When I first met David Kelley many years ago, the “design thinking” movement that he was leading at Stanford and IDEO — the notion that design principles are critical to every aspect of organizations, to creating products and experiences, to analyzing and improving the world — was still an insurgent idea. He was trying to enable designers to solve meaningful problems —indeed challenging them to do so — at a time when design was an afterthought for most companies.
Fast forward to the present, and Kelley’s dangerous idea has become a truism bordering on cliché. Consumers demand it. Technology enables it. And history bears it out. Design is central to value creation. Some of the most successful recent companies — Airbnb, Instagram, Pinterest, Slack — were started by designers. I’ve gone so far as to christen this moment the “era of the design co-founder.”
For many design co-founders, however, what’s missing (and daunting) is the thing I had to build my first company to learn: how to create a business. Without these skills supporting them, I’ve seen wonderfully well-designed innovations fail; and, conversely, watched in horror as product obscenities became commercially successful because of an unkillable sales team.
Understanding business needs is critical to the entrepreneurial design community. That’s why I’m thrilled and gratified to announce Foundation Capital’s participation in Designer Fund, a $20 million seed fund that invests in and supports startups founded by designers.
Designer Fund is built on the idea that “startups that have great design, engineering, and business skills in their founding and executive teams have a greater chance of creating better-designed products and services.” To that end, Designer Fund has backed companies devoted to brilliant user experiences, including Gusto, Stripe, Omada and Shyp. Above and beyond capital, its highly selective Bridge program provides professional development to designers. Designer Fund also hosts workshops, dinners, and talks for the design community, led by some of the world’s top design practitioners.
Designer Fund was started, and is managed, by Enrique Allen and Ben Blumenfeld. Enrique is a lecturer at Stanford’s d.school, and has been a designer at several venture capital firms. Ben was one of the first designers at Facebook; among his many accomplishments was the launch of Facebook Timeline. Both are designers who other designers trust. Which is why, as one of the only general partners of a venture fund who’s a designer, when I met Ben and Enrique, I committed to helping them succeed.
Since my days at IDEO, I’ve witnessed the power of design to confront fundamental challenges and create new markets. Ben and Enrique have now created the first seed fund with this very tenet as its core investment thesis.
In Foundation Capital’s 20-year existence, it’s very unusual for us to invest in another fund. But we share Enrique and Ben’s belief that designer founders are the future. We’ve backed designer-led startups, like Pocket, Framer and Post Social. In partnership with Product Hunt, we’ve hosted hundreds of designer founders for dozens of intimate events. And our quarterly Product Minds dinners bring together leading product-minded entrepreneurs and design thinkers for authentic conversations about the art, science and untiring drive required to build and launch great products.
Perhaps most memorable for me, was a gathering Foundation Capital cohosted with Enrique, Ben, and their Designer Fund team last October. “Source” was a retreat for a group of thirty designer founders, which took place at the historic Eames ranch, filled with inspiration from Charles and Ray Eames. Insights were shared, conversations sparked, relationships built and creative batteries charged.
All this is to say, Foundation Capital has put its collective shoulder behind the conviction that design is one of the cornerstones of modern businesses. We believe in Designer Fund’s mission because, in part, it’s also our mission. That’s the reason we’ve been an active partner since the beginning.
David Kelley’s three-decades-old guiding insight at IDEO and Stanford was to apply a design mindset to solving significant problems, not just to prettifying the peripheries. Designer Fund is the realization of that vision and the next step in the design revolution. These guys understand better than anyone that with a designer in your founding team, you can nurture something of lasting advantage—a culture of design. And to turn that dream into scalable reality, they’re empowering designers by teaching them the things they don’t teach in school.
Congratulations to Ben and Enrique. And, on behalf of Foundation Capital, let me say that we’re proud to help launch and support Designer Fund as it attracts, educates and inspires the next generation of entrepreneurial designers.
Photo credit: Colin Price