A few months ago, when Dayna Grayson and Kate Barrett first mentioned to me the possibility of joining NEA as a Designer-in-Residence, I was simultaneously intrigued and excited. I became a designer because I wanted to create impactful and useful things —what would it be like to do that in partnership with the world’s largest venture capital firm? Could a heightened emphasis on design within NEA lead to greater impact for the design community, for the companies within NEA’s portfolio, and for end-users everywhere?
I began my career as an architect. What I loved most was the complete nature of the experience that you were solving for—from things that defy measurement, like creating a space that people would instantly and intuitively know how to use, all the way down to the most detailed material specifications. Getting it right meant delivering an experience that would provide not just utility, but could also elicit an emotional response; it could make you ‘feel’ something while you were using the building.
Yet while the scope of the work was powerful, I had a growing sense that the impact was inherently limited by the sheer physicality of these structures rooted in place. Even a lifetime of travel wouldn’t be enough to truly experience the world’s most remarkable places. The experiences were not portable; you could build something exceptional, but the impact would extend to only a sliver of the world’s population.
Since then I've been on a journey of discovery through many design disciplines—graphic design, branding, interaction design, service design—and delving into new areas along the way. I went to business school; a rare sandbox for a designer, where I learned that everyone was essentially engaged in designing things, just with a different set of constraints and variables (you can design a business model!). I discovered that my passion for design was strongest where it intersected with the world of commerce. Business and design were becoming inextricably linked for me, and it felt right.
Then I discovered start-ups…
…and immediately knew that was right. This was the kind of broad reaching impact I knew design could have. Many of the products and services developed by technology start-ups present the same type of design challenge that attracted me to architecture—creating a complete experience. In the start-up world, though, things move much faster. It’s possible to build something in a matter of months (sometimes days) that is seen and used by tens of thousands (even millions) of people instantaneously, and in the process create tremendous value (sometimes exponential). Creating an entire technology product experience from scratch is one of the most exhilarating and complex design challenges a designer can undertake. Consumer-facing companies like Uber, Houzz and Duolingo have met the challenge brilliantly, and even in the enterprise space it's become clear that user experiences need to be on par with the best consumer experiences. Increasingly, people understand that design is a fundamental ingredient in building a truly competitive and innovative product.
And the best is yet to come.
Design’s role in the start-up world is broadening. It's no longer just about wireframes, ‘making it pretty,’ and front-end development. Design is infusing every aspect of a company's product and business. From product decisions, key user interactions, on-boarding experiences, customer acquisition/retention, branding, copywriting, storytelling—all of these activities fall under the creative umbrella of design and how people ‘feel’ when they use a product. I believe that design is intrinsically important to the success of start-up companies and should command the same level of support as engineering, talent recruiting, and business development.
Start-ups need designers. Really good ones. Because the power of design goes far beyond making products usable—design can make products frictionless and delightful, delivering value that brings users back again and again, and driving economic value in the process. It’s about creating alchemy between utility and emotion.
The best start-up founders and teams know that design is more than a skillset; it's also a mindset. A design-focused approach to problem-solving enables teams to quickly and continually find the right path to the best solutions through a process that includes rapid prototyping, empathic user research, and (perhaps most importantly) 'synthesis' across user/business/technology needs. The best designers are inherently strong at synthesis, but it’s also a skill that can be cultivated and taught across an organization. Bottom line, fostering a design mindset enables startups to make better decisions, faster. It’s imperative whether you’re building a lifestyle brand, an enterprise tool, or even a biotech company.
So what are we hoping to do?
I’m a couple of weeks into this new role, and the opportunity is as big as I thought—probably bigger. So far we’re executing on a steady stream of tactical and near-term needs (i.e. tangible and lightweight ways to support portfolio companies) while developing a longer-term strategy to help our companies become more design-centric.
We're making connections, across and beyond the portfolio. In addition to helping companies find great design talent and resources—from design studios to interaction designers to branding mavens—we’re also focused on developing programs and events that will strengthen the ties between the design and start-up communities. We’re lucky to have a great deal of design DNA already in our portfolio, including companies like FiftyThree, Casper, and Pocket that have used design to differentiate their products and drive engagement.
In addition to working with the current portfolio, I’m excited to help the firm evaluate potential new investments in design-centric companies. Looking ahead, we believe that many of the most promising investment opportunities in today’s mobile-first, data rich environment will face (and embrace) some of the biggest design challenges yet. With NEA’s unparalleled scale and diversity across stage, sector and geography, it’s an ideal platform for amplifying and extending design’s impact on the world of start-ups. The opportunity is boundless, and the timing couldn’t be better.