Really have a deep motivation of love for who you're serving and what you're building.
Enrique Allen has always been ahead of his time. He was tapped by one of his mentors, Stephen DeBerry, to check out the d.school, when he was just a freshman at Stanford. He taught experimental courses at Stanford that created precursors to apps like Path. He was a Product Developer at Venrock, a top-tier venture capital fund, and worked with startups, like AskMeGo, a live question and answer site (which according to Enrique may have been just ahead of the curve). Now, with the Designer Fund, he’s right on time.
The Designer Fund began in the Spring of 2011 in partnership with 500 Startups (a seed fund and startup accelerator that Enrique helped start), and a group of top early stage investors. They provide angel funding, mentorship, and connections to their network—specifically for designers. Enrique describes the fund as, “a vehicle for creating a virtuous positive feedback loop between successful designers giving back to the next generation of entrepreneurial designers.” In just a year, they’ve invested in 10 companies, and launched a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign for their book, Designer Founders. Designer Founders is a nonprofit book for the design community that focuses on “the paths of emerging to established designers so that young designers can be inspired to act and believe.” This mission is very close to our own goals with Kern and Burn, and we’re honored to share the same values as the Designer Fund.
Enrique’s own path to the Designer Fund is one of chance and unexpected outcomes. He stumbled into design when he discovered the d.school and was exposed to their progressive classes, like the “Facebook class” and the Persuasive Tech Lab, both of which Enrique credits with “opening his eyes to the potential to change people’s behavior on a massive scale, and the power of technology to intentionally influence how we live.” Along with learning in the classroom environment, he also taught classes in the design and engineering schools, and he says that experience gave him insight into working with, and for, startups. He said, “Teaching really forced me to learn an at unreasonable pace, synthesize material into digestible nuggets, and inspire others to do great work—all things that have come in handy in the startup world.”
But it wasn’t just tech classes that drove his interest in design’s influence and potential for greater impact, it was his experience creating murals for underserved communities in East Palo Alto. He said, “This service helped me realize the purpose of telling stories that last for generations in both the digital and physical environment.” As well as classes, like Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability, that taught him the potential to do great things with design. Things that matter.
He said,”It’s really easy to talk about empathy like a buzz word but it’s truly transformative when you get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in the shoes of others.” It’s this same social consideration that Enrique looks for in the startups that are involved in the Designer Fund. He says, “Our mission is to create the best community of designers whose success in business generates positive social impact.”
Enrique, along with the Designer Fund team, has recognized that strong design leadership at a startup’s founding level is critical to an integrated and sustained culture of design. We asked him how he has seen the startup environment shift in a way that has opened the door for designers to become founders. He said, “I was re-reading Bill Buxton’s, Sketching User Interfaces where he makes a case for the importance of design by outlining Apple’s trajectory, and I was reminded that what we are doing is nothing new. We are just carrying on a legacy and evolving it.” But, he does believe that a paradigm shift in thinking has happened and startups are realizing the benefits of designers. Wilson Miner told us on Day 88, that as designers “we’re invited to the table, now we need to bring something to it.” Enrique adds, “Designers are not only being invited to sit at the table, they’re being offered the opportunity to own the table—if they can step up to help build it.”
With his background as a teacher, we asked Enrique his thoughts on how designers can learn about business. He said, “There are so many avenues and DIY sources emerging, I can barely keep up.” He mentioned General Assembly as a great alternative form of education, but he also truly believes that we can learn as we go. We asked him what he would say to a designer who is just entering the start-up world (assuming they, like most others, don’t really know what they’re doing at the start). He said, “It’s ok for designers to tip-toe in and see that not all that glitters is gold but eventually they need to commit full throttle and be comfortable being uncomfortable while operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty, because that’s where discovery and invention lie, in spaces and problems that seem frighteningly ambitious.”
Lastly, some advice from Enrique for designers who want to be entrepreneurs. He said, “Really have a deep motivation of love for who you’re serving and what you’re building. Ask yourself five ‘whys?’ If any of those end in some version of fame, money, or power, start over again.”
Enrique shared one of his hopes with us. He said, “I hope by sharing the people that have helped me along the way, classes I’ve taken, and unexpected outcomes I’ve had, young designers can learn from my path.” We have already learned so much from reading through Enrique’s story, and we can’t wait to share the rest of it with you in the book.