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Karri Saarinen: Talks Leaving SF and Building a $400M Startup in San Diego's Backyard
An exclusive interview with Karri Saarinen, a designer and founder who spent the last decade at fast-growing unicorn startups in Silicon Valley.
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Karri Saarinen, is a well-known founder in San Francisco’s startup community, who worked as a designer at Airbnb and Coinbase, has raised $35 million in a Series B funding round led by Accel, valuing the company at $400 million.
Linear, a four-year-old startup, has built a beloved software tool, which is being used to build products by thousands of product teams tasked with scaling their startups into billion-dollar enterprises.
Saarinen, who rarely does interviews, agreed to chat about his company’s latest milestones. We discussed what it’s like living in America’s finest city, how he was able to raise capital from top investors and building relationships with Silicon Valley’s most influential leaders in technology while living 400-plus miles away from Palo Alto.
Saarinen is 1 of 3 co-founders behind Linear. He earned his stripes at two of San Francisco’s wildly successful startups — Coinbase and Airbnb. Two companies are now valued at $19 billion, $76 billion respectively.
At Coinbase, he joined the cryptocurrency exchange platform two years after its founding in 2012, serving as Head of Design. His role was focused on helping the company appear more trustworthy and easy-to-use.
After a year, Saarinen joined Airbnb’s as its first principal designer, helping redesign the company’s mobile apps, homepage, and other design-related projects.
Saarinen’ resume isn’t the only reason he’s highly sought after by venture capitalists. He also has a strong network thanks to his Finland co-founders, Jori Lallo and Tuomas Artman, who worked as engineering leader at Uber.
Linear’s software serves as an all-in-one project and issue tracking system that streamlines workflows across the entire product development process.
Linear is trusted by more than 1,000 companies, said Saarinen. Customers including Cohere, Runway, Ramp, have used it to build software more elegantly and efficiently.
“We wanted to build the project and issue tracking system that teams actually love to use so that the value of the system would be much higher,” said Karri Saarinen, co-founder and CEO at Linear. “Our ambition has always been that Linear is the best tool in this category and is used by the top, highest quality companies of the world.”
Linear has more cash in the bank than they’ve ever raised in venture capital funding and has been profitable since 2021, said Saarinen. It is also profitable, unlike its peers such as Atlassian and GitLab, who have struggled to find profitability over the years.
“The one thing we saw in every company was how sub-optimal or disliked many of the tools around managing technical projects were. Us as engineers or designers, felt that tools didn’t match our workflows and our teams to do our work. Because of this, the tools weren’t used frequently, the information in the system would be out to date.”
Other fast-growing companies who use Linear include Cash App, Retool, Vercel, Remote, Mercury, and Substack.
Raising from Accomplished Investors
In September, it announced it had closed $35 million in a Series B led by Accel.
The Series B funding will be used to expand its features, accounts, including and growing its 50-person team. Existing investors round include Sequoia, former CEO of Slack Stewart Butterfield, and Emilie Choi the President of Coinbase.
Linear’s headcount will likely surpass 100 employees over the next twelve months, according to Saarinen. It also has millions in the bank ahead of its new funding.
“We want to have the best people on our side, and get the most insight out of them as we can to make our company’s product better,” said Saarinen. “We are thrilled to have many long-time operators invest in this round.”
Building a $400M Startup in San Diego
While Linear’s founding roots ties back to San Francisco, the startup is now a fully-distributed company with teams working across the U.S.
The founders all left San Francisco before the pandemic, said Saarinen who now lives in Del Mar. His two co-founders Jori Lallo, lives in New York and Tuomas Artman, is based in Finland.
San Francisco is known as the best city to foster relationships with investors, founders, and recruit talented engineers. Initially, Saarinen questioned whether his move to San Diego was a good decision.
“I’ve been able to hire, raise funding and overall grow the company while being in San Diego,” said Saarinen, adding that today he rarely needs to jump on a plane to meet with potential investors. “I do very little travel,” he said.
I also asked him what it’s been like living in San Diego for nearly four years now.
“Sometimes I have candidates or investors fly in to meet me in San Diego. The good thing is that it’s close to S.F., and usually you don’t have to arm wrestle someone to come to visit here as it’s quite a nice place.”
Building Silicon Valley in San Diego
Now that the city has become home to more tech founders — many who reside in neighborhoods such as La Jolla, Del Mar, and Encinitas — investors are spending more time and energy here.
Most recently, Silicon Sands, a new group founded by San Francisco startup veterans, hosted an inaugural founder mixer back in August. The event was sponsored by Slack Fund and Salesforce Ventures, and brought 20-plus founders working at fast-growing startups such ClickUp, Personal AI, UpperStudy, among others.
Similar to Saarinen, San Diego-based founders Acquire.com’s Andrew Gazdecki, Equip Health’s Kristina Saffran, ClickUp’s Zeb Evans, and Color Capital’s Jaime Schmidt and Chris Cantino, have migrated to the area in the last three years, in search for better quality of living instead of moving to cities such as Miami and Austin.
It has also become a magnet for check-writing, venture capital firms such as Softbank (investor in Vuori), A16z (investor in Comma.ai), Lightspeed Venture Partners (investor in Seismic), Social Leverage (investor in BetFully in 2022). All which have kept close tabs on San Diego’s tech ecosystem over the years.