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Interview with Thiago Costa, product designer and founder of Fey and Narative

10min read

Thiago Costa is a Product Designer and the Co-founder of Fey and Narative.

This interview is part of a series by Compound. Compound provides everything you need to manage your personal finances (advice, tracking, investments, taxes, borrowing, estate, and more).

Where did you learn design?

My exposure to art and science began at an early age. Growing up in a home where my dad was a cardiologist and my mom worked in various forms of art, ranging from pottery to fashion, I could say I had a diverse upbringing. Their contrasting backgrounds naturally influenced my career path.

I later developed a fascination for design, which ultimately led me to pursue formal education. After earning a degree in Visual Communication with an emphasis on Marketing, I had the privilege to continue my studies under the mentorship of Alexandre Wollner, a giant in the field of graphic design. This experience further honed my skills and solidified my love for the craft.

What was the first design project you worked on?

I actually started working in design before graduating from university in Brazil, where I was born. My early projects involved transforming medical documents and prescriptions into visually appealing formats for my dad. These tasks were challenging, but I thoroughly enjoyed the creative process. As word of my work spread, more doctors began asking me to create logos and business cards for them. But it was not until 2004 when I landed my first major design project — developing the branding for a pharmaceutical company called Bragenix — that I truly felt like a professional. Although I am unsure whether the company still uses my work, that project was significant to me.

You are someone who is known to have taste. How do you develop taste? Can you?

I'm flattered that you think that! I do believe that taste can be developed. Humans have a natural inclination towards symmetry and order due to their familiarity with nature. So developing taste can be seen as a process of learning to recognize the underlying configurations that create a sense of aesthetic value.

The notion of beauty is undeniably influenced by culture and context, but I also believe that it is universally associated with harmony, repetition, balance, and contrast. These elements can manifest in various forms, such as the interplay of colours and shapes or the arrangement of musical notes. By consistently exposing ourselves to the natural configurations of these patterns, we become more attuned to their subtle variations. In my opinion, this heightened awareness is ultimately what defines our taste.

What is your design process like? Where do you start? What tools do you use?

My design process isn't particularly special; I spend a lot of time thinking and drawing inspiration from art, architecture, films, and video games. At our company, we make it a point to avoid looking to other apps for inspiration. This approach helps us stay focused on our own challenges, rather than trying to conform to someone else's solution. From there, ideas start to flow.

While it may be unconventional, I typically don't wireframe my designs. With the tools available today, I find that I can design at the same pace without them, as long as I have a good process in place. Additionally, we don't A/B test any of our projects either. Instead, we prefer to focus on creating a strong initial solution and then iterate as people use it.

I hardly ever talk about the tools I use to create because they come and go, but currently, my stack consists of Apple Notes, Figma, Photoshop, Blender, and VScode. Occasionally, I browse design publications such as SSENSE, Leibal, and Abduzeedo to draw inspiration, or Savee/Cosmos to simply look at beautiful things.

How do you think about tradeoffs between design quality and engineering speed?

Our shipping approach may seem paradoxical at first. On the one hand, we are a small team with limited resources, but on the other hand, we prioritize quality above all else, even if it means taking longer to deliver. If we can't do it right, we prefer not to do it at all or adjust our priorities. Ultimately, our customers are what matter most, and in the finance industry, rushing things can erode their trust.

Our ethos is grounded in the belief that stable and beautiful products create joy and loyal customers. By keeping our internal expenses low and maintaining our focus, we can invest more time in perfecting our product for a smaller, more enthusiastic group of people, rather than trying to cater to a larger, more indifferent audience. While this approach may be unconventional in the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, we have found it to be well-suited to our company, and it has proven to be successful here.

What was the inspiration behind Fey?

Fey's origin story began with two of my co-founders who shared a common pain point: the lack of suitable trade journaling apps. Back then, they had even managed to build a functional MVP before Narative came into existence. But shortly after we started Narative, we had to set the project aside to prioritize revenue generation through client work. This was only until we established financial stability, and at that point, we recognized the opportunity to develop Fey as our first in-house product. We knew that to create something truly exceptional, we needed to start from scratch and aim to create a product that was even bigger than just a journaling platform, something scalable that would cater to the needs of our biggest critics - ourselves.

Our main inspiration was deeply rooted in the industry's lack of quality products and our own workflow challenges. With our combined experience, we knew we could make Fey something truly special.

What was the logic in building a design studio (Narative) while building Fey?

Fey was actually built while growing Narative. Splitting our focus between building products for client companies and simultaneously developing our own products in-house had both financial and cultural benefits.

  • Diversifying our revenue beyond our own products would give us stability and flexibility to pursue projects that we believe in and grow the team more quickly.
  • Alternating between client work and internal projects would continuously expose us to new strategies, challenges, and solutions, strengthening the quality of our output on all fronts.

Despite the benefits, there are also clear risks. Client work and product development are both resource-intensive individually, and this raised the question of whether building products was just a distraction from generating revenue with client work. But the goal of Narative was never to be just another creative agency. Instead, we aimed to build a company where good ideas could be pursued. As a result, we have Fey, which is now our primary focus.

What is the biggest challenge for you in building Fey?

Ironically enough, I'm not a finance expert. I lacked experience in technical analysis, valuation multiples, filings, and macro data, among other things. Despite this, designing a product that would teach me how to become a better investor was one of the most illuminating and challenging experiences of my career. As I went through the process, I had to adopt the same perspective as our customers and also focus on striking a balance between creating an opinionated product that wouldn't alienate advanced investors, while still making it accessible to a less experienced audience. Our solution was to find the middle ground and build from there, creating a product that caters to a very specific group that loves Fey as much as we do.

What is your rationale for building your own Calendly/reservation system and a lot of your internal tools?

My answer will tie back to our ethos of quality. When we were developing our onboarding system, we tested numerous third-party solutions and found that none of them quite met our standards. The process felt disjointed and inconsistent, which made us realize that if we truly wanted our customers to love our product, we needed to have full control over their experience. This is especially crucial for features like broker integrations, which are a vital part of Fey. By owning the technology that directly impacts how our product is perceived, we can ensure a seamless experience while also avoiding potential risks to our business.

Fey has never intentionally done wide marketing. Why? How do you think about marketing for a product like Fey?

As mentioned earlier, we took our time building Fey, but we quickly recognized the importance of avoiding undue hype during the validation phase, which involved secret testing and feedback gathering. Unfortunately, we operate in an industry where trust is already fragile, with rampant scams and unreliable products, so we were determined to create something that we could be proud of before launching. Now, almost four years later, we are thrilled to onboard our first paying customers. Their early impressions have surpassed our expectations, with some even sharing their experiences with others and effectively doing the marketing for us. While I wish I could claim credit for this master plan, our primary objective was always to build something that we would genuinely love ourselves, hoping to attract people like us. In essence, that is our marketing strategy.

If you weren’t working on Fey what would you be working on?

During my studies in design, I explored other disciplines, including architecture and interior design. My interest in these fields may have been inspired by my mom, and it remains a strong passion of mine to this day. I am certain that I will pursue a project in real estate design and development in the future, perhaps even with Narative. There is just something about the angles of a well-designed home, the interplay of light and surfaces, and the intricacies of furniture design, fabrics, and textures that fascinates me and ignites my creativity.

What qualities do you think designers need to have to be successful founders?

Resilience is key, whether you're a designer or not. Building and growing a company is a challenging journey, and failure is often part of the process, so successful founders need to be remarkably persistent, sometimes even stubborn.

If I'm qualified enough to suggest this, we also need to recognize our knowledge gaps. This self-awareness can help us surround ourselves with people who augment our skills, ultimately leading to a more well-rounded and successful team.

How have video games influenced your design philosophy?

What fascinates me about video games is their unique ability to evoke a wide range of emotions within us. To paraphrase Phil Spencer, the CEO of Xbox, "video games are situated at the intersection of art and science." They weave together elements of language, music, lore, and world-building to create a fully immersive experience. Their ultimate goal is not to solve problems, like many mainstream apps, but to entertain, connect, and challenge us in new and exciting ways. And these characteristics are often lacking in the tech industry.

While many apps are useful, they often fail to evoke any kind of emotional response; we use them because we have to, not because we want to. By incorporating some of the elements that make video games so compelling, we can improve our own products and create more meaningful and engaging experiences for our customers, like tapping into their emotions and fostering a sense of engagement that encourages them to come back time and time again.

What designers or companies do you admire?

Video games, architecture and tech have certainly been prominent in my career, but I find inspiration in a variety of industries beyond that. While I could name obvious companies like Apple or renowned designers like Dieter Rams, Paul Rand, or Walter Gropius, lately I have been drawing inspiration from films and fashion. Directors such as Denis Villeneuve and David Fincher, as well as creators like Tom Ford and Shigeru Miyamoto, have fundamentally shaped the way I work.

From both a business and philosophical perspective, Narative and Fey have been heavily influenced by studios like A24 and Studio Ghibli, which prioritize authenticity and a deep respect for the production process. Unlike traditional tech companies, they embody a dedication to craftsmanship and an unapologetic commitment to excellence. We share their values and strive to incorporate these qualities into every aspect of our work.

What is something that people do not understand about “prosumers”?

I believe the best way to answer this question is by sharing what I learned while building a product for the prosumer market. The first and perhaps most crucial lesson is that, as a founder, you should be your first customer. If you don't use your own product, something is off from the start. And if you're charging for your product, you should ensure that you're building something you would be willing to pay for. Otherwise, it's unlikely anyone else will.

In today's world, I believe the prosumer mindset should be applied to most B2C software. Creating products that people genuinely enjoy using should be a prerequisite for building anything, especially given how accessible software has become. Your customers should receive more than just the product they paid for; they should be receiving long-term value. For example, our product Fey helps customers invest in their finances. In a world where people pay $30 just to be better at emails (I'm guilty of this too), it's hard to understand why anyone wouldn't want to pay to be better with their money. So what I learned is that prosumers care about value above all else.

What was it like working with Lachy Groom for bleedingedge.ai?

Lachy is unstoppable, and we first connected in 2018, shortly after Narative was founded. Over the years, we've collaborated with many of his portfolio companies, including Compound, and I can't emphasize enough how grateful we are for his support.

Despite his numerous referrals, it was not until recently that we had the opportunity to work together directly. To no surprise, it was an absolute pleasure. Lachy has become a great friend and collaborator, and it felt like we were part of the same team. I appreciate his minimalist approach to direction, which allowed me to be myself and offer my unique perspectives. While I am not the easiest person to work with, Lachy understood my specific needs and made me feel right at home.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

As a fairly private person, opening up about myself or even our business can be a challenge. But I had a lot of fun answering these questions, particularly because I am a huge fan of Compound. It got me thinking about where I’ve been and where I’m headed. The questions were thoughtful and demonstrated a genuine interest in my perspectives. I feel honoured to have had the opportunity to take part in this, and I hope that my responses can be helpful to anyone who comes across them. If you want to keep up with Fey and Narative, say hello on Twitter!

This interview is part of a series by Compound. Compound provides everything you need to manage your personal finances (advice, tracking, investments, taxes, borrowing, estate, and more).