2021 – Year in Review

And just like that, another year of the pandemic has gone passed by. It’s hard to believe that this is still happening but this has become our reality now. We’re living in the new normal – metaverse if you may.

It’s been a tough year but we managed to survive, kudos to us. For me personally, it’s been a year of change. Anyhoo, continuing with our 6-year tradition, let’s get into the review for 2021.

The format from the last year worked well, so I’m sticking with it. We’ll start with the highlights and then go into the individual detail by categories – Work & Life.

Highlights

  • Made my first hire at GraphCMS
  • Got promoted to Head of Design and grew the team to 4 designers
  • Started live streaming on Superpeer – 4 livestreams
  • Started a YouTube channel – 8 videos
  • Started a personal newsletter – 10 issues
  • Launched a portfolio website – darshan.design
  • Joined 10kdesigners as an Industry Mentor
  • Started working on a new side-project – Work Abroad Guide
  • Joined On Deck for design management cohort
  • Made $4,090 in revenue from Product Disrupt
  • Sent out 100th issue of the Product Disrupt newsletter
  • Failed to ship 3 side-projects
  • Started investing in ETF & crypto
  • Moved into a new apartment in Berlin with my wife
  • Appeared on 8 interviews & podcasts
  • Got vaccinated and boosted
  • Started growing my hair
  • Traveled and hiked to 12 places in Europe

Work

Head of Design

In the month of Jul, I officially got promoted to Head of Design at GraphCMS. This happened soon after we raised series A funding but we had been discussing the role change internally since the beginning of the year.

I was pretty happy about the promotion as I’d been working very hard towards this from the get-go. I’d been working as a designer for over 6 years until that point so it felt like the right time to transition into a leadership role. I’m grateful that GraphCMS gave me this opportunity.

It’s been 7 months in my new role now and I’m enjoying the new challenge. My role is now split into part individual contribution and part management. It means that I’m still doing the end-to-end feature design work with building the design system but additionally, I also mentor and manage a team of 3 other designers and oversee the design direction of the whole company.

1/3rd of GraphCMS team at the new Berlin office

Last year, I also made 3 design hires and set up the design function at our company. We have big plans to grow our company and thus the design team even further this year, which means I would be spending less and less time doing the hands-on design work. I think I’ll miss the craft, but I’m also stoked at the prospect of transitioning into a full-time leadership role and nurturing design at a hyper-growth startup.

If you’re interested in joining our team, keep an eye on our careers page or follow me on Twitter. We’ll soon have some open roles in design.

Livestreams & YouTube

I’d spent enough years thinking about exploring the audio & video format but wasn’t ready to invest too much time into learning these skills. I knew for a fact that audio & video skills aren’t easy to master and could take quite some learning before we reach a certain acceptable level.

Two significant factors made me finally YOLO on audio & video:

  1. The coming of age of the creator economy – it’s hard to stop yourself when you see almost everyone creating so much good content on the internet. The FOMO made me YOLO.
  2. The evolution of the creator tools – the ease of using some creator tools enabled me to take the plunge, knowing that I wouldn’t spend too much time on them.

I started interviewing my favorite creators on a livestream with Superpeer. I selected this format because I’ve got decent experience interviewing creators from my Conversations series and it’s the best way I can learn and make friends with creators that inspire me. So I still win, even if no one watches these livestreams. Smart, right?

After recording these livestreams, I take them to Descript for post-production. Descript is a fantastic tool – it allows me to edit videos with text. Magical, right? Writing is my preferred format, so Descript works like a charm for me.

These videos also encouraged me to start my YouTube channel finally. Could only upload 8 videos last year, but I think that’s pretty good for a start. I intend to make at least 12 videos this year, so hit that subscribe button to get an update. It will also encourage me to create more 🙂

YouTube - Darshan Gajara

By the way, I named this series Consistent Creators and also managed to get the .com domain. I haven’t made it official yet, so let this be our little secret 😉

Personal Newsletter

As hinted in last year’s review, I started a personal newsletter using Convertkit. Apparently, 2021 was the year when I YOLO-ed on many things.

Personal Newsletter - Darshan Gajara

The idea behind starting a personal newsletter was to stay in touch with you – my loyal audience. We all know how hard it is nowadays to reach our audience on rented platforms like Twitter & Facebook. Hence, a personal newsletter – no social media getting in between us.

I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself by committing to a certain cadence but rather write this newsletter when I felt like it. Since the format was quite simple – updates from my work & personal life, I was able to maintain a monthly cadence in the beginning but dropped the ball on it in the latter half of the year.

I don’t want to overcommit here, but you can occasionally hear from me in the new year.

Portfolio – darshan.design

For the past few years, I’ve been leaving too much footprint on the internet – scattered through different blogs, podcasts, newsletters, videos, etc. It was time that I brought it all together.

When you’re all over the place, it’s impossible to control the narrative.

With the new site, I set out to create the front page of Darshan Gajara on the internet. I was fortunate to find Abhishek through Twitter, who helped me out with the build in Webflow. It took me a couple of all-nighters on the weekend to create the design + content and probably a few hours for Abhishek to build it out.

darshan.design

I’m personally quite happy with the result. What do you think?

Industry Mentor at 10kdesigners

My friend Abhinav has been doing some great work in the design education space with his cohort-based course series – 10kdesigners. Being an internet-made designer, I feel quite passionately about design education. So when he asked me to be an Industry Mentor for his 3rd cohort, it was a no-brainer for me to say YES.

As an Industry Mentor, I helped his students by conducting weekly office hours, reviewing assignments and answering questions in the community. It was a fulfilling experience for me as a mentor and I admire the work he’s been doing to improve the state of design education in India.

Work Abroad Guide

I moved to Germany from India in Dec 2019 with a design job. It wasn’t smooth sailing for me – I struggled through my way to get here. I understand the pain of trying to find a job abroad and feel quite passionately about this topic.

I’ve written about it in the past and have also helped a few people move to their dream country by offering direct advice and suggestions. While I do my best to help directly, this approach isn’t scalable.

Sometime last year, I came across Beto through his work with Duoflag. Beto is an engineer & maker living in Australia. He moved to Australia from Brazil in Dec 2015 with a development job. He also understands the pain shares the passion for helping people move abroad.

We got talking and came up with the idea of creating a resource in Notion that anyone could use as their guide to moving abroad with a job. We decided to make it a paid resource with practical insights, visa information, relocation tips, job boards, checklists and more…

We’re calling it Work Abroad Guide. You can sign up for early access here and help us create this resource together by sending your questions and suggestions.

Work Abroad Guide

We made good progress on the resource initially but got derailed later since we were going through significant life changes in the latter half of 2021. However, we’ve started working on it again and plan to launch it in the first half of 2022.

Product Disrupt

In 2021, Product Disrupt saw a decline in growth in terms of traffic and newsletter subscriptions but the total revenue generated from the business more than doubled. The revenue growth is starting to compound, maybe?

In Jan, Product Disrupt turned 4. So I wrote a little thread sharing my top 4 learnings from running this side-project.

2021 – Product Disrupt

  • Revenue: $4,090 (x2.2)
  • Expense: $344
  • Views: 23K
  • Subscribers: 1,093

By the way, I share the monthly report of Product Disrupt in my personal newsletter. Sign up to follow the growth of my side-project.

P. S. In Aug 2021, I sent out the 100th issue of the Product Disrupt newsletter 🎉

Unfinished Side-Projects

Earlier in 2020, I started creating a resource to help people crack a product design interview. Like all my ideas, this idea was also born out of my personal frustrations. When I lost my job that year, I interviewed pretty extensively, given that companies were on a hiring freeze due to the pandemic’s start. I was documenting my process along the way, and at the end of it, I was left with enough practical insights to write a book on the topic of design job interviews.

But unfortunately, I wasn’t able to give any time to this project last year. I can’t commit too much here, but I might start working on it again if there’s enough interest. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you’re interested in this resource. It will give me a giant push of motivation.

Later last year, I also started moving the Product Disrupt blog from Medium to WordPress to give it a design refresh and own the content by self-hosting. It’s almost finished and available in the staging environment, but I didn’t finish the link migration for some reason. Maybe it’s because I lost the motivation to post content regularly over there. This year, I’ll sit down one day and complete the migration, whether the blog is active or not.

The third and last failure of 2021 was the redesign of the Product Disrupt newsletter. It’s been 5 years since I’ve been running this newsletter. So last year, I thought it was time to rethink and redesign it. I even ran a survey to get an idea about what people were expecting from it. I got some excellent feedback and started creating a moldboard based on the response.

I put this redesign project on hold after that. So maybe it wasn’t a complete failure but didn’t cross the finish line. I’ve not given up on any of these projects. I have to make some time to get them across the finish line.

The primary issue I’ve had here is taking too much on simultaneously. This year, I’ll try to get better at prioritizing and shipping at least 3 of these side-projects.

On Deck Design Fellowship

I like to stay prepared for the future if I can. So, as I was transitioning into a design leadership role, I started looking for resources on the internet and talking to people in my network who were already in leadership roles to learn about design management from their journeys so far.

Fortunately, On Deck launched their cohort for design management just around the same time. I saw it as an opportunity to learn directly from seasoned design leaders like David HoangHareem Mannan & Wendy Johansson and connect with fellow designers on a similar journey. Shoutout to our (GraphCMS) CEO Michael Lukaszczyk who supported me with sponsorship and time to join the cohort.

Joining On Deck has been instrumental in my growth as a design leader so far. I like to think of them as my board of advisors for critical & candid feedback.

Interviews & Podcasts

I continued to feature in virtual events, interviews & podcasts as it’s an excellent way to reflect upon my journey and share my story. In 2021, I appeared on 8 of them. Coincidentally, same as last year.

I also wrote a thread about how we organize our files and projects in Figma at GraphCMS. It’s a peek into the design operations at a seed-stage startup with a remote team.


Life

Investment

I’ve been living in Berlin for almost 2 years now. So I figured it was the right time to start investing within Germany. I started by taking a safe bet – investing systematically in ETFs. ETFs are just like mutual funds – they don’t give you crazy returns like stocks or crypto but are very low-risk and are guaranteed to give you a 4-8% return over the long term.

Later that year, I also started investing a tiny sum in cryptocurrencies. I’m still a newbie in the world of crypto & Web3, but I’ve been reading and learning about it over the past few months. It’s an exciting space but pretty early and hence quite complex. Shoutout to my friend Rahul Chakraborty who has been helping me get started in this space.

Pro-tip: Find someone more experienced than you in any space and ask them honest questions to escalate your learning process about it.

New Beginnings

I got married to Pooja in Dec 2020 in India. 30 days later, I came back to Berlin, waiting for my wife to get the spouse visa and join me in Berlin – at the mercy of the German consulate.

If you’ve been a long-time reader of this blog, you would know that my luck with the visas is pretty bad. What was meant to be a 3-month process got stretched to 9 months with some complications. Finally, my wife got her spouse visa in Sep and joined me in Berlin.

While she was battling with the consulate in India, I struggled to find an apartment for us in Berlin. The housing scene in Berlin is pretty bad. It’s easier to find a job here than finding a nice apartment – I’m being serious. After having little to no luck with the apartment search, I found a lovely apartment in the heart of Berlin just after my wife arrived here. Thanks to my teammate, who kindly referred me to her apartment as she was moving into another one.

At last, we moved into a new apartment in Oct and started our new beginnings. Now you know why I couldn’t;t find time to work on my side-projects towards the end of the year [insert "Hide the pain Harold" emoji here].

Vaccinated & Boosted

Nothing very unique here. I believe most of you reading this post are also vaccinated. But it just felt worth mentioning here since it was a noteworthy event. I’m glad it went well and didn’t show any side effects.

Interesting fact – I got vaccinated on the same day as GraphCMS’ fund-raising party. We celebrated in a beer garden in Berlin. I couldn’t have any alcohol for obvious reasons, but staying sober between drunk people was also fun for a change.

Growing my Hair

Ever since I was a kid, I have dreamt of having long hair. But I could never pass the in-between stage of messy hair. Living in the hot & humid climate of Mumbai also didn’t help. Sweaty hair isn’t a pleasant sight.

Now that I live in Berlin and mostly work from home, I’m giving it a try. I’m going strong so far, and I think I can do it this time.

I’ll share the before & after pictures on Instagram later. Meanwhile, you can see the progress in the latest interview I did on Design Drives. Let me know how you like it.

Travel & Hiking

Thanks to the vaccine, travel opened to some capacity in 2021, and I was able to see some places in Europe.

Here are all the places I visited in 2021:

  • Hiking in Schönower Heide, Germany
  • Hiking in Lubbenau, Germany
  • Road Trip in Portugal
    • Faro
    • Lagos
    • Odemira
    • Lisbon
    • Sintra
    • Mértola
  • Hiking in Müggelsee, Germany
  • Hallstatt, Austria
  • Obertraun, Austria
  • Biking in Bad Goisern, Austria
  • Budapest, Hungary

Wrapping Up

2021

It was a year of change – both in work and personal life. I transitioned into a leadership role and now enjoying the challenge of building a team from the ground up at a growing startup. I started a new life with my wife in Berlin.

I’m grateful for the opportunities and thankful for the happiness I received.

2022

This year, I want to focus on continuing the good work at my job and shipping the open side-projects since I feel a bit settled now.

I hope we’ll get through the pandemic and return to some normalcy in life again.


Whoa, this post took me surprisingly longer time than expected. It’s likely due to the lack of blogging in the past year. Since you’ve made it this far, I hope you enjoyed reading it. In case you’re interested in reading my past year reviews, you can find them here – 2020, 20192018201720162015.

Feel free to drop a link to your year-in-review in the comments below. I love reading them.

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