Q&A with Enrique Allen, co-founder of Designer Fund

Enrique Allen — the co-founder of Designer Fund and a teacher at Stanford’s d.school — is on a mission to rid the world of “shitty user experiences.” Last month, I sat down with him at Designer Fund in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. The space feels more like a home or a lounge than an office. Beautiful posters hang on the walls and books line the shelves next to a small kitchen in the back. Designer Fund invests in design entrepreneurs who are solving problems in markets that traditionally lack design innovation — from healthcare, to education, to energy. Allen and his team also run Bridge, a design education program that connects experienced designers with top tier companies. Through Bridge, designers get paid to work at a startup of their choice and participate in weekly workshops, dinners, and talks.

In Silicon Valley, there’s a very codified system for building engineering teams. Designers, however, still lack a lot of this infrastructure, and Enrique Allen wants to change that. His aim at Designer Fund is to elevate the careers of designers. With Bridge application season underway, I talked to Enrique Allen about the inspiration behind Designer Fund and the promise of design education.

Aaron Z. Lewis: How did you first get interested in design?

Enrique Allen: I’ve been a designer within venture capital firms for the last few years. Prior to that, I was an undergrad at Stanford. I hacked on Facebook apps that went viral when the platform first opened. My classmates and I collectively got over ten million users in 10 weeks. That was my first eye-opening experience to the power of designing social experiences. I got invited to help run Facebook Fund, which was a joint venture between Accel, Founders Fund, and Facebook. During that time, I ran a small in-house design team to do short sprints with the [portfolio] companies. We experimented with how to optimize user acquisition, retention and different revenue streams. That was the first time I started to take best practices from the Stanford d.school and try to apply them in the context of early stage startups.

As I was wrapping up grad school at Stanford, Dave McClure, one of the lead investors from Facebook Fund invited me to help start 500 Startups. At that time it was just an idea. We had no website, no nothing. Going from zero to our first fund was a really great experience. I went from working with 22 companies at Facebook Fund to dozens of companies a year at 500 Startups. I had to think about how it’s possible to scale a design team to serve that many startups. We experimented with all sorts of things — workshops, talks, office hours, pattern libraries, design sprints.

One day while meditating, I had this question: am I having long-term impact with these companies? If I follow up three, six years down the road, how many of these companies will still be practicing these design behaviors? Humans are fundamentally lazy, and so they’ll just revert back to what they were previously good at — the law of least effort. If they’re already good at engineering or business, they’re just going to keep playing to those strengths. They’re not going to continue prototyping and being human-centered unless there is somebody in-house who’s actually focusing on it.

I’d been spending the last few years trying to make startups more design oriented. What if I did the opposite and helped designers become more startup oriented? What if we create an organization to help support more designers? That question naturally led into Designer Fund.

What I’ve realized is that if you have great designers involved early on with great engineers and business people, you can increase the probability of great products and services. I think there’s still a lot of shitty user experiences everywhere. A lot of broken experiences, a lot of users still suffering — not only here in the United States, but globally. And there’s a lot of areas that haven’t traditionally seen a lot of design: healthcare, education, the environment. I just keep coming back to this recurring theme of how we might help more designers take the path of entrepreneurship.

You’ve been a Teacher’s Assistant for a few classes at Stanford’s d.school. What are the challenges of teaching design in a classroom setting versus in industry or in a startup?

The industry, particularly software and tech, by definition continue to innovate using the latest technology. Schools are just already outdated because they don’t know what it takes to build and scale a tech company.

What the industry needs from a product designer now might be different than when Oculus Rift is out and sensors are more ubiquitous and whole other affordances emerge. There’s also this disconnect between an industry articulating what they really need of this next generation of designers and sharing that back with the educational institutions: the professors, the instructors, et cetera.

In school, you have a little bit more creative freedom. You may have some constrains the professor gives, or you may have a sponsored project that an outside group proposes. At the end of the day, you’re not really held accountable. You’re going to get a grade, but your grade isn’t necessarily tied to the success of your project. So there’s a disconnect in terms of accountability, and for good reason, because I think the primary purpose of being in school is to learn. In industry, the primary purpose is to succeed by whatever metrics you care about: profitability, growth, et cetera.

How do you approach design education given the challenges you’ve just described?

We have to take the long view and look at all of the ecosystem and think about how we might further the impact of designers. It’s really about this life cycle of designers across their whole career, and how we can support that trajectory over time. The way we’re approaching that is through our professional development program, Bridge. We think it’s really important that top designers from other companies — Airbnb, Dropbox, etc. — share best practices with one another, so that they can learn the latest tools and best practices from other peers who are leading the industry. And so, that’s one core way that we’re focusing on accelerating the learning of designers with this exceptional community.

We’re thinking that the majority of learning you’re going to have as a designer is going to be on the job. Ben Blumenfeld [the co-founder of Designer Fund] jokes that the five years he was at Facebook was like his Ph.D. in design.

We flip the classroom. You work full time at your company, and then one evening per week you come together for workshops and talks. You get all this applied learning on the job at your company. And then over the course of our curriculum, hopefully you can accelerate your exposure to these best practices. What would otherwise take you a couple years to be exposed to, we can accelerate that in a few months to save you from repeating mistakes that are unnecessary to make. We think about, “How do we prepare designers to actually be leaders, to be part of the table, to be part of the discussion of building these companies?” That’s the big challenge: How do we elevate the importance of design and the ability for designers to actually deliver?

In our industry, we’ve had engineering culture in Silicon Valley for decades. There’s a very clear codified system for building engineering teams, for having a CTO, a VP of engineering, product managers. We don’t really have that history or know-how for design. We’re still kind of inventing it. We want to elevate the career of designers, figure out how to build and educate great design teams.

What’s surprised you so far about the process of building out Designer Fund?

What we laid out early on is not that different than where we’re at right now. Obviously, there’s been some surprises. When I first started Designer Fund, I didn’t predict I would start Bridge.

Another surprise is that not every designer should start a company. To be a designer founder, you not only have to be a good designer. You have to be a good founder. That’s asking a lot. And the failure rate is so high. Arguably, more designers should join startups to create more impact. There’s a misallocation of human resources. We need to join forces together and not be spread out working on shitty projects that are incrementally improving things. We need to align our intentions back to these fundamental human needs and wants that we’re always going to have. We’re always going to need to be healthy, we’re always going to need to educate ourselves, we’re going to need access to clean energy and a good environment. These problems aren’t going away.

You’ve designed products for the developing world in classes at the d.school. What do you think of the criticism that Silicon Valley is filled with too many startups working on trivial problems?

The way I think about it is, How do you have a mission-driven business? How do you create a business model that inherently produces good and positive externalities? It’s about more than some add-on of social responsibility. We don’t want to make compromises in terms of market-based returns. Companies that we invest in should be just as profitable or scalable as other companies. But in addition, part of their secret sauce is that there’s this mission of improving some aspects of society. We invested in Omada Health, for example. They’re a diabetes prevention platform. They’re helping millions of people in the U.S. alone who are at risk of getting diabetes. If they get diabetes, they’re going to cost thousands and thousands of dollars to insurance provers and hospitals. If you can prevent them from getting diabetes, there’s economic saving, there’s reduced suffering, all sorts of potential positive effects. How many designers and engineers have focused on preventing diabetes? Not many. And the business model is aligned with the user.

What motivates you to continue innovating at Designer Fund?

We’re very inspired by the idea of creating a long-standing institution that can really help prepare the next generation of design leaders within tech. I think we’ll continue focusing on making the path clearer for designers to build the most impactful products and organizations. The reason we care about helping designers is because ultimately we want better designed products and services in the world. That’s our why.