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24-year-old college dropout takes on Adobe with $18 million in backing

Figma CEO Dylan Field
Figma CEO and co-founder Dylan Field dropped out of Brown University at age 20 to become a Thiel fellow before eventually launching Figma. Source: Figma

Four years ago, Dylan Field dropped out of Brown University on a whim to become a member of the Thiel Fellowship, a two-year program founded by billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel.

Twenty young men and women, including Field, were awarded $100,000 that year to drop out of (or take a leave of absence from) college to pursue and develop their idea.

Field knew exactly what he wanted to to do: take on Adobe (ADBE). After three years of development, his software interface design tool Figma launched on Wednesday for desktop and mobile.

Adobe, which runs a $6 billion business, has long dominated the design market as a veritable Goliath, with widely used software tools like Adobe Illustrator. But as Field and co-founder Evan Wallace saw it, there was very little innovation going on at Adobe.

While office tasks like word processing and spreadsheet creation have largely migrated to the cloud with products such as Google Docs, Office 365 and Quip, the Adobe Illustrators haven’t. Designers who wanted to create and collaborate on say, the graphic interfaces for apps, still had to save their work and share it with outside services like Dropbox or Box (BOX).

“The way we work has changed, and designers haven’t seen that change yet,” Field told Yahoo Finance. “Tools are still offline and haven’t changed. We can definitely innovate more.”

Figma’s backers include Greylock Partners, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and White House US Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil.

“Figma is going after a very developed space dominated by one player, namely Adobe, with a better way of working on the designs that users generate,” explained Danny Rimer, a partner at Index Ventures, which also contributed to the $18 million in fundraising Figma has raised.

Figma for desktop and iOS
Figma launched for desktop and iOS on Wednesday. Source: Figma

The San Francisco-based startup with 20 employees promises a user interface inside its desktop and web browser app that’s much easier to get around than Adobe Illustrator and features that aren’t buried beneath layers and layers of options to click through. As Field demonstrated, creating an icon of say, a simple mechanical cog, is accomplished in a fraction of the time with Figma versus Illustrator.

Figma’s standout feature is simply called “Multiplayer.” Because much of Figma, and the work designers do in Figma, is saved and crunched on remote servers — instead of traditionally, your computer — two designers are able to easily design things together on the fly, even if one user is in San Francisco and the other is in Dubai. It’s a feature Google Docs users took for granted for years, but one designers haven’t yet enjoyed.

Field and Wallace hope that by offering designers a 3-month free trial — and letting student designers use Figma for free — they’ll be able to build a solid following among the design community, one that still largely relies on tools like Adobe Illustrator. And while they haven’t landed on a pricing plan, Field said Figma would follow a Software as a Service (SaaS) business model, whereby software is licensed on a monthly or annual subscription basis.

Whether or not Figma gains the traction it needs to become a serious player in the design community, Rimer contends software design is ripe for innovation, and Figma has the goods to make a difference.

“Design has become more integral, whether in the technological arena or any arena, which is why companies like Slack and Dropbox are doing so well, because within the enterprise, in order to garner adoption, you need to have a much more consumer-oriented presentation,” added Rimer. “Now designers for the first time will be able to design, share their designs and work collaboratively on the same design. That’s a new concept for the way people design things.”

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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