Did you know about billions worth of value created by tech startups with designer co-founders?

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  • Click here for an image to embed and link back to http://designerfund.com/infographic for the full interactivity
  • “Designer Founders info cards” showcase tech startups like YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, Tumblr, AirBnB, Etsy, Path, Behance, Kickstarter, Blurb, Square, Typekit, About.me and reveal the design leaders most people don’t know about
  • The interactive info cards tell a story about how increasingly important design leadership has become in tech startups as measured by founding date, funding, user base, company size and acquisition amounts
  • The goal is to raise awareness about the existence of designer founders and their diverse backgrounds with data in a fun way that has never been done before
  • Designer Founders featured have collectively raised over $879M and some have been acquired for a collective amount of over $5.4B driven by outliers Lotus, YouTube, and FeedBurner
  • Designer Founders featured have a collective user base of over 3.15B with a collective company size of 1.24K led by outliers YouTube, Android, and Flickr
  • We’re starting to identify 5 general types of designer founders: raw talent, successful startup offspring, consultant converts, platform alumni and serial entrepreneurs
  • Nearly every designer founder has a technical co-founder and some have technical backgrounds which furthers the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration
  • In our data set we consider designer founders to either be the official co-founder or one of the founding members who helps lead the development of a new product and will continue to add more designer founders over time
  • Caveat: we’re not making the claim that tech startups with designer founders are statistically better in some way, instead we are highlighting interesting case studies to explore further
  • Of course the designers featured here can’t possibly take all the credit for any success, it’s all about team work and we’re celebrating design together no matter what background you come from
  • The DesignerFund.com, DesignerFounders.com, Enrique Allen, Amie Baron, Matt Stevens, Julien Guimont, Kelli Anderson and Visual.ly collaborated to produce the interactive info cards
  • Being featured in the infographic does not equal an endorsement, however, we hope to find the next generation of designer founders and keep adding data to share our collective impact
  • The Designer Fund invests in designer founders through funding, mentorship and access to their network including investment partners Khosla Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, 500 Startups, KKLD, Venture51, Quest Venture Partners and angels including Dave Morin, Christina Brodbeck, Ben Blumenfeld, Scott Belsky, Lynne Polischuik and more

Is being a designer co-founder of a tech company the biggest opportunity in the design field today? by Enrique Allen

The aha

For the last few years I’ve experimented a great deal with how to provide scalable design resources to startups in early stage venture capital funds. I’ve spent the majority of my time creating accelerator environments for startups to practice design behaviors and training non-designers to apply design thinking methods like they were exercise workouts. However, one day while meditating I realized it’s unlikely for startups to continue practicing great design if they don’t have a designer founder to consistently model design behaviors and lead a culture of design. This effect is often common when outsourcing design: a consultant comes in and helps improve the design, but when the consultant leaves, the transformation within the company is short lived.

This was an ‘aha’ moment for me because it challenged the long term effectiveness of my work. The solution was non-intuitive at first: do the opposite of what I’ve been doing to make startups more design-y. Rather than spending as much energy training non-designers, I should focus on helping designers succeed as part of the founding DNA of startups, thus making great design a natural expression of their operations. Designer founders can be the best solution to providing scalable design resources because they should be able to lead design within their company. Inspired by Richard Hamming [1], I believe being a designer founder of a tech startup is the biggest opportunity in the design field today. Following research and lean startup methods, I laid out some assertions to begin experimenting.

Assertions behind a community movement

First, as the the consumer tech market becomes more crowded, differentiated brand and experience design is becoming critical to both short-term and long-term success. Second, successful designer founders will attract the remaining distribution of aspiring entrepreneurial designers, theoretically shifting the supply of designers innovating rather than advertising sugar water. The third assertion is that designer founders have unique skills (not just visual) to understand human needs, make products that people actually want by driving new ideas and connecting things that aren’t obviously connected, and to communicate persuasively by visualizing a narrative of the future state of things. Furthermore, a startup with a designer founder who can lead and model design practices has a competitive advantage [2], especially when the designer is accompanied by technical and business co-founders. The critical mass of combined design, technical, and business skills enables product iteration to happen faster and at a higher resolution. Finally, later-stage companies have an appetite for designer founders who are capable of leading product innovation within their organization and are willing to acquire designer founded startups, which creates a virtuous cycle of wealth. With these points in hand, I presented them to as many designers and investors I could find who I look up to that have impacted millions of people. Turns out over 50 of them believed these assertions too. So we came together as a community to create the Designer Fund to realize this vision and invest in the next generation of designer founders.

This is not about hype; it’s about impact

The point is not to get caught up in buzzword titles nor to challenge the role of design consultants or founders with engineering backgrounds, but to highlight the emerging opportunity for founders with design expertise from trained to self-taught backgrounds. It makes sense that a prerequisite for a tech company is to have a founder with technical skills. The same heuristic should hold true if you want to consistently ship well designed products like Pinterest, AirBnB and Path. Why not have a co-founder with design skills who champions the user experience?

Now, more than ever, we face complex problems that designer founders with professional craft have the opportunity to solve by facilitating design behaviors with the rest of their team, thus inspiring everyone to have creative confidence and apply design thinking collaboratively. The whole company should practice empathy, not just designers. No longer can design just be an outsourced add on, limited to occasionally putting “lipstick on a pig.” Tech moves so fast that it’s a continuous process of iteration for designers to prioritize solving the right strategic problems, contexts and use cases for their company to prosper. But where do you find designers willing to commit beyond short term consulting gigs to multi-year visions? There seems to be a shortage of great full-time startup designers who have the multidisciplinary design skills necessary to lead product decisions. Designers in tech startups are being asked to do more than simply build visuals and hand them off to engineers.

The skills to ship

Clearly every designer isn’t meant to be a founder and probably shouldn’t be, (especially as some believe we’re spreading talent thin across too many little “me too” startups but that’s a whole other discussion). To be clear, we don’t mean “designer as the prima donna pixel-pusher” that you might be picturing. We also don’t mean “designer as the I Took One Class Called UX Fundamentals In Business School.” We mean an honest-to-goodness, experienced, craft-driven, product-focused, reflective practitioner who has learned to design by designing, who views design as a way of thinking about solving hard problems and is capable of building usable products with more than just beautiful aesthetics.[3] The word ‘design’ is so loaded nowadays and hope that our Designer Founders info cards will begin to clarify the impact of designers with various backgrounds in the context of early stage tech startups. Modern design entrepreneurship has been around since at least the late nineteenth century spurred by William Morris’ Arts and Crafts workshops, Elbert Hubbard and his Roycrofters along with the Weiner Werkstatte, Deustche Werbund, and Bauhaus movements to name a few. [4] Today, we’re studying a movement by designer founders behind venture backed startups who have the potential for meaningful impact via tech products, not just beautiful chairs.

Studying the paths of designer founders

Designer founders we’ve observed are consistently multidisciplinary and have cross functional skills necessary to make product decisions. They are fluent in the full design stack ranging from user research, product design, interaction design, information architecture, graphic design, to communication design. They may not be experts in all sub-disciplines of design but can get by on their own in the early days of their startup and attract specialists when needed. In addition, they have a thorough enough working understanding of technology and business stacks including agile programing and data-based marketing methods. Designer founders can move up and down the design stack and horizontally to technology and business stacks to do what it takes to ship and use data to justify their decisions when needed. Thus they are capable of leading both their product and organization through the design cycles needed to innovate. There’s a difference between a designer who can design a dashboard in a car and a designer who can design a whole car and how to drive it. Designer founders need to be able to do both. [5]

To support these claims, we’re practicing what we preach, and getting out of the building to interview every designer founder we can find that’s made a venture backed tech startup. The collection of interviews will be published as a non-profit book that will be free for students with the goal to synthesize reoccurring patterns and lessons to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurial designers. The first byproduct of this research, our Designer Founders info cards, represent a snapshot of data we’ve collected and some patterns we’re starting to explore. In our data set we consider designer founders to either be the official founder/co-founder or one of the founding members who helps lead the development of a new product. It’s important to note that nearly every designer founder has a technical co-founder and some have technical backgrounds which furthers the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration.

Types of designer founders

As you flip through the infographic, there are a few types of designer founders to note.

One type of designer founder seems to be simply “raw talent,” like David Karp, Rob Kalin, Akshay Kothari, Joe Gebbia, and Kyle Bragger. These designers range from dropouts to recent grads with stints of design experience before launching their startup. “Successful startup offspring” like Jason Putorti, Michael Karnjanaprakorn, and Mike Krieger worked for startups who have achieved significant success either in user numbers or outcomes like acquisitions before creating their own company. “Consultant converts” are designers who have significant experience consulting like Ryan Freitas, Lane Becker, Rashmi Sinha, Alexa Andrzejewski, Charles Adler, Brian Chesky and Chad Jennings, and then went on to found their startup. “Platform alumni” like Chad Hurley, Dave Morin, Christina Brodbeck, Garry Tan, Marcos, Weskamp all worked on major platforms from YouTube to Adobe and used that experience as launching points for their current ventures. “Serial entrepreneurs” like Jeff Veen, Jack Dorsey, Caterina Fake, Stewart Butterfield, Zach Klein, and Brian Witlin all have founded multiple startups, some with multiple exits. Of course we realize these categories can apply to all founders, not just those with design backgrounds and these are by no means mutually exclusive, in fact some designers fit into all of the categories. We hope to showcase more interesting patterns as we continue to update our data. For instance, designer founders featured have collectively raised raised over $879M and some have been acquired for a collective amount of over $5.4B driven by outliers Lotus, YouTube, and FeedBurner. With only a collective company size of 1.24K, designer founders featured have a collective user base of over 3.15B, led by outliers YouTube, Android, and Flickr. These are just a couple ways of looking at the impact designer founders have made, not to mention the social impact.

The future of designer founders

With that said, we noticed a significant trend: more designer founders than previous decades are daring to walk the unbeaten path, sacrifice the comforts of a paycheck and pursue the freedom to create meaningful impact through tech startups. Whether they succeed or not (odds are they will fail along their journey), these designers represent a new breed of entrepreneur who will hopefully inspire the next generation of designers to be even better at making positive social change. There’s also schools who are responding to the call to train entrepreneurial designers like the Stanford dschool, School of Visual Arts and more. As we enter a natural user interface revolution, there is even more possibilities for designers to create experiences with touch, sound, and movement interaction. [6]

So is being a designer co-founder of a tech startup the biggest opportunity in the design field today? We’ll see as we continue to collect more data. However, in the wake of legends like Steve Jobs, perhaps the most important social evolution within the tech startup ecosystem will be to create a role for the designer founder as a champion of the user experience. Who is a designer founder? It’s a person who stands with one foot in the world of technology and the other in the world of people and human purposes, ultimately bringing the two together. [7]

Special thanks to:

  • Julien Guimont for interactive development
  • Kelli Anderson for interactive concept and graphic design
  • Matt Stevens for graphic design
  • Ben Blumenfeld, Lee Sherman and Nate Whitson for creative direction
  • Visual.ly for distribution
  • Amie Baron for helping with research
  • Maria Molfino and Liz Danzico for editing
  • Kevin Xu and Sam Jeyaprakash for website development


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