The founders of the Designer Fund reads like a who’s-who roster of leading young Silicon Valley design and technology talent—including early stage designers of YouTube, Facebook, Google and Twitter to designers at IDEO, frog, Method and Flipboard. This organization is actually a creative community that is willing to put their expertise, time and money to bear on reinventing business from the inside out. Their mission is to invest in designers who want to become founders of businesses with positive social impact, especially through the use of new technology-driven experiences. They want to see design imbedded into the DNA of startups that can grow and evolve to help society, not just these companies’ bottom lines.
The Designer Fund is a community of designers who invest in designer founders
through mentorship, funding and access to their network.
Formed in the Spring of 2011 in partnership with a group of top-tier venture capital companies—including Kholsa Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Andreesen Horowitz; incubator 500 Startups; and angel investment money and mentorship from designers Ben Blumenfeld, Christina Brodbeck, Dave Morin, Scott Belsky and Michal Kopec—the Designer Fund, led by designer, Stanford University d.School teacher and startup expert, Enrique Allen, has invested in thirteen companies so far, with other recipients being considered on an ongoing basis. The Designer Fund also produces annual networking and inspirational events like the Designer Fair and Women in Design, as well as research and resources like Infographic and the Designer Founders book, which is currently seeking funding via Kickstarter so that it can be made available free to design students. These activities foster the creation of
a virtuous positive feedback loop that allows successful designers to give back to the next generation of aspiring creative entrepreneurs.
Through sharing information, funding and access to its network, the Designer Fund makes a significant contribution to their recipients by matching designer founders with mentors, angels, accelerators, seed funds and later-stage venture capital (VC). The Designer Fund is not a competitor to established startup incubators and seed funds. Rather, the community’s work is complementary to traditional startup resources. “It’s about helping give designers a seat at the startup table that engineers and MBAs already have,” explains Allen. The Designer Fund seeks to demystify the path for designers so that they can build successful tech startups. They also will help entrepreneurs embody design thinking in their businesses.
This is a group of dedicated designers who want to see design expertise valued as much as technological or business expertise in the startup world. They think that more than ever, business and society face such complex problems that only in-house designers with professional craft can make sense of and model design behaviors for their companies. The Designer Fund network believes that design thinking can’t just be an outsourced add-on, it has to be integral right from the start. Perhaps it is the fast-paced continuous process of iteration so prevalent in tech startups driving this belief, but this group thinks that designers are essential because they are uniquely capable of prioritizing and solving the right strategic problems, contexts and use cases so that their company can prosper.
DESIGNERS AT THE START
Using a formal application process for evaluation, the Designer Fund looks for a range of designer founders across three stages in their evolution: prototype, alpha or beta. The goal is to select, then mature, startups creating better, smarter products that the public actually wants and that will also have a meaningful impact on the world. Designer Fund founder Ben Blumenfeld, who is design lead at Facebook, says, “We tend to invest in designer founders in the tech space because that is something we know about. We can affectively assess ideas and products in this space. However, our newest batch of designer founders are outside the pure consumer Internet area, for example, two of them deal in solar technology. All our existing partners have come back and requested deeper and increased engagements, which is fantastic since our focus is giving a lot of value to a select few number of partners.”
Jennifer López, having worked with the Designer Fund network to help startup her business with cofounder Abby Sturges, offers this advice to other designers who want to launch their own products:
Get to know your users, their motivations, desires, dreams and purpose. These factors are critical to your success and why your customers will use and enjoy your products or not.
Have a clear answer to: How does your product bring meaning or value to its users?
Build an amazing product that is servicing a true need that you can test.
Rinse and repeat steps 1–3.
Then understand how many people can actually benefit and would use your service. Not just your friends. There is nothing wrong with serving a small user group as long as you know that from the beginning.
Learn how to reach your potential customers and do it. You have to be selling all the time. Sell your product, your mission and your passion as an entrepreneur.
Remember that design is important beyond just the product you make, it is in how you communicate with your audience, how they pay for your product and everything in the middle. Use your skill set to your advantage to think radically different.