In 2008, the young designer Brian Chesky pitched seven VCs on a social room-sharing app called Airbnb. For $150,000, they could own 10% of this company. But instead of enthusiasm, he got a small pile of rejections.
Eight years later, Airbnb is valued at $25 billion.
These VCs clearly didn’t see the real vision of what Airbnb could be—not a room-sharing service—but an impeccably articulated, socially grounded network that would satisfy millennial wanderlust in a way that hotels and timeshares wouldn’t. Which is exactly why the Designer Fund, a San Francisco early stage investment firm and educational resource for designers, has released a list of 40 venture capital firms that have a proven track record of working with designer-founders.
"It’s a common thing we’ve experienced so often," says Enrique Allen, general partner and co-founder of Designer Fund. "Designers in our community say, ‘Okay, we’re thinking about starting fundraising,’ or, ‘We are in the fundraising process.’ ‘Who should we talk to?’"
The list is essentially a shorthand cheat sheet to the complicated politics of raising money in the Valley, and it includes a lot of firms that you might expect if you’ve been following the industry, like Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, and Google Ventures—all of whom have actually snatched up designers to vet their investments. (Of course, Designer Fund itself is on the list, too.) Just as handily, it also includes the actual person you might want to contact at each firm, complete with the relevant startups he or she has worked on in the past. Plus, the list specifies what level of investment these companies are interested in, ranging from the small bucks of pre-seed rounds to the multi-million dollar sums of series C.
But you won't find any phone numbers. "We’re being cognizant in not listing their contact info," says Ben Blumenfeld, general partner and co-founder of Designer Fund. "It’s not like, hey, pitch these people by the truckload. It’s a list of recommendations."
The VCs approved of their inclusion on the list because they value the larger cause. Designer Fund is launching a new program, called the Designer Founder Guild, that’s essentially a network of 20 or so designer-founders, at companies ranging from fledging startups to unicorns like Pinterest and Airbnb. The guild can meet over meals or at retreats and share experiences and best practices in confidence.
For now, the Guild is invite-only, though one day, it may host more public-facing conferences. In the meantime, Designer Fund still wants to share the collective knowledge of the guild—what they’ve learned by polling its members and other experts in the world of startups—with the design community at large.
The first example of that knowledge-sharing is the list of 40 VCs above. Into the future, Blumenfeld ticks off all sorts of other resources that could get published, including everything from the preferred software/tools a startup should adopt to get off the ground, to human services, like legal counsel.
As for what Designer Fund gets out of the effort, there’s no direct revenue generated by the Guild or these educational resources, but providing such information furthers the fund's broader mission—to get better designed products and services in the world.
"We tell people, as VCs we have to say no a lot. But for us, we don’t want to say no a lot. Having these other programs means we can say yes," Blumenfeld says. "No on investing, but yes on access to other great events, people, and knowledge."
All Photos: Colin Price