What's Next, A Design Bubble?
If Silicon Valley is like a sprawling mafia family in khakis, then designers are like the half-Irish foot soldiers—never quite accepted, no matter how invaluable. Even though designers have defined countless Valley companies from Apple to Twitter, the archetype of success is Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg on a coding bender. As designer and entrepreneur Enrique Allen puts it: "Designers don't control the narrative. We're always just asked to put lipstick on a pig."
Allen aims to fix that with the Designer Fund, born of the 500 Startups seed fund, which invests in nascent business ideas. But unlike 500 Startups, the Designer Fund is a not-for-profit: For now, it focuses on matchmaking. (In the future, it might begin making equity investments.) Allen vets fund applicants, then introduces those selected to a network of mentors and angels, such as John Zeratsky, a former YouTube designer, and Ben Blumenfeld, design lead at Facebook. Mentors then help guide designers toward setting up their businesses.
The fund was inspired by Allen's own frustrations as a designer for startups that Facebook and Venrock had invested in. For dozens of them, he tried to impart lessons in design thinking, from deep field research to building prototypes. It seldom took hold. Then it hit him—during a meditation session—that for designers to get their due, they'd have to head their own companies.
"It's really a cultural paradigm," says Allen. "Investors saw big hits like Google and Facebook created by engineers and wanted more just like them. Engineers are great at scratching their own itches and building what they think is cool. But if you're trying to create a breakthrough, you need a broader vision."
The Designer Fund has already spawned two startups: CulturekitchenSF.com connects immigrants with foodies looking to learn home-cooking secrets, and the platform Storytree.me allows families to archive and share life stories. Explains Allen: "In order for designers to prove that their methods lead to innovation, the businesses we start have to have meaningful impact on people's lives. We have to create more than Apple accessories."
A version of this article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.