About Ben Blumenrose
“I think one of the things that's lacking in human-centered design is humanity-centered design, because when you're optimizing for the individuals, well, then what happens to the ecosystem at large?” – Ben Blumenrose
Ben Blumenrose is the Co-Founder, Co-Director, and Managing Partner of Designer Fund, which is an early stage venture capital firm that backs founders who both recognize the power of design, and are committed to getting design right in their company from day one.
Before co-founding Designer Fund with Enrique Allen in 2012, Ben was a design lead at Facebook for nearly six years after joining when the team was just around 100 people in size. In this episode, you'll learn why Ben is fascinated with AI like Dall-E 2 that can create original artwork, why design is utility centric, what Ben has learned from studying natural ecosystems, and why they make it clear that our growth at all cost mentality is flawed.
In this episode, we deconstruct Ben Blumenrose’s peak performance playbook—from his favorite book to the tiny habit that's had the biggest impact on his life. In it we cover:
- (00:00:00) – Introduction
- (00:02:48) – How AI might affect designers and artists
- (00:08:48) – Why should you care about design?
- (00:15:58) – Inspiration from passionate designers
- (00:22:36) – The business value of design
- (00:26:38 – Knowing a good product and standardizing processes
- (00:31:04) – Learning from science fiction
- (00:36:16) – Design in the everyday world
- (00:40:22) – Learnings from 10 years of investing
- (00:46:34) – Focusing on the craft of design
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Castbox, Pocket Casts, Player FM, Podcast Addict, iHeartRadio, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.
An Idea Worth Trying
Ben finds that he learns the most about the future of design and work by reading fiction and science fiction books. If you usually read self-help or tech books, try switching to fiction for a change of inspirational pace.
Our Favorite Quotes
Here are a few ideas we'll be thinking about weeks and months from now:
- “I think one of the really cool use cases for something like Dall-E is to give that superpower to the person who's trying to communicate to the visual artists like, "Hey, this is what I mean. Here's a visual representation that's pretty close or captures some of the essence or the tone," and then go off that.”
- “Inherent in design, when done well, is this idea of creating something for a person to use, the act of deliberate creation for a specific use case. It's not art, right? We have art. Design is really meant to be... there's a utility there, so inherent in design is the idea that something should be useful.”
- “What plays to your strengths? Play that game. Play the game the way you want to play it.”
The following books came up in this conversation with Ben Blumenrose:
- The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells
- The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
- The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
- The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future by Sebastian Mallaby
We covered a lot of ground in this interview. Here are links to the stories, articles, and ideas discussed:
- Dall-e | Open AI image generator
- Framer | Technical prototyping tool
- HTML | Hypertext Markup Language
- CSS | Cascading Style Sheets
- Vincent van Gogh | Dutch Post-Impressionist painter
- Timbaland |American record producer
- Ben Barry | Visual artist and designer
- Jessica Hische | Lettering artist and author
- Steve Jobs | Co-Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Apple
- Jony Ive | British industrial and product designer
- Apple | Technology company
- iTunes | Media player
- John Doerr | American venture capitalist
- Warren Buffett | American business magnate, investor, and philanthropist
- Enrique Allen | Co-Founder of Designer Fund
- Sequoia Capital | Venture capital company
Daniel Scrivner (00:06):
Hello, and welcome to another episode of 20 Minute Playbook, where each week, we sit down with an elite performer from iconic founders to world-renowned investors, and bestselling authors to dive into the ideas, frameworks, and strategies that got them to the top of their field, all in less than 20 minutes. I'm Daniel Scrivner, and on the show today, I'm joined by Ben Blumenrose. Ben is the co-founder, co-director, and managing partner of Designer Fund, which is an early stage venture capital firm that backs founders who both recognize the power of design, and are committed to getting design right in their company from day one.
Daniel Scrivner (00:39):
Designer Fund was founded in 2012 when there were a few other companies in Silicon valley outside of Apple that even understood the power of design to build incredible products, create a category defining brand, and ultimately forge an enduring company. At the time, there were also no other venture capitalists with the design background, and yet over the last decade, Designer Fund has built an exceptional venture firm. They produced top quartile returns, rewarding their investors, and beating out most of their peers, and were early investors in a wave of design center companies that have defined the last decade, including Stripe and Gusto.
Daniel Scrivner (01:13):
Before co-founding Designer Fund with Enrique Allen in 2012, Ben was a design lead at Facebook for nearly six years after joining when the team was just around 100 people in size. In this episode, you'll learn why Ben is fascinated with AI like Dall-E 2 that can create original artwork, and what that might mean for intellectual property rights and monetization for artists of all shapes and sizes, why design is utility centric, where art is simply about expression, and Ben's thoughts on why design matters, what Ben has learned from studying natural ecosystems, and why they make it clear that our growth at all cost mentality is flawed.
Daniel Scrivner (01:51):
Ben shares his favorite books, including the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells about a violent self-hacking cyborg that's searching for the meaning of life. He shares his super powers, including being able to tell when a product is incredibly well designed as well as why the gap between great and extraordinary is much bigger than most of us think it is. He shares the biggest lessons he's learned building Designer Fund over the last decade, as well as the advice he'd give himself if he could go back to the start of his career.
Daniel Scrivner (02:19):
You can find the show notes and text transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/132. That's outlieracademy.com/132. You can follow Ben on Twitter at BenBlumenrose, and learn more about Designer Fund at designerfund.com. With that, let's dive into Ben Blumenrose's playbook.
Daniel Scrivner (02:41):
Ben Blumenrose, I'm thrilled to have you on 20 Minute Playbook. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Ben Blumenrose (02:46):
Thanks for having...
Daniel Scrivner (02:48):
Let's jump right in. I'd love to start with a recent fascination. What are you fascinated or obsessed by at the moment? What can't you stop thinking about?
Ben Blumenrose (02:57):
Right now, AI and design tools, processes, all that stuff. I think the Dall-E, the whole rise of Dall-E, all of a sudden brought with it this other swell of creative tooling that was using AI. I don't know if you saw this, but for four or five years, we've been seeing AI and ML as buzzwords in fundraising decks, where you're like, "They're just trying to throw a bunch of words that they think investors will gravitate towards." But man, in creative tools, all of a sudden, the way AI and ML is getting used in design to augment writing, to speed up design processes is just crazy.
Ben Blumenrose (03:46):
I just think it's really having a moment, and it's happening way faster than I thought it would. So I think for designers, it's like, "What do we do in a world where anyone can just speak an image to existence? What does that mean for photographers and illustrators?" Then guess what? Product designers, it's coming for you too, right? When someone just says, "I need an app that has a feed with..." It's like that's coming, so what's the design-
Daniel Scrivner (04:12):
It's going to be Dall-E 3.
Ben Blumenrose (04:14):
It's not that far away, so what is our role in that world? I think it's going to be interesting. I'm pretty fascinated by it right now.
Daniel Scrivner (04:22):
I'd love to get your thoughts maybe just to double click on that on a little bit, because I guess in my mind, I think people are... I don't know. I've seen a lot of people have a reaction to Dall-E 2 basically saying, "Oh my gosh, it's coming after designers." In my mind, you hit the nail in the head. It's not coming after designers yet. It's coming after artists. It's coming after photographers and illustrators. Then secondarily, there's also a lot of AI tools now that are doing copywriting for you, so it's either taking your bad copy, and turning it into okay copy, or it's trying to create copy from scratch.
Daniel Scrivner (04:53):
What are your thoughts on both of those? So far, it just seems like supporting tool sets.
Ben Blumenrose (04:59):
I mean, I think it is to an extent. I definitely think for a lot of things, it's one of... Let's say I'm an illustrator, and someone comes to me, and they say, "I want an illustration that does X, Y, Z." Well, then you, as an illustrator, are going to spend hours and hours sketching a bunch of ideas, and then you're going to go to the client and be like, "Any of these?" Like, "No. No. No. It's more like the trees need to be bigger, and this needs to be more green." There's hours and hours of time spent just communicating, because you have someone who has a vision for what the thing should be trying to communicate to the artist.
Ben Blumenrose (05:35):
I think to me, one of the really cool use cases for something like Dall-E is to give that superpower to the person who's trying to communicate to the visual artists like, "Hey, this is what I mean. Here's a visual representation that's pretty close or captures some of the essence or the tone," and then go off that. Now, we're starting way further than we would've started before, but it does at a certain point. So for example, you were investors in a company called Framer, right? Framer was this prototyping tool.
Ben Blumenrose (06:06):
At first, it was never intended to create the final output, but slowly over time, it's like, "As the prototyping tool, well, guess what, the prototypes, what are they using to build the prototype?" It's HTML and CSS. Like, "Well, that's a website, right?" So, Framer, all of a sudden, gets... They realize like, "Wait a second. This tool set that we built, we can call it whatever we want to call it. But at the end of the day, it's actually building a final deliverable that people work really hard to build, and we've created a much easier way to do that."
Ben Blumenrose (06:39):
That's where the tension is for me, where it's like, for a lot of the workflows, it's going to get you 80% or 90% of the way there, whatever, and you're going to need the artists to then take it to the final stage, but there will be things where it'll be good enough. If I'm doing a blog post, and I can't afford an artist for $1,000 and $2,000, it's probably good enough. So, to me, I think, it's interesting. Then also, "Hey, guess what, artists, these tools need your work to build the data models," but these artists, they're not being compensated in any way for their intellectual property, and it is their work.
Ben Blumenrose (07:24):
I think that's also interesting. If you want to do... Obviously, this is not possible, but they let you do illustrations in the style of van Gogh. Well, let's say Daniel Scrivner had a unique illustration style. There's plenty of illustrators that have that. I want to do an illustration in the style of Daniel Scrivner. To me, it makes sense that Dall-E would say, "We'll check this out. We'll let you do an illustration in this style of Daniel Scrivner, not the real thing. It's the equivalent of... You don't get the original painting. You get the printout, and guess what? Daniel Scrivner gets $5 for that, not $1,000."
Ben Blumenrose (07:59):
But you literally did not... You, Daniel, didn't need to do anything. All you needed to do was create a body of work that this AI system can build a virtual you that's good enough for 90% of the use case, and all of a sudden, it multiplied your impact by 100X, 1,000X. That stuff is... Man, that stuff is crazy. It's fascinating. I think designers need to lean into it, and understand where the edges are for us, as opposed to... I think it's very easy to just be like, "This is terrible. Machine's taking over. Let's fight this tooth and nail."
Ben Blumenrose (08:37):
It's happening, and we need to embrace it, and think about how we use it to our advantage in the creative process, and go from there.
Daniel Scrivner (08:47):
It's fascinating. I love the way you articulated that. The two things that stood out to me is, I think, your note is really important around how compensation will work, and how intellectual property rights will change or need to be able to change, or at least need to take into account that yes, you, Daniel Scrivner, didn't have to do the work to generate this AI-generated` artwork, but it's using your intellectual property. So, you'd imagine that that should build on something. It also makes me think of... I don't know.
Daniel Scrivner (09:13):
Sometimes it's helpful to jump to a different industry, because you might look at things a little bit differently, but I would say I don't think any illustrator would disagree that they should get compensated if they do some piece of artwork in that style. If you were to go and do this in music, and you said, "Give me a beat like Timbaland," I bet Timbaland would want to be compensated for having that style, because it's iconic. His name's on it. His tag's on it. It's really interesting.
Daniel Scrivner (09:38):
I want to ask a question around how you think about design and what design means to you. To tee it up, you've spent your entire career focused on design. From your design work as a design lead at Facebook in its early years, and to your role as co-director and managing partner of Designer Fund, how do you think about design, and what does design mean to you? It's a very wide open question, so feel free to take that from any level, from any angle.
Ben Blumenrose (10:03):
Maybe the way I will answer that is just why is design important to you? Is that maybe kind of... Why do you even care?
Daniel Scrivner (10:11):
Ben Blumenrose (10:12):
Is that what you're thinking, Daniel?
Daniel Scrivner (10:15):
I think for a lot of people listening, that's probably the question they would ask.
Ben Blumenrose (10:17):
Why I should care? Here's the thing. Obviously, I've spent decades thinking about this. When design is... Inherent and design, when done well, is this idea of creating something for a person to use, the act of deliberate creation for a specific use case. It's not art, right? We have art. Design is really... It's meant to be... There's a utility there, so inherent and design is the idea that something should be useful. Hopefully, I hope for most designers, it's useful for good, right? When you think about the building blocks of a tech company, you have designers. Then you have engineers.
Ben Blumenrose (11:05):
The core of engineering is the motivation is solving complex problems, and there may be a user at the end of that, or may not be, right? Inherent in good engineering is not necessarily something that's more useful for a person. It could be and then often is, but it doesn't have to be. It's not inherent in the work. Then you go to business school. Well, what gets people who go to business school excited? Well, for them, it's building a massive business, so getting people to buy stuff, or building something of value. So again, users, people could be at the end of that in some way, but they don't have to be.
Ben Blumenrose (11:50):
Often, what I found is there's a tension there between domain experts, designers, engineers, and your MBA folks. It just so happens that designers and maybe customer support people play this role too, they're the end user advocates often. They're the ones who's saying, "Well, wait a second. Who's going to use this? Why are they going to use this way? Why is this good for them to use?" So when you take that out of a company, all of a sudden, the balance is off.
Ben Blumenrose (12:21):
If you have engineers solving really tough, difficult engineering problems, and business folks trying to build a big business, well, there's also some ways to manipulate and have that grow in a way that actually isn't serving humanity well. Again, it's not to say to get up here and be like, "Oh, design's the end all be all, and we always do it right." We don't always do it right, but there's something inherent in design done well that is when you break it down to just its core essence, it's trying to help people do things well.
Ben Blumenrose (12:55):
So for me, that's why it's really important because when you take that away, and that's honestly why we started Designer Fund, it wasn't like I had a ambition to be an investor by any means, but it's just that people were asking me for help on design so much on things like education and healthcare. You start thinking, "Well, wait a second. If design is absent from the building of these products and services, then who's here to make sure, in hospitals, that patients are being cared for the right way? Who's here to make sure that students are being cared for the right way versus just building something that's good for the school system or good for the hospital?"
Ben Blumenrose (13:33):
That's the thing that, I think, for me is the importance of why I'm so into getting design at the ground floor of every great company that is getting started today. Because if not, we're just going to get those products and services, and we've all experienced it. If you've gone to a doctor recently, and you've watched the doctor look at the screen half of the time or more versus look at you, the patient, you've felt what happens when design is absent from these things. That's the thing we're trying to fight against.
Ben Blumenrose (14:05):
That's why for me design is so important, and why I fight for and advocate for it, and try to advocate for it in the VC ecosystem.
Daniel Scrivner (14:16):
I love that perspective. I mean, it almost sounds like a way to think about design in your mind. It says guardrails. It's like you can channel the resources, meaning your engineers and the money that you've raised in the business, and all these ideas, and feedback you've gotten from customers, and a lot of different directions, and maybe design adds a little bit more intentionality, and tries to just make sure that that's all pointed and harnessed in the right direction.
Ben Blumenrose (14:38):
I would say one of the things that I'm trying to also champion, there's this idea of human center design. You've probably heard about this, right? That sounds great. That's what's human is like. It's basically designing for an individual, but I think one of the things that's lacking in human center design is humanity center design, because when you're optimizing for the individuals, well, then what happens to the ecosystem at large? I think, frankly, this is basically what happened at Facebook is we were trying to create this thing that every individual got a lot of utility out of, assuming that if people loved it for themselves that that would somehow create value, or move humanity in the right direction.
Ben Blumenrose (15:27):
My personal opinion is that it's not enough to just say, "Oh, I'm going to give you, the person, something that works for you without taking into account, "Well, how does that work for you and your community? How does that work for you and your country? How does that work for you and the world?" That's another piece that I'm hoping more formal design education starts to take into account is the humanity-centered approach to design, and have that be baked into the work that we do.
Daniel Scrivner (15:58):
I'd love to ask a question super Ben focused, which is as a designer by background, who and what inspires you? I guess, things that come to mind are are there any designers, illustrators, artists, either historical or that are active now that inspire you, or are there any products or companies that you distinct the world of?
Ben Blumenrose (16:19):
I think that because I come from... I mean, I come from the fine art world, or not right. My background is fine art. That was as a kid, I always drew, painted. Then when computers were invented, I just thought, "Oh, computer art, I can make money off that. That's a thing. Someone will pay me a ton of money to do. I definitely want do that." I think I gravitate towards people and designers that are almost like artists. I love this with people, and I love this with companies too. It's basically this. It's take a task like designing a poster, designing a website, or designing a product.
Ben Blumenrose (17:02):
Certain people will be like, "What's a reasonable amount of time to do that?" It's a website. What's a reasonable amount of time to spend on a normal marketing site? Well, it's, I don't know, 30 hours. I don't know. What would you say is a good amount of time to design?
Daniel Scrivner (17:15):
It's much higher than that, but I'll stay out of this one.
Ben Blumenrose (17:17):
No, just the visual design, the visual design of a basic website.
Daniel Scrivner (17:19):
It takes 30 hours, 40 hours.
Ben Blumenrose (17:20):
30 to 40 hours. To me, it's like, "Who spends $300 to do that?" That's like... When you look at... Let's take Stripe for example. On their marketing sites and the level of detail, it's just so ungodly over the top, and you just say, "Why? Why did you go that far?" You realize that because it attracts other people who go that far, right? For me, I've always gravitated towards the people who go so much further than everyone. Not 10% more, but way, way more. There's a designer that used to work with me on my team. His name's Ben Barry. You can look up his work online.
Ben Blumenrose (18:06):
Ben was always... I managed him for a little while, and he would say things, and I'd be like, "How long would this take?" He's like, "Oh, I need six weeks for that." I'm like, "Six weeks? Six weeks? We have a... I was hoping it'd be a week or a week and a half." He's like, "No, I need six, and I'll spend 10 hours a day on it. It'll be extraordinary and extraordinary." The difference between extraordinary and very good is actually quite huge, because extraordinary is the thing that everyone talks about. Very good is just like, "Oh, okay. That's a lot of very good things."
Ben Blumenrose (18:39):
There are a few things that just are extraordinary. Those are the things that get talked about, so you need to find the right time to do that. Ben Barry does that. Jessica Hische, who you maybe know, she's a letterer. It's just people who have this level of craft, and they just go so much further than everyone else. They just take that time and that energy. Those are the things that always inspire me. It's like, "What is in you that lets you go to version 45, version 70, version 85?" When you see that file list, it's website V114. You're like, "Oh my goodness, man. How long... Wow." That's the stuff, I think, I really am inspired by.
Daniel Scrivner (19:27):
I love that answer, because it speaks my language. I identify with that so much. I think a word that I think is synonymous with design in many ways is craftsmanship. Craftsmanship, really, when you ask what is it, it is literally the act of going much further than most people would expect you to go. It makes me think of the Steve Jobs or Jony I've's quote of painting the back of the dresser drawer. No one's going to see it, but if it comes out, I think that level makes sense. Then maybe one random story that I'll throw in, this is one of the reasons that I've been fortunate enough to be on a bunch of amazing design teams, but I still think one of my favorite experiences was working at Apple.
Daniel Scrivner (20:06):
When I was there at the time, this was quite a few years ago. Back when we were working on... One of the many projects that was happening in the building was the new design for the iTunes icon. This then became somewhat generic and what was selected, which is a little bit of a bummer. It was just like a CD with music notes. That's a slightly different color. But what nobody saw that I got to see was the behind the scenes process behind that, and literally to your point, there was one full-time person who literally all he did was do explorations on the iTunes icon.
Daniel Scrivner (20:36):
I think he did that project for literally six months. The concepts that he came up with were just amazing. It was everything from a circus tent that sold tickets to the front of a movie theater to a guitar to simulations of what music might look like. To your point, I think, that's how you arrive at something really incredible.
Ben Blumenrose (20:56):
Then it lands on music notes, right?
Daniel Scrivner (20:59):
Yes. Then it's bum, bum, bum. It's a little bit of a disappointment to the journey, but that's a separate thing.
Ben Blumenrose (21:06):
At Facebook, we used to have these icons that were not... They were way more pixelated. We almost had a pixelated style early on, but we were super into the stuff that Apple was doing, and really inspired by the level of craft there. So even within the constraints of these tiny pixelated icons, we still had our designers who would just sit there and be like, "Okay, because this is going to be seen by so many people, how does it communicate the right concept?" It seems when you look at them, you're like, "Someone must have spent 20 minutes on this."
Ben Blumenrose (21:38):
I remember when we were even hiring designers, people are like, "There are designers at Facebook? It doesn't even look like it's designed, because it almost look like a wire..." Well, early on, that's what it looked. The site looked like very wire framing. They thought it was just Mark. They used to say Mark Zuckerberg production, but we were inspi... We would look at Apple, and we'd say, "Look how far they've gone. Let's do that too. Let's go that far." I think that's the thing. It's like...
Ben Blumenrose (22:04):
By the way, this is totally antithetical to the whole startup move fast break things, and do the MVP, all that stuff. I'm not saying... This is exactly why people get frustrated with designers, because they used to say, "Hey, I just need a quick site," and they're like, "Give me eight weeks." You need to know when to pick and choose your times and your moments to sweat those details. Then you also need to know when's the time to just do a site in a day, because it just needs to be done, and we need to go, go, go, right? I need to make sure there's the yin and yang to all these things.
Daniel Scrivner (22:36):
Well, net balance is really, really, really hard to achieve. I want to talk for a second. You gave, I think, a great overview of how to think about design philosophically, and what it's doing for people, and how it's making sure to deliver something of value that improves the world for the end human or end customer. I want to switch and talk a little bit about the business value of design. I guess the question I would ask there is when you are talking, let's say, with the CEO, and having that conversation, does it really make sense to spend another month on this or another two months on this?
Daniel Scrivner (23:13):
How do you think about the business value of design, and how it actually contributes value to a company, and helps grow its value, and grow its reach over time?
Ben Blumenrose (23:23):
Here's the thing. I love this question, because to me, design is it's this layer. It's a horizontal layer. You can literally apply that layer to anything. I'll give you an example. When I joined Facebook, I joined as a product designer in the... We were in the engineering org. So for me to stay in my lane would've meant, "Hey, Ben, just build facebook.com products. Do nothing else." By the way, there was plenty of stuff to do there, so it's like, "Why would you even..." You don't need to go to talk to HR or legal, but I was curious.
Ben Blumenrose (24:04):
I had joined the company. It was about, I don't know, 150, 100 people. To me, it was like, "Where else can design have value in this company?" One of the things I did when I first joined Facebook, I found every head of X, head of marketing, head of legal, head of HR, head of customer support. I just said, "Look, I'm a designer here. What would you do with design? What would you do with design resources?" I was a big believer that design... Maybe I drank my own Kool-Aid too much, but I was a big believer that we could supercharge anything. We could improve anything, because design is you just apply it, and bam, right?
Ben Blumenrose (24:40):
I would say more than half of them were just like, "I never even thought about that. That never even crossed my mind, that design and recruiting is... That's not even a thing. Why is that even a thing?" It's like, "Well, where are people finding out about Facebook? What experience are they having when they come to interview? What's the experience after?" Even just this idea of an experience, it's like, "What do you mean by that? Why is that... What? They come to interview. That's a thing that's designed." It's like, "Yes, it's designed or not, but it's still something."
Ben Blumenrose (25:15):
So, I went and talked to every head of X. What came out of those conversations was we can really move the needle for almost anyone of those teams, honestly. Even legal, there were things around legal. Legal wanted to make sure that things were getting patented. Well, how do we communicate that to the employee base? How do we get people excited about that? There's a lot of design that you can do around that. HR, where people are onboarding, I don't know if you've ever heard the... When onboarding, you get a bunch of paperwork and whatever.
Ben Blumenrose (25:49):
Airbnb, for example, the onboarding there was designed down to the minute. You talk to anyone that joined Airbnb in the early days, and it's amazing. My friends would join in by Friday. They were ready to tattoo Airbnb on their chest, whatever they did in that first week. I was like, "How was your first week?" They're like, "I will never leave this company ever. This is the best thing." I'm like, "Okay."
Daniel Scrivner (26:12):
That's how good the onboarding was.
Ben Blumenrose (26:14):
It was... Right. No, they nailed that experience. I think to me, when I think about... It's like, don't think of design as... It's like, "What are your company goals?" Then apply design to those goals, and it can absolutely be applied to 90%, 95% of company goals. To me, that's where it gets really strategic and used really well.
Daniel Scrivner (26:38):
No. Very well said. I love the examples you shared. I'd love to switch gears for a second, and talk about areas where you have an edge. What I mean by that is you can think of it as an edge. You can think of it as a superpower. This can be either you as an individual, you as an investor at Designer Fund, but where do you think you have an edge or superpower, and how does that show up day to day, either in your investing work or your work with companies?
Ben Blumenrose (27:01):
There's two key areas. The first one is we know what good products look like. You think that, "Well, doesn't..." No, a lot of people just don't. They don't know what is... The difference between good and very good, and very good and exceptional, that matters because when you have a product that is exceptional, that's a product that won't need a lot of marketing spend. That's a product that won't need a lot of customer support spend. That's a product that... It basically makes everything in that company way, way easier when the product is that good, right?
Ben Blumenrose (27:38):
We know how to tell when a product is that or not, so that's a huge edge. Second piece is we know how to build those products. So founders who want to work with people like that come to us, because they're like, "I want to work with other people who know how to build these kinds of products." There are very few investors. Daniel, you're one of a handful. Still, there's a lot more designer angels out there, but I think people who are just full-time investing, and have a design background or.... We can get into that another time, but that's definitely something I thought would be much more of a...
Ben Blumenrose (28:17):
We'd see a groundswell. If Designer Fund was successful, we'd see hundreds and thousands of designers becoming VCs.
Daniel Scrivner (28:21):
It hasn't happened.
Ben Blumenrose (28:23):
It's not happened. I know exactly why, and we can talk about that, but that is why... That's a second edge is that people want to work with others who can help them build those products. The third thing is we design venture now. Enrique and I basically look at all the things that frustrates founders about venture, and we're like, "Why does it work this way?" Most investors are like, "This is the way it works." Let's take an example. You, as a founder, you have a intro meeting with a VC, and then after that meeting, you say, "What happens from here on out?" They're like, "We'll let you know."
Daniel Scrivner (29:06):
If you get an email back.
Ben Blumenrose (29:07):
If you get an email back. Then if I get an email back, what happens then? Oh, you might have a partner meeting. Then what happens then? We'll let you know. It's basically super obtuse. By the way, a lot of firms, even within the firms, different partners follow different processes. Some will just tell you right there, "You get an investment." Some will take weeks of diligence. It just matters who you talk to. Well, what we did is we said, "Well, let's standardize that process, and then tell..."
Ben Blumenrose (29:32):
When you first meet with Designer Fund, we send you like, "Here is our process. It's intro meeting, phase one, phase two, close. Here's what we need to see to move to the various phases," so you know exactly what we're looking for. There's no hidden... There's no magic. You know what we're looking for, and we can tell you if you have it or not. Guess what? Founders love that. They love that it's a known transparent process.
Daniel Scrivner (29:57):
So surprising. So surprising.
Ben Blumenrose (29:57):
It's so simple, right? All we did was... But it's like, we only did that because we talked to founders, and realized that that was a frustration point. We're like, "Well, why is it designed this way?" It was designed this way to benefit the investor. So if you think about, "Well, how would we design it to benefit founders," you would do something very different, right? Almost like... It's like you have an order. It used to be like you'd order something, and it would show up at some point. Now, it's like, "Hey, order processed. It just shipped. It's delivering today. It just arrived at your door. Here's a photo of it."
Ben Blumenrose (30:35):
That's the same thing. Why don't we do that for founders? It's because designers are absent from the venture ecosystem that we never have had to do that, right? Investors have never had to do that. I think that's a huge edge for us, because we approach every part of the VC ecosystem that way like, "What are the things that are not working for us and founders and other players in the ecosystem? Let's just redesign it from the ground-up to be better."
Daniel Scrivner (31:04):
I love that example. One of my favorite things to ask guests about is books. I'm curious for you, what books are near and dear to your heart? I think it would be interesting. I don't know if you have any answers here, so I might be shooting in the dark, but if you have any books that are around helping founders understand the power of design or what design is, or books that demystify design or that are around design, and then secondarily, if there are any books that you find yourself referring to, giving out to founders that you end up investing in or working with.
Ben Blumenrose (31:34):
One thing that frustrates me, people in tech, they love to read business books and tech books. At least for me, I would say, "Those are fine. Those are helpful." But historically, when you look at the books that have pointed us towards the future, it's a bit more like fiction. Those are the book fiction and science fiction. I actually... When I'm reading at night, I'm usually reading something like that, something that is challenging and an assertion, or just playing with some tension that we have in the current system through storytelling, because we came up with storytellers, right?
Ben Blumenrose (32:16):
One example, there's a series called The Murderbot Diaries. Do you know about this book series?
Daniel Scrivner (32:21):
No. Never heard of it.
Ben Blumenrose (32:22):
Never heard of it. It's amazing. People who are into science fiction love it and have heard of it. They're like, "Of course, I've heard of it." The Murderbot Diaries is basically this. It's a story of a thing called the Murderbot. It was a robot that was designed to do exactly what it sounds like, to murder things. But secretly, the Murderbot has basically disabled its control mechanism. Humans still think this thing is supposed to be a murderbot, and it's pretending to still be the murderbot, but inside, it's basically... The tone of the Murderbot is super flippant and really sarcastic the whole time.
Daniel Scrivner (33:00):
Sounds amazing. Sounds amazing.
Ben Blumenrose (33:03):
It's so good. It's amazing storytelling, but it also... What takes it from what we're talking about good to extraordinary is that it really starts asking you these questions around what happens when these robots become sentient or not sent... It's not clear that... It's not controlled anymore, but is it really sentient? What does that mean, and at what level? The way it interacts with other robots who are controlled and all that stuff is just like... You can read someone's theory about AI and robotics, and it's dull.
Ben Blumenrose (33:42):
It's just, "Boy, who wants to read that?" But reading the murderbot story, it's analyzing those same themes through story. I find that just a lot more compelling. I'm super into that. Then the other stuff I'm into is coming of age stories. I'm a huge sucker for coming of age stories. Actually, one of my favorite ones is one called The Power of One. Have you ever heard of that book?
Daniel Scrivner (34:03):
Ben Blumenrose (34:03):
It was actually written by someone who used to run an ad agency. He ran an ad agency for decades, and then finally had all these stories he wanted to get out, and he wrote. They're epic, epic coming of age stories. This one's called The Power of One. I mean, I think, you'd love people who just are into coming of age stories would love. It's like this... Again, it's like, "What does it mean to have perseverance and grit, and just fight and fight and fight through all these adverse situations?" It's just a remarkable story.
Ben Blumenrose (34:36):
Those are the things that I tend to be more into. If you want a design thing, I think one of the best things for people to read is The Design of Everyday Things, which will just all of a sudden start opening your eye to, "Why is the handle like that? Why is a window shaped... No. Why does my lamp do that, or why is a light switch vertical like this? How do I know what light switch controls which light, and why... Isn't there a better way?" We're always flipping things on and off, because we're like, "What does this control again?"
Ben Blumenrose (35:03):
There are hundreds of millions of these light switches all over the world that is not clear. Why does it connect to the... Why was that designed that way? It just starts... All of a sudden, it opens your eyes to every little thing around you, because everything around you was designed, and it makes you ask, "Why?"
Daniel Scrivner (35:19):
It's a phenomenal book. I love... It's a little bit of a tangent, but I love the idea of you investing in a founder or in a company, and then giving them the book, the Murderbot Diaries like, "There you go. This is the book I would give you."
Ben Blumenrose (35:35):
There are other books that are more aligned with our value system that we give, but that would be funny like, "Here you go. This is the..." It's not pro murderbots.
Daniel Scrivner (35:48):
Ben Blumenrose (35:50):
We'll give it with a note.
Daniel Scrivner (35:51):
I would guess not by the narrator, by the way that... the character's personality, but I love those recommendations. We'll link to those in the show notes. I'm definitely going to download and read the Murderbot Diaries. One of the questions that I wanted to ask is... I love that you brought up The Design of Everyday Things, because it's right exactly on that theme. But being a designer, one of the experiences I've had is it's both amazing, because I think your mind is always...
Daniel Scrivner (36:16):
You're always processing in the background or in the foreground of how you might change things, how things could be improved, but it also means, at least for me, that I'm just frustrated constantly by so many things in the real world that are poorly designed, poorly made. I guess the question I would ask you is how does being a designer working in design for 20 plus years at this point change the way you see the world, and show up in just your day-to-day experience?
Ben Blumenrose (36:40):
I mean, it's exactly that. I cannot order something online, and just open the box, and just be like, "Here it is. Here's the thing. Great. Let's go. Let's start using the thing." I am constantly looking at like, "Why did they package it this way? What's the type? What's the label? Why is it-
Daniel Scrivner (37:02):
You're just griping constantly.
Ben Blumenrose (37:03):
Daniel Scrivner (37:03):
You're just griping constantly.
Ben Blumenrose (37:04):
It's not... It's either griping or remarking on things. It's like, "Here's something that I just ordered, this lightning jacket." It's like, "Why does this even exist, and why..." Now, I need to open it. Where is the... There's no easy way to... Why did Apple do it this way? There's all these... I don't know. Even just the fact that this exists is crazy. It's like, "How many fucking dangles do we have?"
Daniel Scrivner (37:30):
Ben Blumenrose (37:32):
Too many. I have an open one, and I needed another one, because guess what? You know how often you lose something this tiny.
Daniel Scrivner (37:37):
Well, super often.
Ben Blumenrose (37:39):
You need like a hundred of these.
Daniel Scrivner (37:39):
Ben Blumenrose (37:41):
I think as a designer, I think we're plagued with this endless fascination of why things are the way they are, why they were designed the way they are. I think it's also what... Even things that are not human made, I think, I'm also intrigued by like, "Why? Why nature's different ecosystems?" If you look at right now, I'm super... Another thing I'm super fascinated by is natural ecosystems, watersheds, ecological systems, that sort of thing. It's pretty interesting.
Ben Blumenrose (38:20):
I'll throw one idea out there that I'm still in the process of thinking through, which is in the human world, there's this idea of growth. We always want more humans so that if a country's not growing humans, you're screwed. But in a natural park, if all of a sudden the wolves are growing too much, you're in trouble, right? If one part of that ecosystem is growing too much, that's trouble. That's interesting. What is that? What is it that... In nature, we've always talked about the idea of sustainability and harmony. In humanity, well, for humanity to thrive, we need more. We need more people. We need... What's going on there?
Ben Blumenrose (39:13):
Those are the kinds of things that, I think, to me, I start looking at parallels between different system design, and where there's... Where's the dissonance? Where do we talk about things differently, and why? I think, those are the things that, I think, as a designer, you can't turn that off. It can be definitely aggravating and frustrating, but I think it's just like... It's that endless intellectual curiosity around how things are made that I think I just have on constantly.
Daniel Scrivner (39:47):
I love that you brought up the design of natural ecosystems. I could launch into a series of questions to ask you about that. We could go off on a tangent for 30 minutes. It's really hard to keep myself on track here. One of the questions I want to ask... I have two more questions. One is you're really close to your 10-year anniversary of Designer Fund, or maybe you're almost at your 10-year anniversary. That's a long time. One of the books that I read recently that I really enjoyed, it's long, but it's really well written is The Power Law, which I think for many ways, if you're interested in venture, it's just a great historical retrospective.
Daniel Scrivner (40:22):
I think, one of the things you learn reading that book is very few firms survive for a decade or more. If they do, it's very hard for them to stay at the top of their game, and be able to evolve as a firm. The question I wanted ask you is as you come up on this milestone, and think back on the last 10 years, what do you feel are the biggest lessons that you've learned, and how has your thinking evolved? This could be around venture, around the role of design and venture over the last 10 years.
Ben Blumenrose (40:50):
It's maybe obvious, but I think this is not just for venture, but I think also just for people. It's this idea of playing to your strengths. I think for most of my life, teachers and at work, it's always been like, "Hey, Ben's not good at X, or he could be stronger at X, so let's work on that." Hey, history, I never gravitated towards. It's like, "Okay, so let's work on that." I think the thing to... There's a power to playing to your strengths that to me now coming into year eight, nine, 10, depending on where... Designer Fund actually started in 2012. The first fund was 2014, so depending on where you...
Ben Blumenrose (41:39):
We were actually incorporated in November of 2012, but we started activity before that. I don't know. We're right around the 10-year month. For me, the idea of playing to our strengths has been... Because you come into this, and you start interviewing people like John Dore and these luminaries, and you say, "How do I become that person?" Those are the heroes, or Warren Buffett. Everyone wants to be the next Warren Buffett, right?
Daniel Scrivner (42:05):
It's the emulation game.
Ben Blumenrose (42:07):
It's like, "You don't need to be... The next Warren Buffett won't be Warren Buffett. It'll be someone totally different, and they'll be going about it in a totally different way." I think, I've gotten a lot more comfortable in doing it our way. Here's a good example. Most funds, if you're successful, the expectation is just get bigger and bigger and bigger. Well, guess what? Your fund size though is your strategy, and so Designer Fund for six years or, sorry, eight years now, we've been building all these relationships with great lead funds.
Ben Blumenrose (42:47):
They're generous funds, and they do all the things that they know about how to build great sales teams. They know about how to do go-to market ones. As we've been in this, we've learned those things too, but I'm certainly not the expert. I know where I'm deep, and I know where I know enough to be dangerous, but where I recommend experts. There's this expectation like, "If you're a small fund, get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger." Then all of a sudden, you're just something very different. Guess what? Instead...
Ben Blumenrose (43:18):
We're really collaborative. Enrique and I, just in our essence, we love to collaborate. I think most designers do. Well, what happens if you're a lead fund that is also super into collaborating? Well, that doesn't work. That's really tough, because if you're a lead fund, there's only one lead.
Daniel Scrivner (43:34):
It's a zero-sum game.
Ben Blumenrose (43:35):
Daniel Scrivner (43:35):
You change games. Totally.
Ben Blumenrose (43:38):
But for example, if you're not a lead... This happened to us recently. There's someone that raised money, and they said to me like, "Hey, we're saving a 500K check for you guys, but we have six leads. Help me pick a lead."
Daniel Scrivner (43:51):
Ben Blumenrose (43:53):
Well, that's really powerful, right? We can do that. But guess what, if our fund was too big, we could... If I was the seventh term sheet going up against Sequoia and Greylock and those, can I out Sequoia or Greylock? Everyone's like, "Who can build the next Sequoia?" You don't necessarily need to be building the next Sequoia to beat Sequoia, or to do as good as... Even just beat Sequoia, even saying that, what are you doing? It's just like, "Do you want to be a good investor?"
Daniel Scrivner (44:19):
Ben Blumenrose (44:19):
What plays to your strengths? Play that game. Play the game the way you want to play it. So for Enrique and I, we realized, "Let's make sure that our funds are of the size that allow us to be collaborative." Just because LPs want to put more money to work, and are seeing great returns from us, and want us to build bigger funds, that's not the reason to put together a bigger fund. The bigger reason is because you want to be a lead fund. But if you don't, if that doesn't play your strength, don't do that.
Ben Blumenrose (44:48):
I think that's the thing... To me, one of the things I've learned is just own the power of being a designer, investor, and what you're good at, and do that. Don't be like, "Oh, I'll put on the vest, and I'll talk back in. I'll out... I'll do them at their game. Do them at your game, and make them play your game." I think that's the thing that I've really come to realize, but it's taken a long time, man, because you basically feel like a fish out... You feel like there's the imposter syndrome, and VCs are...
Ben Blumenrose (45:27):
For all those shit that we say about VCs, most of them are really fucking smart. Most of them are really fucking driven. Most of them are really good at sales. You don't get to be in this business unless... Most of them have a ton of confidence for better or worse. That's the system of people that you're going into. It's really easy to feel like, "Oh crap, I didn't go to that school, or I didn't spend eight years at that top fund or whatever it is," but you own the things that you're strong at that every investor would be like, "Whoa, well, I can't do what they do."
Ben Blumenrose (46:08):
Most investors can't build products the way that we build products, right?
Daniel Scrivner (46:11):
No. Not at all.
Ben Blumenrose (46:15):
Exactly. I think that's the thing over the years that I've come to find more peace with. It's like, "Hey, you belong here." In fact, and by the way, our returns are quartile return. Not only do we belong, we're better than most investors, so people always talk like, "Should designers code?" Maybe the next thing, "Should designers invest in?" So far, the answer I think is yes.
Daniel Scrivner (46:34):
I love it. The answer is so well said. I can already tell just in the questions I've asked you so far that I'm going to be listening to this interview many other times. I love it. Last question, if you could go back to the start of your career, and whisper any words of advice in your ear, is there anything you would tell your former younger self?
Ben Blumenrose (46:54):
Totally. I was thinking about this question. The further I am... Did you go to design school or no?
Daniel Scrivner (47:04):
Ben Blumenrose (47:05):
Self-taught. You're not alone. There's plenty of self-taught designers, but there's also a lot of designers that go to design school. I think ,every designer, when they talk to you about being a designer, there's this idea of portfolio, right? Portfolio is the output. It's the visual output of all the stuff that we do. We obsess over that, right? Early in my career, I think it was all about how is this going to look in my portfolio? Is this piece of work good enough to be in my portfolio? Even when I was at Facebook, I was like, "I want to make sure that this is..."
Ben Blumenrose (47:44):
Everything I do, I'm like, "Is this good enough for me to put on my website and say, "This is..." I want to show my life's work. Will this meet that bar for life's work? The reality is when I look back at my experiences, I cannot, for the life of me, tell you about the output of the work that we did, but I can absolutely tell you about the relationships I built at those companies, and the memories of the things that we did together. A lot of it was around the work, but a lot of it wasn't. I think, for me, it's don't obsess over the output as much as who are you around, and what's the impact of the work that you're having.
Ben Blumenrose (48:42):
I think, too much designers are being told to just focus on, and even I said, the craft, right? But when you look at the people who are doing great work, a lot of it's it's collaborative. It has impact. What they remember is the environment... For me, at least, it's the environment and the experience that we had together, and so, I think, as designers, we're just too... I would tell myself, "Hey, don't forget to just step back and revel in the people that are around you, the experiences you're having, and actually make time for those experiences. Make time to go spend time with the people you're working with."
Ben Blumenrose (49:33):
Make time to stay up really late with the people you're working with. Make time to do those silly shenanigan things. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about this remote work thing that we're all going into, and basically how much that's taken away from people. Everyone's like, "It's so much more efficient." Well, guess what, work is not just about doing things efficiently. Again, that's the designer in me. The designer in me is like, "What is the employee experience?" So the business people are like, "This is great. We're getting 17% more efficiency."
Ben Blumenrose (50:07):
That was at first, but now, we're actually finding that the efficiency gains are not there. Guess why. Because it's not as fun. It's not as in... It's not as interactive. It's not as engaging. Also, now, efficiency is falling off the cliff, while as a designer, I could have told you from day one that this would happen. I think that to me, I would have gone back to myself, and just say, "Hey, celebrate those moments, and make time for more of those moments, because that's the stuff you'll really remember."
Daniel Scrivner (50:36):
I think it's so well said. It makes me think of... It's like your work is almost backwards looking. That's what you get to keep after you leave the place, or it's what you take away. I don't know. It's some proof that you were there, and you did some things, but the relationships are what will make you a better person, a better designer, a better thinker, a better leader six months, 12 months, 24 months, 36 months from now. It's all of those things, and it takes time for those things to free to process them, and for that to surface in who you are and the way you show up in the world, but I think it's incredibly well said of that.
Ben Blumenrose (51:12):
Maybe another clarification, I remember my first job, it was at an agency. All of us were basically pitted one against the other. The agency... so this is the antithesis of this.
Daniel Scrivner (51:22):
That's common. It's common in agencies.
Ben Blumenrose (51:24):
Basically, a client would say, "Hey, I need a new website." Three of us would design, and the best site wins. The three designers would go off on their own. If you win, if your thing was the thing that the client wanted, you won. I'm like, "What is that? What experience is that?" It's almost like building relationships there, you almost felt like, "Well, why would I want... These are my competitors in the company." They're your competitors, because we're all competing for the client to choose our thing. That was one of my first experiences.
Ben Blumenrose (51:58):
To go from that to what Facebook and Designer Fund was ultra collaborative. It's like, "If you do well, we all do well." That's what we're trying to even go lean into. Same as a fund, as a firm, it's easy to be like, "Well, if we..." In most funds, it's mostly the partners that if they do well, the partners do well. For Enrique and I, it's like, "How do we make it so if Designer Fund does well, the entire design ecosystem does well? Hundreds of designer angels do well. Thousands of design leaders do well." That, for us, is the success beyond just the returning 3X, 5X to our LPs.
Ben Blumenrose (52:35):
We actually believe if we... Not only are those things at odds with each other, we actually think if we do those things well, if we serve the design ecosystem well at scale, if we serve the VC ecosystem with design at scale well, the returns actually will follow. It'd be better if we do that well.
Daniel Scrivner (52:57):
Well, I think it's a perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for joining me, Ben. This has been an amazing conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Ben Blumenrose (53:03):
Yeah, man. Thanks for having me.
Daniel Scrivner (53:05):
Thank you so much for listening. You can find the show notes and transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/132. That's outlieracademy.com/132. For more from Ben Blumenrose, listen to episode 131, where Ben joins me on Outlier Academy as part of our Outlier Investor Series to break down what he and his partner, Enrique Allen, have been building for the last decade at Designer Fund, which is an early stage venture capital firm that backs founders that both recognize the power of design, and are committed to getting design right in their company from day one.
Daniel Scrivner (53:40):
Designer Fund was founded by Ben Blumenrose and Enrique Allen in 2012 after the two met at a program put on by Stanford's d.School, where students used design to develop their own creative potential. When Ben and Enrique founded Designer Fund, there were few companies in Silicon Valley, outside of Apple, that understood the power of design to build incredible products, create a category defining brand, and ultimately forge enduring company. There were also no other venture capitalists with a pure design background. Yet over the last decade, Designer Fund has built an exceptional venture firm.
Daniel Scrivner (54:12):
They've produced top quartile returns beating out most of their competitors, peers in the market at large, and were early investors in a wave of design-centric companies that have defined the last decade, including Stripe and Gusto. To listen to that episode, simply visit outlieracademy.com/131. That's outlieracademy.com/131. You can find videos of all of our interviews on YouTube at youtube.com/outlieracademy. On our channel, you'll find all of our full-length interviews as well as our favorite short clips from every single episode, including this one, so make sure to subscribe.
Daniel Scrivner (54:46):
We post new videos and clips every single week. If you haven't already, follow us on Twitter for more from Outlier Academy. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode next Friday.
On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today.
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