Field Guide
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Design Partners

A four-step process to find and close design partners to test your product. Includes links to top lists of fast-growing enterprise SaaS companies.

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Now that you have an idea of what great design partners look like, how do you actually secure those initial five to 10?

To give more color, we’ll briefly walk through the method we use at Unusual through the lens of our sales Founder Services engagement with our portfolio company Traceable, a code security company. When the engagement kicked off, Traceable was still in stealth with only a beta version of their product. The team was aiming to conduct 50+ customer conversations that quarter with the ideal goal of converting their first design partners to paying customers before launch.

1. Find the right design partners

When we started looking for the challenger companies that could be great design partners for Traceable, we started by identifying verticals where security is paramount and a breach would be company-threatening (SaaS platforms with customer transactions, insurance, fin-tech, B2C social networks, etc.).

We then narrowed the TAM (total addressable market) by focusing on the challengers in those verticals. We used tools like, DataFox, or ZoomInfo to filter the total number of companies in their databases by geographic location, founding date, employee count, funding amount, revenue amount, and current tech stack to generate our first list of companies to pursue.

Other great resources to find companies that fit the challenger profile include Future Unicorn List, Fast 50, Cloud 100, Disruptor 50 List, Breakout List, and Career Launching Company List.

After that, we stack-ranked the first 450 challenger companies (150 companies a month for the quarter) by who we thought would have the most urgent need/interest around application and API security.

Example of searching for companies in ZoomInfo

2. Identify the right person at the design partner organization

With the verticals and challenger companies selected, we then applied our user persona filter to target the specific individuals we would sell to.

In Traceable's case, our user persona titles included application security engineers, infrastructure engineers, DevOps teams, VPs of engineering, DevSecOps, etc. This step gives you the contact information you need to reach out to these potential design partners, but it also gives you the opportunity to uncover patterns that help you more deeply understand your user persona. For example, do some verticals have significantly more infrastructure engineers? Is there one title that starts to show up more based on the amount of revenue a company has? Do some personas not show up at all in challengers?

These tools also allow you to sort by ICs, managers, VPs, etc., allowing you to segment who you target — ICs for use case pain points (PMF) and VPs for insights about business case/buying processes (PMSF).

3. Craft a value proposition that will attract design partners

Once you have the verticals, companies, and individuals all lined up, you need to nail the messaging you'll use to convince them to meet with you to learn more about what you're building. We choose that word carefully: learn. As we mentioned above, design partners are co-conspirators, helping you develop your product and roadmap by working with them on their use cases and understanding what an ideal product experience looks like now and in the future. In return, you get an understanding of how your ICPs work with each other, what product attributes are most desired, how companies prefer to try and buy your product.

With this in mind, aside from effectively and efficiently communicating what you're building and who you are, the most important aspect of design partner outreach is letting them know you genuinely want to learn about their thoughts on the space: 

"We'd love to understand how you/your team is currently approaching application and API security, and how you see this space evolving."

This way, you're not starting off with a sales pitch. The goal is to look for signs that they agree with your paradigm of the space and believe in your product’s value proposition. (Perhaps they’ve been looking for a product like yours or have been trying to hack together a solution themselves.) Only then should you switch to selling them on the benefits of becoming a design partner. You can find more about how we think about outreach tactics here.

4. Closing design partners

When you start getting discovery meetings with potential design partners, you want to focus the 30 minutes on these topics:

  • What were they brought on to do at their current company?
  • Note: don't focus on tasks associated with their job title. Ask about what their mandate is at the company and how it's going.
  • Do they agree with your market paradigm and why a new product needs to address it?
  • Is your product's value hypothesis something they desperately need?
  • How have they been approaching this use case today?
  • Would they be able to use your product in their tech-stack with its current build?
  • Do they often work with startups?
  • How would they pitch this design partnership to their boss?

If you can hit on those points in your first conversations with a potential design partner, you'll capture valuable learnings for your product roadmap and GTM decisions, even if the prospect isn’t interested or ready to be a design partner.

We have more resources on how to handle the product testing process, how to think about pricing, and more in our complete Unusual Guide to Sales.

For Traceable, the progression of combined tactics above looked like this:

  • Number of total companies in the databases: 10,800,000
  • Number of challenger companies in chosen verticals: 3,629
  • Number of target personas at those challenger companies: 4,018
  • Number of discovery meetings that quarter: 50+

We landed the first five design partners out of this initial search and were able to expand the number of design partners and convert them into paying customers the following quarter before Traceable's launch. They have had a tremendous impact on the product roadmap and will be influential partners as the company grows.

Creating a list of companies and personas gives you a starting point for kicking off your sales process, which covers identifying the right user persona at a high-margin challenger and closing them as a Design Partner. If you’re thoughtful about this process and choose the right design partners, you’ll get that final 20% of the product vision you need to make meaningful progress.


As a founder of a Seed Stage company, other than recruiting the best people possible, there’s nothing more important than finding the right design partners. After completing this module of the Unusual Field Guide, we hope you now have a better framework for thinking through the characteristics of optimal design partners, and a deep understanding of how to create a target list of companies and personas that will be a starting point for kicking off your sales process. 

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