Venture Capitalists have always been the money men behind Silicon Valley. They roll the dice with tens of millions of dollars at a time, and ultimately, those investments have defined them. But these days, money alone isn’t enough to recruit the best entrepreneurial talent. (If it were, Mark Zuckerberg would have never shown up at Sequoia Capital in his pajamas.)
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the VC industry’s recent push to reimagine their own websites as design-savvy. Whereas VC sites once resembled any typical financial institution, now companies are pushing to tell a story of their identity that’s more personal, accessible, and wrapped in aesthetically pleasing imagery, typography, and layout.
"VC sites look like bank sites because they have all the money, they have all the cards, and they didn’t need to do anything," says Bonnie Siegler of the Brooklyn design studio Eight and a Half. "Now there’s a proliferation of VC models. It’s more competitive. Everyone wants the big idea, the entrepreneur to come to them."
Siegler just put the finishing touches on an update to Spark Capital’s website. Not long ago, the VC firm released a major facelift to their formerly humdrum site. It focused on typography and original photography. It’s generally nice-looking work, but even Siegler was surprised when she began getting call after call from competing VCs who’d admired the work and wanted in on a design-forward facelift. This prompted Siegler to check her own site analytics, and sure enough, Spark Capital was sending eyeballs her way—an extreme rarity in the web design market, considering Eight and a Half is but a footnote on the page.
"For a lot of the other stuff we do, like a hotel or a restaurant, design is part of the game already," Siegler tells Co.Design. "This was different, this was people who don’t usually talk or think about design, recognizing the value of design."
"Historically, venture sites have been notoriously bad, but we aren’t the first to realize that this is our window to the world before entrepreneurs come to our offices and meet us," Spark Capital Partner Mo Koyfman tells me later. "We certainly want people to know who we are, what we do, what areas we focus on, and what companies we’ve invested in, but that to me is just table stakes."
Table stakes? Isn’t that stuff—who you are and what you do—important? Most definitely, Koyfman insists. But even still, designers are one of the hottest commodities in the valley, driven by design-forward products by companies like Apple, Instagram, and Pinterest. For a VC to have anything short of a stellar-designed website is to be out of the loop.
"Entrepreneurs care about design," Braden Kowitz, Google Ventures Design Partner tells me later. "One of the challenges is that they know it’s important but don’t quite know how to get it, so having a VC help navigate that is important."
A sharp website is, no doubt, an implication that a VC can help navigate those design waters (or, at minimum, it’s not a red flag that they can’t). When we spoke, Google Ventures was in the middle of a site redesign of their own. Google’s approach is to expend considerable resources—to treat themselves as they would any Ventures client. So they actually prototyped, then focus-tested their site, and learned valuable lessons, not the least of which being that entrepreneurs are trained to dig through long lists of VC client logos for companies similar to their own. In this sense, Kowitz alludes to the issue that VCs may be stuck in a design trope ditch of their own digging—that they still have to cater to entrepreneurs familiar with the old way of VC sites. But even still, he sees the overall industry's take on web design improving.
"It’s good to see all of these sites getting better," Kowitz quips. "I welcome the competition. It’s fun."