Design expert Scott Tong outlines 4 concepts founders should consider when designing products

In the last decade, high-quality design has become a necessity in the software space. Great design is a commodity, not a luxury, and yet, designing beautiful products and finding great designers continues to be a struggle for many entrepreneurs.

At Early Stage 2021, design expert Scott Tong walked us through some of the ways founders should think about design. Tong was involved in product and brand design at some of the biggest brands in tech, including IDEO, IFTTT, Pinterest and more. He’s now a partner at Design Fund.

Tong explained how to think about brand as more than a logo or a social media presence, what design means and the steps that come before focusing on the pixels, and gave guidance on when entrepreneurs should hire third-party design agencies or bring on full-time talent.

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“The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation,” wrote Shakespeare. Though we often think of a brand as a logo or a social media persona, a brand is the equivalent of a person’s reputation. It signifies what the company and products stand for, and it has an element of being memorable for something, whether it’s prestige, like for Chanel, or terrible customer service, like for Comcast.

The closest word in the English language to brand is actually reputation. The analogy is that brand is to company as reputation is to person. If you can link your brand with your company’s reputation, I think it’s a really great place to start when you’re having conversations about brands. What is the first impression? What are the consistent behaviors that your brand hopes to repeat over and over? What are the memorable moments that stand out and make your brand, your reputation memorable? (Timestamp: 2:40)

Existing versus preferred

Tong outlined what design is truly about. There are many different schools of thought on design methodology and there are many different types of design. You may be thinking about product design and logo design and brand design all at the same time, and the only way to successfully hire for those tasks and complete them is to understand what design is, at its core.

AngelList Venture’s Avlok Kohli on rolling funds and the busy state of VC

Few companies have deeper insights into the day-by-day state of venture capital than AngelList. According to the company’s data, over 51% of the “top tier U.S. VC deals” involve their platform and tools, giving them a remarkably expansive view of everything going on.

AngelList Venture CEO Avlok Kohli joined us at TechCrunch Early Stage to discuss topics ranging from the state of the market to his thoughts on why there’s suddenly so much money flooding into VC (sending valuations to the sky), and where AngelList could go from here. We started with a presentation wrapping together everything Kohli is seeing in the industry right now, followed up by a largely audience-driven Q&A.

I’ve embedded the full interview at the bottom of this post, but here are some highlights:

AngelList’s growing focus on founders

Kohli says he never expected to end up in the venture industry, but the potential for AngelList to grow into something entirely new drew him in:

“I definitely did not think of venture as the industry I would be in. What actually attracted me to it wasn’t necessarily venture, it was actually the makings of a financial platform and being able to build tools and products that eventually extend to founders. When I stepped in, a lot of our tools were built for GPs and LPs — really the funder side — and how you’d reduce the friction and get more people coming into venture. Really leaning into the solo capitalist movement, and having more LPs coming in.

Then there’s also this opportunity to start building founder products, which obviously is near and dear to my heart. I do think there are a lot of things we can do to improve not just the fundraising experience, but also the downstream products that they can use. All the way from banking, to spend management, to cap tables, the whole nine yards. I think there’s so much we can do there.” (Timestamp: 10:11)

When I later asked him to elaborate on what those founder-focused products might look like, Kohli expanded:

Cleo Capital’s Sarah Kunst explains how to get ready to raise your next round

TechCrunch virtually sat down with venture capitalist and Cleo Capital managing director Sarah Kunst at our latest Early Stage event last week. Kunst joined us to chat about preparing for raising capital in today’s frenetic fundraising environment, digging into the gritty mechanics for the audience.

Cleo Capital invests $500,000 to $1 million into early-stage startups, with portfolio companies that include mmhmm, Cameo and StyleSeat, among others.

Next, a few favorite excerpts from the chat, starting with Kunst’s notes on how to make a killer pitch deck. Questions from the audience helped direct the conversation, so I’ve tried to select themes that came from y’all. We’ll also explore advice regarding incorporation, how to find a co-founder and when startups are too large to join an accelerator. (Quotes lightly edited for clarity.)

Before we get into key points from the conversation, here’s a rundown of links that Kunst discussed that I promised to include in this post:

How to make a great pitch deck

Here’s the thing about decks: Don’t be ugly. Don’t be ugly. Don’t be ugly.

The good news is it is free and easy to make a non-ugly deck. It is not 1999. You do not have to use clip art. You can go to Canva. You can go to plenty of websites that give you very basic, very cheap — if not free — very simple decks. Just use one. It doesn’t have to change the world. But it can’t be ugly. No Comic Sans font, unless you’re a deeply ironic meme-driven company. And even then, the odds that that joke will land are infinitesimal. So, just don’t have an ugly deck.

What should be in your deck? Again, this will be a link that we’ll have later, but I love for really early-stage companies to use Guy Kawasaki’s 10-slide pitch-deck format. Do not send me something that is a video. Do not send me something that is a one-pager. Do not send me something that’s 100-pager. [I want] 10 slides. Don’t make me download anything. Attached as a PDF, use DocSend.

Make it really, really, really simple and really easy to read and digest who you are, what the problem is [you are tackling], what the solution is, why you’re the right team to do it, what your traction is, how much you’re raising, [and] maybe a product slide. That’s it. That’s all I need to know. I’ll take the meeting or I won’t. And I say that on behalf of every other VC and angel in the world.

This advice is clear and should help you avoid some common pitfalls. Everything that she said not to do, I promise she’s had sent to her. Don’t be the next thing that gets deleted. Do what she said.

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How to find a co-founder

Look back through everybody you know. This is sort of the same [as] when we get to the friends and family part of fundraising. Really go back and say, Who do I know? Not, Who are my best friends, or who was at my wedding. Take a much broader look. And think about the intern you always sat next to who was an engineer — what are they up to now? Your college roommate’s boyfriend or girlfriend who was a great compsci major. What are they doing now? Tweet about it, reach out on social media, reach out on LinkedIn. I’m obsessed with LinkedIn. If you keep your network up to date, you can literally go search who do you know who’s a computer scientist? First-degree, second-degree connections [are great]. Then just reach out to people and say, Hey, we’d love to chat with you.

Norwest’s Lisa Wu explains how to think like a VC when fundraising

At the TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising event last week, Norwest Venture PartnersLisa Wu took the stage to discuss how founders can think like venture capitalists in all facets of their business. The overlapping in job roles is uncanny: The best investors and founders have to find focus through the noise, understand the weight of due diligence and pitch others with conviction. Wu, who has investments in Plaid, Calm and Ritual, used anecdotes and exercises — such as the eyebrow test — in the tactical, engaging chat.

Pitch deck or pitch blurb?

Startup founders often turn to pitch decks when fundraising as a visual representation of their story — from the origins to total addressable market to those juicy metrics. While the format definitely works, the influx of pitch decks in a hot deal environment makes it harder to stand out.

Wu gave some pointers on how she reacts to cold pitch decks, and why founders may want to take some unconventional advice.

I love it because I can quickly flip through the deck and generally form an opinion on it. And I think I’ve read some stat recently, which is that investors really spend 2 minutes and 47 seconds per deck. It’s an easy way for me to, in that short amount of time, just get a calibration of the business to decide whether to move forward.

But, as the founder, I’ll probably tell you don’t do [the cold pitch deck]. Because if you’re sending me the pitch deck, I’m quickly screening and then I’m making a decision of whether it makes sense to meet, but your goal is really just to try to get the meeting with me to tell the story and let that unfold. And so, give us enough of it — like a blurb to tease us to want to continue to engage is great. But if it is possible, I would suggest a late pullback of the pitch deck, even though I love to receive it in advance. (Timestamp: 21:50)

In other words, she loves founders sliding into the DMs with pitch decks, but doesn’t think that strategy always gives the founder storytelling power.

This answer triggered a series of questions from attendees on whether pitch decks are even necessary in the first place. Here, Wu explains how the competitive venture market has impacted her preferences — and her interest in what I’d describe it as a private beta, except for fundraising rounds.

So, everything is shifting these days. Because there’s so much capital [and competition] out there, sometimes if I’m chasing a really hot company, I actually prefer that they don’t have a deck, or they haven’t created one yet. Because once you have a deck, that means you can go and take it out to a bunch of other investors, too. And so it’s helpful to structure the conversation and to storytell around it. I think I like a deck more so than not, unless it’s in a competitive situation. If I’m trying to close the deal, I actually prefer just an open dialogue. (Timestamp: 23:30)

We just have them come in and we just prepare our team internally to let them know that there’s no deck here. And so, it’s just up to the founders to really just tell the story to us. And, it’s worked. (Timestamp: 24:20)

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How to implement conflicting feedback?

Emergence Capital’s Doug Landis explains how to identify (and tell) your startup story

How do you go beyond the names and numbers with your startup pitch deck? For Doug Landis, the answer is one simple compound gerund: storytelling. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot of late in Silicon Valley, but it’s one that could legitimately help your startup stand out from the pack amid the pile of pitches.

Landis knows a fair bit about the concept. Following stints at Salesforce and Google, he served as the “chief storyteller” at Box. These days, Landis is the growth partner at Emergence Capital, where he helps tell the stories of the firm’s portfolio companies.

Landis joined us on the first day of TechCrunch Early Stage: Marketing and Fundraising event to offer a presentation about the value of storytelling for startups, whittling down the standard two-hour conversation to a 30-minute version. Though he still managed to rewind things pretty far, opening with, “400,000 years ago, men and women used to sit around the fire pit and tell stories about their day, about their hunt, about the one that got away.”

Connect the dots

More often than not, decks include a series of numbers and charts. The job of a story pitch is weaving a good narrative around these figures.

If you think about storytelling, and you think about the physiological and psychological elements — what’s happening between the storytelling and the listener — we’re actually looking for the patterns. If you think about it, it’s why those jingles and commercials get stuck in our head, and we can’t forget it, even though we don’t even know much about the product. But we remember the jingle, remember the commercial, we remember the brand. Because as humans, we’re looking for the patterns in our communication. Our job is to connect the facts and fill in the holes. And from those connections, we create a story. We create a story in our brain, because our brain actually processes information through story form. (Timestamp 3:20)

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Get to the point

They don’t call it an elevator pitch for nothing. And sometimes even the best storytellers have a habit of rambling. Here’s an exercise for cutting away some of the excess when attempting to get your story in front of VCs.

When you tell the story at work, ask your peers or the listener to share back with you in one sentence what the point of that story was. Get immediate feedback, and you can then identify whether or not your story was on target or not. The story needs to be relevant to the audience who’s there, but the reality is, you need to be very clear about the point you’re trying to make with a story. (Timestamp 6:33)

Superhuman’s Rahul Vohra explains how to optimize your startup’s products for lasting growth

Superhuman co-founder and CEO Rahul Vohra joined us last week at TechCrunch Early Stage to provide an in-depth look at how he and his company worked to optimize and refine their product early to create a version of “growth hacking” that would not only help Superhuman attract users, but serve them best and retain them, too. Vohra articulated a system that other entrepreneurs should be able to apply to their own businesses, regardless of area or focus.

The only good hack isn’t a hack at all

Vohra started off by explaining that he’s happy to discuss anything relating to the early stages of startup growth (and welcomed DMs to his Twitter if you have any specific questions). He identified a number of key areas of concern early on in company-building, including growth, pricing and even traditional growth hacking, but he noted that one area of focus is more important than any other:

The most important of these is product-market fit. And this is sort of the standard disclaimer that anyone who you would ever talk to about growth would ever give you, which is you shouldn’t try and grow a thing that isn’t yet ready to grow. (Timestamp: 01:11)

Product-market fit is the No. 1 reason why startups succeed. And the lack of product-market fit is the No. 1 reason why startups fail. (Timestamp: 02:02)

Strong stuff, but Vohra backs up this assertion with endorsements from startup industry heavyweights like Paul Graham, Sam Altman and Marc Andreessen underlying the key importance of product-market fit — and prioritizing it early in a startup’s existence. Also, he points out that it can be easy to mistake the “feeling” of having good product-market fit as a leading indicator, when in fact it’s usually a lagging one.