Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) is one of the world’s most powerful venture-capital firms. Their early investments in companies like Amazon and Google have shaped not just the Valley but the products we all use today, every day.
But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that the firm’s latest projects have been a bit different. Their investments like Nest, Path, Flipboard, and Square have a unifying component: They’ve all innovated through design just as much as smart code.
So for young designers, what could be considered a dull press release is actually incredibly exciting news: KPCB is launching a design fellows program of its very own. Its most basic goal is to connect young undergrad and grad students with early-stage startups in three-month internships, to scratch the itch of KPCB’s portfolio companies in need of interns while offering students a means to feel out the dotcom lifestyle. But in reality, the program has much higher aspirations. "There’s a real opportunity to help design become the core area of focus," Mike Abbott, general partner at KPCB, tells me. (That’s Abbott pictured above.)
Before KPCB, Abbott’s engineering background took him from Microsoft to Palm to Twitter. His aha moment occurred some time while leading the team behind the lauded WebOS, Palm’s Hail Mary product that had to be developed in under a year. Designers often took the front seat, driving innovation by stating problems and storyboarding solutions on a biweekly basis. "Ten years ago, you’d talk to a designer and say, ‘Here’s some HTML—can you cut it up?’" Abbott explains. "One of the reasons we were able to get so much done with WebOS … was there was a really virtuous interaction between designers and engineers on building a great product."
With the KPCB’s Design Fellows Program, Abbott, along with KPCB partner Megan Quinn, formerly of Square and Google, sees an opportunity to foster the design talent of tomorrow, but also recruit it. The VC firm can seed fresh faces into their portfolio companies, and that’s no small need. There’s a gold rush on young design talent to launch experience-oriented products. "The market for engineers is always white-hot. But for designers, it’s hotter," Jeff Jordan, a partner at fellow VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, told us a few months back. His firm has backed design-driven startups such as Facebook, Jawbone, and Lytro.
KPCB’s recruitment tactic will also play out through the firm’s new Design Council, a creative board with faces from places like Flipboard and Samsung that will mentor the students casually at events and formally one on one. It’s from this student/professional interaction that Abbott expects big new ideas—and even big new companies—to be generated.
"You go back 20 years ago—who designs products? It’s basically engineers," Abbott says. "With tools today, a designer can get pretty far into building a prototype. Can designers start companies? I think the answer is yes."
KPCB isn’t the first to recognize the startup potential of designer-CEOs—we’ve seen this trend growing—but they may be the most influential of the small pool. If you’re interested in applying for their Design Fellows Program, KPCB is accepting applications now through January 31, 2013.