Steve Vassallo

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

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Our mission here is a sort of mental find/replace function. We want to find existing ideas and replace them with new ones. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Shane Parrish gave the best warning about this, saying that you can’t just give employees 20% time and be like Google. Rather, you have to understand the context for why 20% time works.

Steve Vassallo is a partner at Foundation Capital and he wrote a manifesto – The Way to Design – for designers who want to be founders. It’s a beautiful hour-long read. In it, Vassallo gets at some ideas we’ve seen elsewhere. Like a writer, let’s see if some of our existing words (ideas) would be better after the find/replace function.

Vassallo was a designer before being a founder or VC. He writes that design thinking is advantageous for two reasons; better arguments and as a disruption antidote. You want a design cofounder who can “project her weirdness onto the organization.” We call back-and-forths between multiple-points-of-view Arguing Well.

Argument is natural selection for ideas. Or, as Daniel Kahneman told Michael Lewis, “The idea that everyone is entitled to his/her opinion was a California thing – that’s not how we did things in Jerusalem.” Good organizations are good because they have the best ideas.

Another advantage of a design co-founder is as disruption antidote. Vassallo writes that consumer preferences have migrated from speed to cost to design. Or as Jan Chipchase wrote, wants are solved by technology but technologies are like hermit crab shells, they’ll be adopted, adorned, and abandoned.

Disruption theory and it’s solutions is focused on changing needs. Last year the buyer valued faster, now they value cheaper, next year they’ll value easier. Designers – possibly – can figure out these needs that underly the shell.

In picture form Morgan Housel explains it this way:

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Design thinking is rooted in the first layer; “Solve someone’s problem.” It may not lead to profit but it’s a better start. Too many failed startups didn’t start there.

Okay, but how? Good design is less about Apple products and more about being curious. Curiousity can have wonderful effects. It’s something the Kelley brothers and rest of designers at IDEO advocate. One designer said that when talking to someone about their needs they should feel like the most interesting person in the world.

Good design is a process, not a product. Vassallo writes “product-market fit is a liquid not a solid.” It’s something that changes through time rather than a crystalized destination. Design thinking is an adaptive mindset. Specifically:

Good designing aims for potential. Vassallo wrote, “It’s extremely powerful, especially in your earliest days as a company, to have someone who can convert your abstract ideas into something with existential heft.” I loved that expression, existential heft. Dream big, says Vasallo, and go make something.

Good designing asks not ‘Can we?’ but ‘Should we?’. This, I’d guess, Vassallo picked up from his time at IDEO. Founder David Kelley said, “So much of the world is focused on problem-solving, we’re good at that and we should keep working at that but we really believe the designer’s task is to figure out what is a problem worth working on. What’s a non-obvious need?” Don’t build a better mousetrap because the need isn’t trapping mice.

Good designing approaches familiar problems in novel ways. Vassallo wants founders to solve problems not build apps. That means having the internal drive to change something annoying but to do the external work of talking to other people. This is do things that don’t scale story (8:55 mark) of Airbnb.

Good designing exploits leverage points. Vassallo has probably read The Systems Bible because he warns against entrepreneurs solving complex problems. These Wicked problems can have vicious feedback systems. Vassallo wants designers and founders to be like Rory Sutherland’s butterflies. Find small changes that can have huge effects.


Thanks for reading.

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