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The Designer Fund
Backing designer-created businesses through funding, mentorship and connections

by Terry Lee Stone

What kinds of design driven businesses are being helped by the Designer Fund? It turns out to be an interesting assortment:

•    Tiny Post, founded by Melissa Miranda, a former IDEO designer, is an image- and review-sharing app.
•    Launchpad Toys, an award-winning iPad and iPhone app that allows kids to create animated stories.
•    Mixel, the collaborative collage app for art making by Khoi Vinh, a former New York Times design director.
•    The Creative Action Network, a tool to help organizations and campaigns harness cause-based content more effectively.
•    Superflux, a prototype toy for augmenting reality in digital and physical spaces using sensors.
•    Teethie, a social blogging tool.
•    WeddingLovely, a tool for making weddings easier to organize.
•    Convozine, a social magazine service.
•    Culture Kitchen, a cooking-based startup founded by Stanford University product design graduates Jennifer López and Abby Sturges.
•    Storytree, a service that lets families capture stories about their histories.
•    Angaza Design, makes solar products in Africa affordable through mobile payments via pay-as-you-go technology.
•    Neighborland, gives people a way to organize themselves online and offline to improve their neighborhoods.
•    Solar Mosaic, enables citizens to support local solar development on rooftops, for those who could otherwise not afford it, via crowdfunding with a financial return to those who donate money towards the effort.

Melissa Miranda’s idea for Tiny Post came from traveling around the world for nine months and wanting an easy way to know what great places were nearby. She and a co-founder came up with a short review format—three lines written on a picture—that works well for communicating experiences and can be accessed quickly. “The Designer Fund made all the difference,” says Miranda. “We had been boot-strapped for months and we were literally at the end of our runway, trying to figure out how we’d pay rent for the following month. My cofounder was about to sign a job offer to join a great engineering team in San Francisco. With the grant we received from the Designer Fund, we were able to keep working one more month and ship an alpha version of the app that generated a lot of investor interest. The Designer Fund was key in making intros to investors—through Enrique we met Dave McClure and got into 500 Startups and with the help of Designer Fund intros, we closed our seed round soon after. The Designer Fund holds co-working sessions where you meet with mentors and other startups to give each other feedback, and they are often held at well-known Silicon Valley VC offices, so when we’re ready to raise series A funding, we already know whom to call.”

The Tiny Post app, founded by designer Melissa Miranda,
is a way to caption the world by adding short reviews to images.

“When we approached the Designer Fund, we wanted to create a system to connect immigrants with amazing skills in cooking and a rich cultural and personal story with a larger audience of explorers and foodies in the world,” says Culture Kitchen designer founder Jennifer López. The designers first developed a series of cooking classes, then broadened their reach by offering a monthly subscription box that features a different Culture Kitchen cook from a different country. Each box contains three recipes and all the hard-to-find ingredients to make those dishes, along with videos, cultural stories, cooking tips and tricks to provide a deeper knowledge and enjoyment. “The Designer Fund is a phenomenal resource of people who care about seeing design at the helm of business,” López adds. “The community is what we are looking for. It is a group of people we can reach out to when we can’t figure something out. When you are building a company, especially for the first time as we are, that information is invaluable.”

Culture Kitchen, founded by designers Abby Sturges and
Jennifer López, spreads cultural knowledge through food.

At the heart of both of these companies, and all of the Designer Fund recipients, is technology and community connection facilitated by design. It’s design that goes beyond window dressing to access deeper value. As Allen puts it, “What we're hoping to do is shift the paradigm of what design is. Design encompasses systems now, not just ‘making things look pretty.’ Designers have traditionally been paid a lot of money to make what people want. Meanwhile, most startups fail because they make things that people don’t actually want! We need more designers who are trained in methods of getting to these ‘aha’ moments about customers, products and use cases to consistently do that with startups. That’s a great opportunity for designers to make a foundational contribution in a startup venture.”

When asked why the Designer Fund has been so successful in helping design’s and designers’ shifting role, Blumenfeld replies, “It’s still early to say it’s been ‘so successful,’ but I think we’re fulfilling a very big need for many people and touching on a movement that is already in motion. Many designers want to start companies and be entrepreneurs but lack the connections, funding or business/technical skills to make it happen. We help on all those fronts and that has resonated in a big way with the design community. I also think designers believe we need to be supporting each other more, and the idea of designers helping other designers succeed is something every designer wants to get behind.”

The Designer Fund is looking for new startups to invest in. Designers interested in being a founding member of a startup, or who already have an idea, prototype or product, can apply at CA Lee Stone
Terry Lee Stone ( is a Los Angeles-based writer, manager and creative strategist. Stone teaches the business of design at Art Center College of Design. The author of several books on design, her recent two-book series is called, Managing The Design Process (Rockport Publishers). She wrote the Business column.