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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.

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.”

Culture Kitchen’s 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:

Step 1: 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.
Step 2: Have a clear answer to: How does your product bring meaning or value to its users?
Step 3: Build an amazing product that is servicing a true need that you can test.
Step 4: Rinse and repeat steps 1–3.
Step 5: 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.
Step 6: 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.
Step 7: 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.

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 designerfund.com. ca

Terry Lee Stone (www.terryleestone.com) 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.

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