so many success stories and motivational memoirs out there. Anything you say makes sense – the end is always pleasant, after all.

What’s hard is to pinpoint exactly is what made someone successful. It’s even harder to explain someone else’s success not knowing the “kitchen” behind it. Of course, it’s easy to dive into all sorts of generalizations like “good product” and “effective marketing”, but those could be made by anyone.

In this article I tried to present my view on the reasons behind the success of three large design companies that exploded in the last five years. I may not always be right, but I tried to be as objective as possible talking about tools and approaches they used.,

Let’s dive in.

Invision

InVision was founded in 2011. So, technically, there was a world of the design before InVision and there is one after.

Up until 2011, the prototyping tools landscape was pretty balanced – there was an Axure with its Axure RP (founded in 2002), Justinmind (2007), and Balsamiq (2008). They all shared the market pretty much equally with Axure holding the top spot.
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Then came InVision.

Now, there’s an InVision with its 15 million monthly traffic, and all the rest. Of course, everything can be explained with money. InVision went through multiple series of funding, with the last one amounting to $115 million. What can you not do with so many resources?

And yet, if you look back at the previous picture, the rapid growth started years before the big checks came in. It’s safe to say the growth attracted these big checks.

So why did InVision become so popular in such a short period of time? An enormously complicated job was done, and it’s hard to define one particular effort that brought the company its success, but I figured out three main directions, or, rather, marketing narratives:

  • Inclusiveness
  • Ubiquity
  • Thoroughness

Inclusiveness

Did you know that, despite InVision being a design-oriented service, 70% of InVision’s users are not designers? And that’s not a coincidence or a side effect of being popular. There’s a deliberate effort behind it.

There are two components at play: a service component, and a marketing component.

Service component: the service itself. Designers don’t work in a vacuum, and InVision understands that.

Designers share their mockups with their non-designer colleagues and clients to get feedback or approval to keep going.

And in InVision’s web app it’s amazingly easy to share your projects with other people.

Add to that the fact that even a free plan allows an unlimited amount of collaborators on the project – and you’ll get the idea why there are so many non-designers working on InVision’s projects:

Another factor is that the InVision App is, well, simple. Its interface is much more casual than that of Axure RP or JustinMind.

Prototyping made easy for everyone, perhaps, was one of the early company’s unofficial slogans. So it naturally attracted the casual audience of non-designers by itself.

Marketing component:

InVision’s idea of inclusiveness goes far beyond making the interface easier to share and collaborate on. Their marketing efforts spread the narrative that design is for everyone and is a part of everything.

Take their documentary, Design Disruptors. It tells us the story of how design transforms companies and whole industries, but designers are not the target audience of the show. Those would be business executives, developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, presenters, and so on. Design in this documentary is not a defined process that trained visual professionals follow – it’s a medium to unite all the professions and industries under one common idea – design is in everything.

Take partnerships. Atlassian, Trello, Confluence – embedding InVision into those project-organizing platforms allows it to spread its influence among non-design users even further by simply giving all people involved instant access to prototypes and design projects directly inside their preferred project-management services.

Put simply, InVision’s inclusiveness lies in defining the design process as broad as possible and then involving the maximum amount of people to take part in it, designers and non-designers alike.

Ubiquity

By ubiquity here I mean “being everywhere”. Every decent marketing team strives to cover as many growth channels as possible, but InVision’s team really has a knack for it.

Blog

First, their blog. It’s updated regularly and has a staggering amount of contributors – 532 different authors (April 2019). Many of those are written by professional designers. That means that the articles won’t be written by a few chosen authors for the content to eventually become stale and repetitive.

They follow an SEO strategy as well:

Although the numbers are not comparable to total InvVision traffic, the blog provides a steady stream of new monthly users that can be directed towards either InVision products or a newsletter later on.

UI Kits

InVision creates and shares UI kits for free:

Those are very popular among both design professionals and non-designers alike to quickly create mockups or to create quality interfaces without having to design them from scratch.

Those kits not only raise brand awareness and sign new users for InVision emails lists, but also provide their website with a bunch of backlinks:

It’s interesting that UI Kits are part of the blog subdomain invisionapp.com/inside-design/ for SEO purposes, which means that all the links to those kits also improve the SEO ranking for all the blog articles.

Muzli

In 2016, InVision acquired Muzli, a Chrome extension that works as a gathering point for all prominent design-related publications and services. This allows all of those to be in one place. Your homepage.

There are multiple design resources and services connected to Muzli, which allows you to quickly go through all of them without leaving your browser’s starting screen. Dribbble, Behance, Product Hunt, TED… All the best services are there.

Top link – InVision’s blog. Top left corner – powered by InVision. Brand awareness and brand reinforcement at its best. The Muzli extension has over 275 000 users at the moment. Most of those are professional designers that eventually end up spreading the word.

Another example of ubiquity – a partnership with giant photo stocks Unsplash, iStockPhoto, and Gettyimages as part of extended functionality for Invision’s Craft plugin which I’ll talk about later. Simply put, those partnerships not only extended Craft’s functionality but InVision’s overall exposure. For example, iStockPhoto partnership earned InVision over 150,000 backlinks, as there was a direct link from the photo stock website to the plugin.

UI kits, partnerships, extensions, documentaries, blogs, newsletters – with as many channels of influence as possible, InVision is truly ubiquitous in spreading its message.

Thoroughness

The design process has many stages. It starts with the idea, or specifications, and ends up with high-fidelity prototypes and user testing sheets.

At first, InVison was primarily a prototyping tool. Specifically, for low-fidelity prototypes. For high-fidelity prototypes, people used the more advanced Axure, for screen designs and mockups – Sketch and Photoshop.

Eventually, with the addition of the Craft plugin, InVision started to advance into the territory of Sketch and Photoshop by adding and expanding on their collaborative functionality.

With the development of InVision Studio, they are now replacing those tools and are able to cover the screen designing stage of the development process.

By adding integrations with Slack, Trello, Jira, and others, InVision also dived into the early stages of design – brainstorming, user testing, storyboards.

The goal here, it seems, is to cover all the stages of the design process and present either a tool or an extension to aid those. InVision also created a $5M Design Forward Fund to seed startups that will help expand the functionality of their tools even further via plugins and integrations for InVision products.

All three of the narratives, Inclusivity, Ubiquity, and Thoroughness are deeply interconnected. Strategic partnerships of Inclusivity help attract new users while enabling InVision to form more connections during the design process in organizations at its earliest stages. Ubiquitous channels of marketing not only raise brand awareness within the design community but also encourage existing users to evangelize the tools even further among their colleagues and clients. And so it goes.

Canva

Since its launch in 2012, Canva acquired more than 10 million users across 179 countries that created more than 100 million designs. Currently, the company is valued at $1 billion.

Not bad for a company that helps you make cool facebook banners and infographics in a casual way. Or what’s the secret sauce? Let’s see.

The Product

Anything you want – a family album, a business presentation, an article illustration – any visual asset requires you to have certain design skills or experience to make it look good. Otherwise, you’d end up doing something like this:

And please, don’t start with a unique vision… thingy.

These do look better:

Canva solves a stinging problem of people who need to design something, yet are not trained designers. How many people are like that? According to Canva founders, 3.2 billion. In other words, everyone on the Internet.

So what makes Canva special?

See, there was a time when everyone designed like this:

Pardon me for doubling down on that image, but hear me out. Time passed, and the standard for visual imagery raised tenfold. It’s natural – when someone does something beautiful & simple & elegant, everything else becomes ugly and useless in comparison. The picture above seems ugly now, but I assure you, 15 years ago it seemed normal. That happened on the Internet – beautifully crafted by professional designers, presentations and illustrations popped up and rendered everything else obnoxious.

Marketers, writers, and Instagram influencers can’t afford to be obnoxious. So they have to spend money to hire designers and designers are not cheap.

But then Canva comes in. It allows anyone to create work that is in line with modern design standards. How? Well, if you combine some time-tested font combinations, colors, and professional design assets there’s a very high chance you end up creating something that looks great:

From now on, there are two main priorities: keep the service simple & keep it relevant.

Keep It Simple

If the goal is to attract non-design users, words like “layout”, “visual palette”, and “ligature” are forbidden. Non-designers look at this:

And don’t see a visual composition of monochromatic color palette, two font’s pairings with a canvas size of 940 x 788 pixels. No. They see a facebook post.

This is a CD cover:

And this is an Instagram Post:

For designers, CD Cover and Instagram Post have the same dimension, format, and even share some graphic elements. For non-designers, those are two completely different things or entities. Casual users don’t care for sizes, palettes or fonts – they see entities. A blog illustration, a book cover, a certificate – all are entities. In terms of design, a CD cover is just an image that can quickly become an Instagram Post. But in terms of entities, those are two different things. And Canva takes it to the bank.

This is the very first step of the simplification of design, which they also call “a democratization” of design: multiple presets of entities for any real-life scenario imaginable:

Then comes combinations.

The text comes in tested, working combinations. So that casual users won’t mess it up:

Same with the color:

And grouped elements:

By using the elements from the same group you are sure to create a consistent design. The only thing left is for it to be relevant.

Keep It Relevant

The Canva library of assets is constantly updated with new elements. Doing that, Canva makes sure it uses only relevant and trendy assets, otherwise, the resulting designs will look old and obsolete. That simply cannot happen, because, well, it’s the main goal – to make your designs look like they are designed by a professional. And professional designers and their designs are always relevant.

The Fuel

If the two goals, keeping it simple and keeping it relevant, are met, the service naturally attracts customers and turns them into consistent clients. The only thing left is fueling the service with new users. Apart from the word of mouth, which has been a valuable growth channel since the earliest days of Canva, one of the hallmarks of their marketing efforts is a total focus on search engine optimization.

Most of these pages are oriented towards popular and highly competitive design keywords. And most of them may be considered “hot” ones, because if people search for, say, “business cards”

and end up in the middle of Canva’s business card template creation, chances are they’re going to become clients.

Canva’s blog, Design School (now named simply “Learn”), is heavily SEO-oriented. It has more than a million monthly readers and most of the traffic comes from SEO-optimized articles.

Every new article covers some segment of casual design – like calendar making tips, resume best practices and so on. The articles attract the target audience and then redirect readers into creating designs themselves:

People who search via Google then become Canva’s consistent clients and fuel the initial word-of-mouth strategy.

Democratize design for casual users and attract them via marketing channels that casual users employ (google searches & word of mouth). And that’s it.

Icons8 Photos

The market for photo stocks is overcrowded. We have Unsplash & Pexels with millions of royalty free photos, and for the premium segment, we have Getty Images [if you’re feeling like spending $400 on a single photo]. And then there are hundreds of photo websites in between.

How do you even get the idea to create a new photo stock website at this time in human history? And even further, how would you make it both popular and profitable.

Welcome to the Icons8 Photos.

Notice I haven’t used “stock photos”. Because Icons8 Photos are not, traditionally speaking, “stock photos”.

When we say “stock photos”, the word itself usually comes with a baggage of memes and Internet legends, like Women Laughing Alone With Salad

Or sad Harold:

Or this guy:

Not to say Icons8 Photos doesn’t have its own memes already:

Original project via Icons8 Photo Creator

Original project via Icons8 Photo Creator

But… What Icons8 understood is that memes about stock photography are not just for fun. They are a form of satire, a comment on generalization or artificiality of photos. See, when stock photographers create photos, they are creating them with money in mind.

Amazon search for “stock photos” books.

They are trying to sell the image. And what sells well? Beautiful, healthy people doing healthy things? No. Search queries. That ends poorly.

What do people search for the most on photo stocks? Women. Business. Family. Health. Those are the top search words on every photo stock. How do you take those photos? You find models and make them pretend they’re a family. Family. You dress them in business suits and put a laptop on the table. That’s business. Add salad. That’s health. And women, well, there’s been a lot said about the evolution of the image of women in photo stocks and the misrepresentation of women in media and advertising, two of the most photo demanding industries out there.

So, naturally, from such a narrow focus on search terms comes an abundance of stereotypization and, eventually, misrepresentation of everything. Photo stocks are even forced to add selected photo libraries to balance things out.

What if we were to solve this problem on a global level? And how? The idea behind Icons8 Photos was as simple as that. Create as many photo assets as possible and, eventually, give the power to the users, not photographers or photo stocks. Let people incarnate their own notions about family, business and professions.

Yes, Icons8 hired models and photographers. In fact, the whole cinematic crew was involved. But that was just the basic element – creating elements to juggle with. Later came Icons8 Photo Creator – where you can combine any number of models, elements, backgrounds and create your own photos and collages, not just select from something that was shot beforehand. Diversity, representation, art – everything is the user’s responsibility now. Not stock moderators or sell-oriented photographers.

Would people be scared of such responsibility? Nah. People started creating.

Entrepreneurs liked the idea:

Redditors liked the idea:

Viral success on the reddit /r/wtfstockphotos subreddit

Even photo stocks themselves liked the idea:

Ours is still the #1 image for a “woman” search query on Pexels

Icons8 didn’t even have to do anything – our users did everything for us. They created, they shared, they commented. From time to time we held competitions on new photo collages, but with the recently released life profile people now can track how popular their photos are in real time and we no longer need to select the best ones – people do that for us as well.

Stock photo websites were supposed to be a conversation between photographers of every kind, but in the end most photostocks, especially commercial ones, ended up being a collection of money-grabbing stereotypes of a real life.

A living and breathing community of photo creators is what photo stocks should have been about, and Icons8 Photos strives to do just that. But that is a story you’ll hear about some other time

Afterword

Some products are built on trends. Others solve a problem no one has ever addressed before, or only addressed poorly. Then there are those who change the world for the better. And successful products do all of that.

The success of the companies mentioned in this article influenced us all. I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and if you’re planning to become the next Canva or InVision, don’t forget that apart from being successful those companies made our Internet a more beautiful place. I believe there’s a connection there.

Good luck!

About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.

Don’t miss free tools by the Icons8 team:
Icons8, a library of about 90K icons
Moose, a big collection of stylish stock photos by pro photographers
Photo Creator, free collage maker to make custom photos for your story
Ouch!, a collection of free vector illustrations
Fugue, royalty free music for videos of any kind
Lunacy Editor (Sketch for Windows), free software to view, create and edit Sketch files for Windows users.

Also, get the lists of free vector software and free photo editing software

Title image from Icons8 Ouch! illustration library