The Grit

How Lubos Volkov founded the Design Team at Toptal and built a 60+K Instagram following

Matous RoskovecMatous Roskovec

Hi Lubos. Let’s start with who you are and what you do?

Hey! I’m Luboš, a product designer based in Prague, Czech Republic. In the past 10 years, I’ve worked on the forefront of design with many influential global brands, including Netgear, UnitedHealthcare, and L’Oréal. When I am not designing, I am trying to educate the next generation of designers on my Instagram or mentorship sessions.

Currently, I’m leading one of the design teams at Toptal. In fact, I was the very first designer at the company working there for more than 7 years. I helped to establish key user interface frameworks, hired key design team members, and established the foundation for future product and brand development.

Tell me about how you got started and what led you into design?

In high school, I studied electrotechnical engineering, which was focused on math, physics, technical drawing, and design of electric circuits. I designed and successfully launched my own functional sound amplifier during my last year in high school. After high school, I went to the Czech Technical University to become an engineer.

However, at that time, I have discovered Photoshop (yes, Photoshop was used for interface design at the time) and my love for design and solving complex problems. I decided to take a leap of faith and quit the university to become a user interface designer.

At that time, my skills weren’t good enough, I locked myself at my room for almost one year, and I practiced on my own (free) imaginary projects, everything from web design to complex user interfaces. After one year, I started sharing my work on Dribbble, and I got a job offer from Silicon Valley-based startup; that’s how my long journey started. It was almost ten years ago.

Moneto – Mobile Banking Application [In Development]
Moneto – Mobile Banking Brand Guidelines

What did you do before you joining Toptal?

Before Toptal, I was working with digital agencies and also freelancing, mostly with the US-based clients, since the quality and overall startup culture (at that time) was way more developed over there. I touched everything from the user interface, branding to motion.

It was definitely a valuable part of my career since it gave me a strategic oversight of different design disciplines. That was later very valuable at Toptal.

Ntgr – Gaming Dashboard Interface
Ntgr – Gaming Dashboard Interface Guidelines

You’re leading the Design team at Toptal right now. Can you briefly describe what Toptal is about and how your design team operates?

Sure. Toptal is an exclusive network of top freelance software developers, designers, finance experts, product managers, and project managers in the world.

I’m at Toptal for more than 7 years, so I have seen and helped the company to grow from 10 ppl to 650 ppl. My hiring process was straightforward, I got an email and skype call from the CEO, and I got hired almost immediately after that. That’s how my journey started.

The entire company is remote. Toptal is the world's largest fully distributed company. We do not have any office; our entire team is fully remote from day one. We got people from 126 countries, which is pretty impressive in my opinion.

At this scale, our operation is fully automated and driven by our playbook and own tools developed specifically for us. Like most people, we use Zoom for all our meetings, and we always follow these rules to stay as productive as possible.

  • Be flexible with time zones
  • Have an agenda
  • Keep your camera on
  • Mute notifications
  • Cancel or end early if needed
  • Rate your meetings

We also use asynchronous work to our advantage. With asynchronous communication, a team member provides information, and the recipient sees and responds in their own time. Working this way helps maximize productivity when team members are located in very different timezones. In order to work asynchronously, we need to use the right set of tools. The most important ones are listed below.

  • Zoom, Slack (Communication)
  • Figma & Sketch (Design)
  • Abstract (Version Control)
  • Miro (Brainstorming)
  • Google G Suite (Storage and Collaboration)
  • Trello and Asana (Tasks)
  • Confluence (Wiki)

Tell us more about your role. What are your key responsibilities?

My focus changed over the years, based on the company's needs. In the beginning, my focus as the only designer was everything design-related, from the user interfaces to the website experience. However, my biggest focus was the design of the Platform UI (Platform is a proprietary piece of technology created to run all operations.).

After three years as the only designer, I started hiring, leading, and mentoring my own design team (UI/UX Designers, Illustrators). I end up hiring 7+ people to kickstart the Design Team at Toptal. A huge majority of them are nowadays at leading positions.

These days, when the Design Team and the entire organization are much bigger, we split into multiple design teams and lead one of the teams. My day to day work is focused on specific design problems, where I work with cross-functional teams to solve them. I am also involved in project planning, roadmaps, brainstormings with other functions, or hiring.

As a Design Lead, how do you approach your designers' team to work with front-end developers successfully?

For me, it is communication and following the best practices. We always like to review our designs with developers early on, often there is a developer paired with the designer so they can collaborate and discuss the potential design challenges even in the lo-fi phase of the design. They can brainstorm potential solutions together even before showing the designs to the stakeholder. This more collaborative process allows us to avoid scope creeps and delays in the product releases. The cadence of these sync ups between developer and designer is determined after the official kickoff call, and it highly depends on the complexity of the project. However, the communication line between designers and developers needs to be always open with regular check-ins on progress. Since we use Sketch for product design and our entire design system is hosted there, we also use the Abstract for version control and handoff. It currently suits best our workflow the best. However, that can change in the future as we try to stay flexible. We also track every single issue and task on Jira, and we document everything in the Confluence, which is used as our internal wiki. Developers are using Jira, LucidChart, and RetroBoard.

You’re very active on Instagram. How relevant, in your opinion, is self-promotion for designers?

In my opinion, it is more and more important these days. You are essentially building your digital brand, and followers are giving you more credibility. I’m not saying it is right; however, it is how it works. Social media helps you to get more points during the hiring process.

Along with that, social media or the audience, in general, is always valuable. Imagine you release a new product, or you need to get hired. In the past, my audience played a major role in the releases of my digital products. They not only purchased my tools, but they also promoted it on their own social media, which helped me to generate even more sales. Obviously, this only applies if you create something which our audience cares about.

Why did you decide to go with Instagram?

Good question. I’m on Instagram from the beginning when everyone was posting selfies and photos of their food (try to scroll down my feed). However, over time, I found out that Instagram is a good way how you can engage with the audience and tell the stories. Plus, the audience over there is huge, not only designers but also potential clients. However, for the clients, it is usually working as validation, they will more likely not hire you directly on Instagram, but they are going to review your profile to see if you are a legitimate designer and if they can work with you. I highly encourage everyone to curate their social media since prospective clients and going to google their name and Instagram or Twitter will be the first thing that will popup. Technically I am everywhere from Dribbble, Twitter to Youtube. But I do not post that often to these platforms. I plan to put more effort into Dribbble and Youtube later this year.

Having in-depth knowledge of your Instagram target audience is an important part of every successful social media strategy. How do you find your target audience, and what are your targeting tactics to reach them?

Totally, it’s is the key. However, Instagram analytics tools are very limited. But my posts are always targeting designers (from juniors to seniors), I do not target clients. If you create a profile with valuable content, high-quality visual people are going to find you. For example, I was interviewed on 180k+ design Youtube channel, specifically due to my Instagram. Ran Segall, who is running the show, found me on Instagram. We started to chat in the DM and agreed on a short interview. This helped me to build an even bigger audience, plus I have a nice social proof for my portfolio.

I always try to follow and stay in touch with accounts with a similar niche and similar size. I engage with their posts, chat with them in the dm, or share their stories. Then they do the same for me, which allows me to reach their audience and eventually grow my account.

How do you create content that grabs the attention of your audience and entices them to engage?

I always ask myself if this is a topic, I would like to read about and then create a post about it. It is that simple there is no magic behind that. However not every single post is successful, it is always hard to predict since the Instagram algorithm is unpredictable.

My goal is to help designers to elevate their design skills or learn something new in a very short period of time. Instagram carousels are perfect for that since you need to focus only on the core of the problem and remove everything else. Below are a few examples of very successful ones:

Example of my popular Instagram posts

Repurposing content is a great way to bring back old ideas and make them fresh and new. How do you repurpose your Instagram content to be more consistent across all of your social media platforms?

I don’t do that often (I should I know). I have flexible design templates for almost everything (From Instagram to Twitter) these are usually used for some time until the next version is created.

How long does it take to create quality social media content for you?

It takes anything between 1-4 hrs per post, but it depends if it’s a carousel or photo since each of them requires a different approach. For me, the most time consuming are the photos, since I have developed a very “sterile” style of the photos which require a lot of preparation and clean up before every photo shoot. I like to say that my table is popular on Instagram not me haha. I usually try to post twice a week, which allows me to focus on quality.

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Where do you get inspired?

I got two types of inspiration digital and offline one. For digital, it is usually Dribbble, Abduzeedo, Awwwards, or Instagram. I like to observe things there, collect mood boards inside the design tool, and then craft designs based on the inspiration and then iterate.

For the offline one, people around me such as my family, friends or colleagues. Then traveling to different countries or hiking. This type of inspiration is more like an influence that is not immediate and appears only after some time. For example, you see a certain pattern on the building at Lisbon, Portugal, and 5 months later, you use it in one of your projects.

Give our audience 5 actionable tips if they think of kicking-off their Instagram game.

  1. Share stuff you are passionate about
  2. Set up a strict sharing schedule
  3. Do not worry about every single detail, just post
  4. Engage with your loyal audience (dm’s, comments, etc)
  5. Instagram is not everything, do not forget about your own life

Did you have any good mentors that helped you shape your design career?

I personally didn’t have any sort of mentor, I always have been learning by trial and error which was definitely harder and longer, however, it helped me to form my own process and perspectives without being a replica of someone.

I would give one advice to starting designers. Do not wait for the perfect moment and do not worry that others know more than you, take action. If you do not have a portfolio create your own practice projects (find a problem and solve it). If you do not know how to do something google that or read a book about it. Make it happen.

Where is the best place for people to connect with you online?

You can follow me on Instagram, Dribbble, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Bonus Question: Avocado vs. Guacamole?

Avocado!

Currently, I’m leading one of the design teams at Toptal. In fact, I was the very first designer at the company working there for more than 7 years. I helped to establish key user interface frameworks, hired key design team members, and established the foundation for future product and brand development.

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