The Future of Business Is Design: Ben Blumenfeld Talks Designer Fund
Imagine a world where smart business and good design go hand-in-hand in creating the products and services we use – that’s the world Ben Blumenfeld wants to see. He’s the co-founder of Designer Fund, a fund that invests anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million in new companies founded or co-founded by designers.
In Ben’s words, the fund places its faith in designers-turned-entrepreneurs because the products they make “tend to have great design already baked into them.” He says designers know how to put people and their needs first when trying to find solutions to their problems. We asked Ben about Designer Fund’s mission and why designers should consider becoming entrepreneurs.
What kinds of businesses are designers starting?
Designers are tackling a broader set of problems than they ever have before. That’s really encouraging, because there’s so many areas that really do need design love. Instead of another social network, another photo-sharing app, they’re tackling other real problems in many areas.
What makes designers unique is really bringing design skills to company-building. In fundraising, for example, a designer can build a prototype that can inspire investors with their vision.
Also, a designer can make something not real, feel real. As a company scales, you can start to bring design to areas that don’t often get a lot of design love, like an onboarding experience for new employees, for example, which improves retention right away.
What’s the top factor designers should consider when breaking into business?
Starting and running a business is really, really hard and very time-intensive. It’s not just design, there are so many other facets to it. I think the main thing to consider: is this a problem you’re insanely passionate about? You’re going to need to put in a ton of work, you’re going to need to inspire others to join, you’re going to need to do lots of unglamorous work to make it succeed.
If you’re not very inspired about solving that problem, you’re not going go the distance.
What does Designer Fund look for when investing in companies?
We look for the same things as other investors, but but also want to see design playing an integral role for the company. We look for:
- A mission-driven team that’s a good fit for the problem (do you know a lot about the problem and are you a good fit to take that problem on).
- Is there a big market for your product? Is there a big business to be built here?
- Are there signs of traction? Is this idea starting to take off?
- Is it a business model that works? Do the economics work?
The additional piece we layer on is: is this a team that can build a product that is, in order of magnitude, better than what’s out there?
What does success look like for the designers you work with?
There are different degrees of success and that depends on who you are and the audience. As investors in companies that are part of a fund, we really need at least one or two companies to provide a return on invest of 50-100x.That’s success on an investor level.
But on an individual level many designers look at success differently. There’s the financial outcome, but then there are other outcomes like, ‘Did I go after a problem with everything I had? Did I build a product many people use and love? Did I effectively lead a team that was well-balanced?’
Even if your product doesn’t have the financial success you hoped for, there are a lot of personal successes. One thing that’s really important to define is success for yourself when you’re starting out.
For us at Designer Fund, we want to say that we’ve helped build the next generation of great companies co-founded by designers who have a meaningful and positive impact on our society. Also, we want to contribute to fundamental infrastructure for designers to succeed in tech. So there are a bunch of ‘success milestones’ along the way that we can use to help us know if we’re on the right path.
Why is it important to you to empower designers through business?
I’m a designer myself, and Designer Fund was born from our frustration observing the world. When I walk into a school, or a hospital, or a government office, I look at the tools they’re using and, for the most part, these are frustrating experiences and products. The people who are doing these really important jobs in society are struggling to use them.
We believe the world needs better design products and services, especially in areas that are underserved and we believe that designers are uniquely suited to build those tools.
As designers, we’ve been trained to be the advocates for people; we often play that voice while an engineer is just trying to build the system more effectively and businesspeople might be looking at how to make things economically viable.
A designer is constantly thinking how to make something good for people. Evan Sharp, who co-founded at Pinterest, has this great quote: “if we’re going connect the world, and be the plumbers who lay the pipes, designers need to make sure the pipes are carrying fresh water.”