A New VC Model That Turns Designers, Not Techies, Into Startup CEOs

The Designer Fund angel-investor and mentoring network is meant to encourage entrepreneurial designers to get into the tech startup game.

Enrique Allen had an epiphany while meditating one morning about how to bring design literacy to Silicon Valley. Instead of spending so much of his energy mentoring and consulting with startups about how to bring iterative creative thinking and a respect for user experience to their company culture, why not do the inverse? "I realized I should be helping designers become more startup-ey," Allen tells Co.Design. "Those are the people, who, if they become leaders in a company, will model design behavior from its inception, right in the company's DNA." So he started The Designer Fund to give entrepreneurial designers an on-ramp into the Silicon Valley world of angel investor networks, demo days, and funding rounds. "It's about helping to give designers a seat at the startup table that engineers and MBAs already have," Allen says. The intended result: Smarter companies, better products, happier users — and an improved world.

"It's about giving designers a seat at the startup table that engineers and MBAs already have."

But don't think that The Designer Fund is a cutesy attempt to turn font monkeys into dot-com tycoons just for the hell of it. "When I'm talking about design, I'm not just talking about the visual layer that everyone seems to think of when they hear the word," Allen asserts. "We really believe that designer-founders need to be able to guide the product and organization through 'the full stack': user research, interaction design, information architecture, all the way to the interface, and everything in between." In other word's Allen's fund is seeking people who already have the vision and entrepreneurial spirit that any Silicon Valley founder has — but just happen to self-identify as designers, too. Allen points out that designers have recently earned a rich pedigree in the Valley, having founded YouTube, Tumblr, Airbnb, Android, and Flickr, among others. And yet their talents are still unappreciated.

"What we're hoping to do is shift the paradigm of what design is. Design encompasses systems now, not just 'making things look pretty,'" Allen continues. "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. And that's a great opportunity for designers to make a foundational contribution in a startup venture."

But Allen isn't preaching a gospel of "designers can do everything by themselves." Business is about profitability, engineering is about feasibility, and design is about desirability — and all three specialties need to overlap in a successful startup. "I'm talking particularly about consumer tech, where the user experience and the brand is so important for differentiating from all the other crap," he asserts. "And that's what designers should be good at."

"Most startups fail because they make things that people don't actually want!"

Allen also takes pains to note that the Designer Fund is meant as a complement, not a competitor, to established startup incubators and seed funds. "I hope to position the D.Fund as accelerator agnostic," he explains. "We can help direct them to Ycombinator, Greylock, and other networks to get their business off the ground, while also demystifying jargon about getting incorporated, and other things that can seem intimidating. We're primarily offering mentorship, and some angel investor money from designers like Christina Brodbeck, Dave Morin, Ben Blumenfeld, Scott Belsky, and Michal Kopec, just to give someone a runway. But the network is the most important thing."

The Designer Fund's application cycle runs its course every three to four months, and Allen purposefully timed it to sync up with key dates at other tech incubators. The first two startups in the Designer Fund pilot program, (think a for-profit version of StoryCorps) and (The Food Network meets low-income immigrant women), were advised by IDEO founder David Kelly and are now part of the 500 Startups accelerator, which Allen co-founded.

For Allen, a designer himself (he trained at the Institute of Design at Stanford), the Designer Fund isn't about drawing lines in the sand about what design (and designers) are or aren't. "It's breaking down these artificial barriers. That label, 'designer,' simply articulates the founder's intention to create systems and experiences that persuade people to do something. That will be the best indicator of who they are, not their titles or methods or definitions. If design is so important to startups, let's lead and model these behaviors — and its impact will speak for itself."

[Top photo by Tim Collins]

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