Designer founders who dare the path of tech entrepreneurship

December 1, 2011 at 12:08pm

FastCoDesign wrote earlier this year about a new VC model, called the Designer Fund, a community of designers that invest in designer founders. The point is not to get caught up in titles and challenge the role of founders with engineering backgrounds but to highlight the emerging opportunity for founders with design expertise. It makes sense that a prerequisite for a tech company is to have a founder with technical skills. The same 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 in house designers with professional craft need to make sense of and model design behaviors with the rest of their team. Thus inspiring everyone to apply design thinking collaboratively. 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. As the consumer tech space becomes more crowded, having a brand and experience that stands out is becoming critical to the DNA of companies that succeed. But where do you find designers willing to commit beyond short term consulting to multi-year visions?


There seems to be a shortage of great full time startup designers, at least when it comes to having the multidisciplinary design skills necessary to lead product decisions. Designers in tech startups today are being asked to do more than simply build visuals and hand them off to engineers. They need to be experts in user research, interaction design, information architecture, graphic design, and storytelling on top of having a thorough working understanding of technology and business stacks including agile programing and data-based marketing methods. But who are these designer founders, capable of leading both their product and organization through the design cycles needed to innovate?


Clearly every designer isn’t meant to be a founder and probably shouldn’t be, especially as some believe we are spreading talent thin across too many little startups. However after reviewing hundreds of applicants, The Designer Fund picked less than 1% of candidates to interview and eventually decided to invest in 10 startups founded by designers through a combination of non-equity grants and co-investments with their partners. Designer founders are daring to walk the unbeaten path, willing to sacrifice the comforts of a paycheck and pursue the freedom to create meaningful impact. Whether they succeed or not (the odds are that they'll fail along the startup journey), these designers represent a new breed of entrepreneur that will hopefully inspire the next generation of designers to be even better at making positive social change.



Meet Melissa Miranda, former IDEO designer, who recently launched Tiny Review app to encourage creative reviews on your phone and drive much needed foot traffic into local venues. After receiving an investment from The Designer Fund, she’s grown from a cash strapped app concept to being featured in the Apple App store along with an oversubscribed list of top investors.



After world traveling as a Boston Globe multimedia producer and graduating from Y Combinator, Thushan Amarasiriwardena, is helping children create animated stories with Toontastic which was recently inducted into the Apple iPad Hall of Fame. With a Designer Fund investment he’s expanding to physical locations by creating an installation at a local kids museum.



You probably have heard of Khoi Vinh, famous for his grid expertise and design direction at the New York Times, who won the TechFellow award and recently launched the world’s first social collage app to solve the blank canvas problem and empower everyone to express themselves visually with Mixel. The Designer Fund is honored to invest a grant to support Khoi’s work and the growing community of NYC based entrepreneurial designers.



With the angst of Occupy Wallstreet and upcoming elections brooding, RISD alum Aaron Perry Zucker is preparing to expand the platform behind Design for Obama, an online poster project whose collective works have reached millions. Under the Creative Action Network brand, the Designer Fund is excited to invest in a tool for organizations and campaigns to harness cause-based content more effectively.



The future of interaction design is not limited to touch devices on tablets believes Anab Jain, UK based TED Fellow and winner of the Award of Excellence ICSID and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award. The Designer Fund is excited to invest in her talented team at Superflux to create a prototype toy for augmenting reality in digital and physical spaces using sensors.



There are few moments in life that are as special getting married, yet organizing a wedding can be quite painful observed Tracy Osborn, the designer and self-taught developer behind WeddingLovely which is dedicated to making the process of organizing a wedding simpler by highlighting local and small-business vendors. As part of the current 500 Startups Accelerator, Tracy is currently collaborating with hundreds of vendors in three specialized directories, and working on a webapp to help couples walk through the wedding planning process.



Nina Khosla is the founder and designer of Teethie a social blogging tool with an experience focused on interest-based communities fueling intense conversation and creation. The Designer Fund is looking for designers with deep passion like Nina who has been an avid member of online communities since acquiring her first AOL screen name at the age of seven. In 2010 she graduated from Stanford with a degree in Product Design and gained experience at Fuseproject, IDEO and Betaworks who is also an investor in Teethie.



Few designers find the time to impact middle school students but Maurice Woods, the former professional basketball player and Pentagram designer, continues to inspire under-served youth to develop their design passions through the Inneract Project. He’s not stopping there and has built Convozine, a network that brings together creative collaborators to spontaneously launch social magazines.  



Since graduating from the Stanford Product Design program and 500 Startups Accelerator together, Jennifer Lopez and Abby Sturges have raised a seed round of funding in addition to The Designer Fund’s investment to expand their chef roster and cooking class menu online. In addition to their unique model for employing immigrant women, you can now order a Culinary Explorer ingredient kit on 


Former IDEO designer and alumni of the Stanford Graduate Design Program Matt Sullivan, launched Storytree out of his masters project which focused on helping seniors capture their precious family stories. After an investment from The Designer Fund, Storytree has since struck a cord of human motivation with 8,000+ users in a month and inbound opportunities with Oprah, the Baseball Hall of Fame, and major record labels among others to pursue interesting use cases of Storytree. Storytree was highlighted by Techcrunch as one the top startups at 500 Startups Demo Day, featured in the New York Times as a new way to collect and share rich family memories, and selected as “New and Noteworthy” in the App store. Since raising a seed round of funding Matt is growing the Storytree team to improve their current web and mobile products with the goal of helping you share your family’s stories.


This is only the beginning in a shift of the roles designers can play. If you’re a designer interested in being a founding member of a startup or already have an idea, prototype or product, consider applying to the Designer Fund before their January 15th deadline. The goal is to create the best community of entrepreneurial designers by providing mentorship, funding and access to their network including investment partners led by Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, 500 Startups, KKLD, Venture 51, Quest Venture Partners and angels like Dave Morin, Christina Brodbeck, Ben Blumenfeld, Scott Belsky, Lynne Polischuik and more.