You’re reading an excerpt of Land Your Dream Design Job, a book by Dan Shilov. Filled with hard-won, personal insights, it is a comprehensive guide to landing a product design role in a startup, agency, or tech company, and covers the entire design interview process from beginning to end, for experienced and aspriring designers. Purchase the book to support the author and the ad-free Holloway reading experience. You get instant digital access, commentary and future updates, and a high-quality PDF download.
When we think of negotiation, we think of it as the final step between you and the job. The reality is that we’re always negotiating. Sometimes you’re not even in the room. Your work, your portfolio, is negotiating on your behalf, especially in the beginning—so be sure to make it strong. Show that you’ve achieved outstanding results in the companies you were with and this will lead to proper leveling and help the employer set the right expectations for a salary range.
What Do I Say when I Get a Call Congratulating Me?
Stay positive and convey your excitement for the role. The next step is to get the offer in writing so you can pore over it in detail. The employer wouldn’t expect you to commit on the spot, and it’s reasonable to ask for time to think things over.
I’m Not Sure if I Want to Work Here…
If you’re still on the fence about taking the job, get answers to your questions first by interviewing your future teammates. As part of your interviewing, you can also ask about job expectations and career ladders. What does success look like? Who is a good example of a strong designer there? Return here when you’re mostly certain.
I’m Lucky to Even Get This Job—Should I Negotiate?
Yes! It pays to ask.
important According to Comparably, only 52% of all designers negotiated their salary. Not negotiating is a guarantee that you won’t get more. Studies also show that women also take the first offer at face value whereas men see it as negotiable. At least starting the conversation opens up the chance that you’ll get a bump, and you won’t regret leaving money on the table. Your subsequent promotions and raises will be in part based on that number. There’s no shame in asking and no shame in later accepting the original offer.
How Do I Get More?
Aside from polishing your skills, the next step is to collect data to understand the market rate for designers. The goal isn’t to squeeze every penny out of the company. Rather, you want to make sure there’s a good match between your level of skill and the money that you’re getting. You don’t want to end up in a place where you drive a hard bargain, get the money, end up not performing, and get let go as a result.
How Do I Find Out How Other Designers Are Compensated?
The best resource is real compensation from other designers. Ask your friends or even friends of friends to get a rough estimate. Hired’s Salary Calculator and W2 filings are also good resources for actual salary data. If you’re going the startup route, take a look at AngelList, as jobs come with transparent equity and salary ranges.
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Levels.fyi is a good resource, as it has a granular side-by-side comparison of salaries across (mainly large) tech companies. Similar to Hired, Levels is starting to verify salaries through official documents. It also graphs ranges for tech salaries based on level, helping you better understand how different companies do compensation. Less reliable info comes from self-reported salaries on sites such as Glassdoor, LinkedIn Salary, and Comparably. Your best bet is to look at aggregate salary per level.
Snapshot of Your Written Offer
Your compensation package will consist of multiple levers you can pull:
Compensation. Combination of cash, equity, and sometimes a starting bonus with a promise of a performance bonus.
Title. A series of levels that determine your salary range.
Benefits. Medical and voluntary insurance. This is a major perk that can help you save major money compared to buying it yourself.
Vacation. Some companies offer unlimited time off, others allow you to sell your time off, and some tie vacation to employee band.
Perks. These can be some nice-to-have extras, such as free lunch at the office, flex work, learning budgets, and so on.
If you have multiple offers, it helps to do a summary of all the financial benefits that you get in order to do a side-by-side comparison.
Remember though, the most important things (for example, industry experience or access to expertise from mentors) won’t be stated in your offer and are hard to quantify. These are personal, so be sure to take stock of intangible benefits that are valuable to you. Small things like a culture of remote work or a flexible working-hour policy add up quickly.
That’s why when you’re looking for work, it helps to start with the end in mind. Have a north star for the next step in your career—it aids you in narrowing down options and making tough calls based on factors critical for you while not getting distracted by shiny but meaningless add-ons.
The Compensation Package Breakdown
When you receive your compensation package, you’ll be leveled at a band, which comes with a range; for example, associate product designer makes $100K–$110K base salary compared to a product designer who might make $110K–$125K. In general, the company that you’re considering should have an objective standard for determining salary ranges, and you can always ask how they’ve arrived at their decision.
Years of design work serves as a rule of thumb when it comes to compensation, but years of experience doesn’t always equate to expertise. Ability to ship products that led to phenomenal outcomes does. Prove that you can perform at a certain band and have deep expertise that the company doesn’t have—you’ll get compensated appropriately.
Base salary is usually shown as a pre-tax annual number. If you’re moving to a new area, be sure to factor in your cost of living plus various taxes. According to Hired’s State of Salaries 2019 report, the average tech salary is highest in the SF bay area at $145K. However, Austin, TX, wins out since it has a better cost of living and so the same salary brings more purchasing power. In addition to your base salary, it’s helpful to understand how often the company does performance reviews, as these are additional opportunities to recalibrate your salary. Typically they happen either once or twice a year.
You may also get a one-time signing bonus, usually conditionally if you stay on for the full year. Sometimes you may also get a promise of a performance bonus at the end of the year, so you can ballpark how much potential extra money you might get. Take that with a grain of salt though—these bonuses are not guaranteed.
When we think of compensation, benefits don’t immediately come to mind. However, getting benefits like medical insurance coverage can quickly add up, helping you save $15,000 or more for individual coverage.
Some other perks that you might encounter:
401K budgets to help you manage retirement.
Learning budgets that you can spend on workshops or conferences.
Snacks and lunches at the office saving you both time and money.
Discounts with other partner companies.
Quantifying benefits and their financial impact can be tricky, but you can always do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to rough-size the money and time you can save.
In addition to offering salaries, companies, especially startups, offer equity as another form of compensation. Typically, early-stage companies weigh heavily on equity but pay lower in base. Of course, this isn’t legal or investment advice, so always check with your lawyer and/or if you have questions.
Generally, you’ll encounter these equity types:
Public stock. Although the stock price of a company will vary over time, the benefit of public stock is obvious: it’s real money that’s worth something today.
Restricted stock units (RSUs). You wait to get the shares, and once they vest, you don’t need to buy them.
Incentive stock options (ISOs). You get the right to buy shares in the future with a preferential tax treatment. Your offer will state how much you will have to pay per share (strike price), but you will have to fork over some cash to get your equity.
To understand how much your equity is worth, you’ll need to understand how much you’re getting out of a total pool of options outstanding and how much the company is currently valued at. You’ll also need to have conviction that this value will rise over time (hopefully in part due to your efforts). You may also want to talk with your recruiter or your future manager about how much your shares are valued at a specific valuation to determine how much you could stand to make as the company grows.
You don’t get equity all at once but instead accumulate it over time—aka vesting. A typical vesting schedule is four years, which means you’ll get all of your shares in four years. Usually there’s a one-year cliff where you get 25% of your equity package at the end of year one. After that you get 1/48 of your equity vested every month until you reach year four.
While it’s exciting to work for startups, the chances of making it big are rare. The reality is that nearly all startups fail, some break even and get acquired, and a select few hit it big. Even with the select few, 2019 was a year of lackluster IPOs as companies’ stock significantly decreased after going public. That said, Facebook’s IPO wasn’t an early blockbuster success either. So treat equity as a nice bonus, not as a 100% sure thing.
Start with the end in mind. Before entering a negotiation, think through the factors that are important to you now. You don’t have to have a five-year vision—not many do. But having a solid plan for your next year, what you want to learn, and the type of work you want to be doing will help you meaningfully make trade-offs.
Not a Zero-Sum Pie
When we think of negotiation, it’s not unusual to think of it as a zero-sum game. One player takes most and another is left with less. But that’s a losing proposition. You should reframe a negotiation as a conversation to come up with a win-win situation for both parties. This will lead not only to a good short-term outcome for you but also to long-term goodwill down the road when your next assessment comes.
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