insights by tech leaders on design in venture capital

1. How does a design perspective help in evaluating an investment decision, in obvious ways?
It helps define what the defaults should be, what the onboarding of a product should be, also makes sure you take human tendencies into account. People don’t want to read too many things or have too many choices, so in obvious ways design enables us to carry someone through a journey and find the natural ways to reduce.

2. How does a design perspective help in evaluating an investment decision, in non-obvious ways?
Little things that make a big difference, because you never give much credence to little things but they make all the difference. Like how is the process designed? We typically take a product the way its been handed to us and we seldom optimize process -- always product but not process. How the process of the team is designed.

3. Where have you seen a designer’s perspective possibly harmful in the investment process?
When things become fine tuned before they are ready to be so. It’s very hard to break something beautiful, and designers take hold of the vision before it’s materialized and before it’s been iterated enough -- you can skip lots of important steps.

4. What are three characteristics in a company’s structure/history that will likely lead to success in leveraging design?
The first is make sure you have founding DNA, designer DNA or have designers have a seat at the table, respecting the design phase as part of the product phase and not relegate it to later or something separate – integral or even more important than anything else.
    I’m a strong proponent of the internal design changing the way people value design. How can you design something wonderful when your internal tools and processes cause you to hate your work? Are designers empowered to change internal things as well as change the product itself?

5. How do you best support CEOs with a purely technical and/or business background to leverage design in their startup?
Encourage them not to outsource the design itself. Lots of leaders of different projects know design is important so they outsource it to someone. As a result they won’t be included in the process, therefore won’t value the process itself, won’t know what they end up with.
    I try to remember that a product succeeds not because of the technology but the users’ experience of the technology. The reminder to us that it is the last mile of the customers’ experience first mile that determines where they get involved in the product in the first place. Typically the first mile of the customers’ experience is the last mile of the work we do making the product and it’s often one we skip over.

6. What are a few challenges you’ve seen in working with companies that have caught “the design bug” -- especially the CEO?
Not knowing what type of design is needed for what problem is a big one, whether it’s as simple as graphic design vs someone who is good at user experience design. Also just knowing that design is important but you need to be able to call the whole thing into question. You can forget to ask yourself if it’s still a problem that is worth solving.

7. Which public companies out there do you admire for their approach to design?
– Besides Apple, I like the way GE has made design a corporate symbol. The design team at GE has more influence than just marketing things or product packaging. It’s a core value and they build it in many ways.
– I like how Nike has embraced design by really simplifying the population they’re trying to serve to just be the athlete, oftentimes just the individual athlete in the early stages of the creative process.
– Google for the material design impact they made and the difficult choices they have made to make design more important.

8. Which startups in the CONSUMER space do you think embody design in their companies particularly well, and why? Feel free to be biased.
– I admire the product ethos at Pinterest and how Evan has been able to maintain product and design but without letting it be too compromised by the commerce efforts there. The design of the user experience is still very elegant.
– Sweet Green could be discounted as a regular fast food company. It is a company that thinks deeply about the end to end user experience of their customer, what is it like to sit in line: maybe we should make a newspaper for people to read that tells them about how to live a more fulfilling life and be healthier. To the online ordering experience, to the pickup experience. To the unpackaging -- some of the new packaging concepts we’re working on make it seem cleaner, thinking about design in a more end to end way.
– You think of a company’s brand integrity, designers protecting a brand with all the important and little things – I think of a company like Warby Parker, where everything, even their holiday cards, everything they do in store and on site and in the packaging -- there’s a value you see, there is a stamp that only a few people have there, you can tell that everything must have before it goes out the door.

9. Which three startups in the ENTERPRISE space do you think embody design in their companies particularly well, and why?
– Optimizely: it’s a business that I see our design team wanting to be closer to metrics –it’s frankly one of the only AB testing analytics tools they feel comfortable using. It’s very powerful when an enterprise product can be so approachable, especially to a very discerning audience.
– Slack: incredible design feat.
– 37signals has sustained their design principals over the years, and not compromised trends, has a loyal audience, doesn’t feel the need to be the lowest common denominator that everyone uses – it’s a testament to knowing your design DNA.

10. What are a few URLs of your favorite writings on design in the VC space (including your own)? JM's editorial note: I added these in as my favs.
What I Invest In
The Interface Layer: Where Design Commoditizes Tech

Made in 2016 by John Maeda