Calling All Jedi Designers to Launch Startups for Peace and Justice in the Galaxy

Note from Enrique Allen: I joined 500 Startups because it’s the greatest way for me to optimize my energy-to-impact ratio and inspire great design with hundreds of companies at the earliest stages of their DNA (before they become a bureaucracy). I don’t wake up excited about investing a little seed money and making big returns, that’s just a way of keeping score and things running. I dream about creating a whole new generation of empathetic designers with the education, technical skills, community and resources to actually solve real meaningful problems & pleasures that ultimately benefit humanity at scale (not just consulting to keep big brands rich). Our goal is to make startup design innovation more predictable, pragmatic and human centered. Think Y Combinator + Startup Design School. How might we develop the next 500 top startup designers? How might we help foster the next 500 startups founded by designers?


While that may sound lofty, it’s actually quite achievable. In less than 6 months, Miche Capone, Rick Boardman, Jason Hrera, Karl Dotter and I with the the help of countless folks like Christina Brodbeck, Elliot Loh, David Shen, Mitch Kapor, Janice Fraser, Michal Kopec, Lane Becker, Jeff Veen, Ryan Freitas, Laura Klein, Blake Commagere,  Craig Mod,Brian Witlin, Dave Baggeroer, Thomas Both, Chris Nesladek, Jeffrey Kalmikoff, Darius A Monsef IV, John Zeratsky, Xianhang Zhang, Bradley Heilbrun, Abid Mohsin, Jason Putorti, Ben Blumfeld, James Hong, Chris Messina & Irene Au (those are just some of the designers I’ve seen here in Mountain View contribute work) along with organizations like the Stanford dschool and CCA (more to come soon), have been prototyping a ‘menu’ of options for designers to get engaged with our startups.

We’ve experimented with multiple Product Design Guild meetups, office hours & talks, codifying startup design methods like the dschool’s bootcamp bootleg, conducting monthly design reviews, running all of our accelerator companies through a lean ux design bootcamp, working with multiple designers in residence, and setting our companies up with freelancers to do design sprints. After great results, it’s now time to scale up our forces even more as we prepare for our next batch of accelerator companies from mid-May to August.

We can create internships aka ‘designerships’, add more designers in residence, fund startups founded by designers, & explore whatever story you’re trying to realize.

Please let us know what stage of development you are in:


    • Youngling / Initiate – fledgling designer, still in school looking to build essential skills and network


    • Padawan / Apprentice – junior designer, possibly fresh from school, less than 5 years of experience, looking to build out portfolio and do something heroic


    • Jedi Knight / Journeyman– senior designer, more than 5 years of experience, has achieved notable successes


    • Master Jedi / Guru – visionary designer, defines success for our whole force field

and what paths you’re interested in. We’re open to more but here’s some examples:

    • Web designer/developer– Help build and manage and build functional prototypes with our startups. Minimum commitment: 1 design sprint.
    • Visual/UI designer– Help create visual assets for and our startups ranging from logos to mocks. Minimum commitment: 1 design sprint.
    • Interaction/Information Architecture– Help create feedback loops for and our startups ranging from signup invites to shopping carts across multiple platforms and devices. Minimum commitment: 1 design sprint.
    • UX Research Designer– Conduct UX research with and our startups ranging from interviews to in-person testing. Minimum commitment: 1 design sprint.
    • Designer Writer & Community Magnet- Write about design at and setup pipelines to top schools, agencies, and geographic clusters of designers. Minimum commitment: 1 blog post

Paths to becoming an awesome designer who makes ‘scalable’ impact are broken in many places. Pave a new way for the designer ecosystem to grow through startups.


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An Entrepreneur’s View Of The Japan Quake

This is a guest post by Matthew Romaine, co-founder and CTO of mygengo. This is reblogged from the original post on Reuters. Matthew was in Tokyo with the rest of the mygengo team when the earthquake struck Japan earlier this month. Here he reflects on how it impacted mygengo.

As I write this entry traveling 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour) on a bullet train bound for Tokyo, I’m anxiously curious to catch up with my colleagues in person. One returns from Hong Kong today, another from Taiwan. A third is returning from a remote island south of Kobe, and three are making plans to return from Melbourne. Just last week we were all in the same room focused – or at least attempting to focus – on growing our crowd-sourced translation platform myGengo, from Tokyo.

We are a startup that gathers translators from around the world, qualifies them, then unleashes a sea of bite-size content – from emails, tweets, and iPhone app descriptions – for translators to work through. Users enjoy the convenience; translators like the work-flexibility. Our team is small and international, representing 8 nationalities, and our system relies on a stellar 2,000-member strong translator pool from every timezone.

This March was looking to be our biggest month yet – record revenue, record words translated, record new translators, and record timing. But just when it seemed the vibe and activity in the office couldn’t get (positively) crazier, it struck. The magnitude 9.0 shaker that sent our office ceiling lights crashing to the ground and everyone dashing outside – twice. The rest of that Friday was a course on tolerance-building for the string of aftershocks that followed.

But the shock to myGengo was just beginning. The day after the quake, news about the nuclear reactors in Fukushima began to cause alarm. The following Monday at the advice of their embassy, the project manager for our biggest project to date flew home. Some couldn’t commute to work due to erratic train schedules; others couldn’t work due to blackouts. Everyone was glued to the foreign press and tweeting public, trying to make sense of it all. This fire-hose of uncertain, unnerving, and often sensationalized “news” distracted the employees and brought productivity to a near halt, while our users around the globe needed us to focus.

It seemed the only way to get back on track was to detach ourselves from the local environment. So, for the sake of a little peace of mind, the team decided to relocate to remote areas with friends or family. And thanks to email, Skype, and Asia’s fast and reliable Internet connection, we’ve been able to continue working as a team despite operating from six locations.

The situation in Tokyo, while sometimes tense, was and is still fine. Trains are running on modified schedules, most supplies are available, and many people are going about their regular business. Fortunately our core system has continued to function amidst the disruptions – users keep ordering translations and translators keep translating.

As a team across multiple timezones, we have found a common time to regroup for a daily conference call. Though a few projects had scheduling adjustments, most are now back on track. In fact, half the team returns to Tokyo today, with the other half likely this weekend. I know some business owners with factories and logistics operations are not as fortunate.

If there is one thing I am proud of, it’s that every member of myGengo pulled together and shouldered more for the team. We are all stronger for this experience, and I hope we can share this strength to carry Japan through recovery.

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Engineering vs. Design

This post is a reblog from Jason Putorti’s blog. Jason is a 500 Startups founder (of Votizen) and venture advisor. View the original post here.

The extranormal guy talking about features still thinks that the consumer actually cares about them, and that’s often the mindset of an engineer. Engineers are very interested in making the impossible, possible— and a device and feature are expressions of that possibility. Designers focus, or at least they should, on empathy with real people, and how to use the available technology to create a solution that delights them and solves their problem. Funny aside, there’s an important insight in this clip: the cell phone market, like many other technology markets, has become an experience market. This is why the consumer asking for the iPhone over and over again for reasons unknown makes absolutely no sense to our techie, who thinks feature parity or supremacy matters. The reason for this seemingly irrational desire of course, is the experience— that’s what the consumer is after.

All technology moves through a lifecycle. Step one is simply the fact that it’s possible. For the cell phone, think the Gordon Gekko brick phone. Once you have achieved possible, then companies race to pile on features to differentiate themselves, so you get smaller, faster, text messaging, MMS, mobile Internet, cameras, music player, GPS, bluetooth, WiFi, etc. Once everyone was fighting over features, Apple entered the market with less features, but a vastly superior user experience. People complained endlessly about the missing MMS, and other omissions, but nonetheless it sold in massive numbers and took over a massive piece of the market, leaving the feature phones fighting it out to be the one given away free with a plan.

The final stage of this technology lifecycle is oftencommoditization and integration into other devices. I mentioned a camera, music player, and GPS as being features in phones. All exist as independent products, but location-awareness has now become a commodity and it’s integrated into many other devices, just like the music player, and camera— not necessarily full fledged versions yet mind you, but the most popular camera on flickr is an iPhone. Camera phones are now massively popular and make up the bulk of the lower end. I don’t own an iPod, my iPhone handles that functionality, and I also don’t own a GPS device.

At SXSW, I was on a panel to “debate” design vs. engineering, and where startups need to apply their limited resources. The answer is not the same for everyone, even on the Internet, it’s wholly market dependent.

Look at check-in services. First checking-in somewhere became possible with Loopt, and later Foursquare and Gowalla. Now declaring your location is built into PathInstagram,Foodspotting, and many other social apps. Just shouting “I’m here” isn’t differentiated anymore, next it’s about what features can I tie around location, such as discovery, alerting me when friends are nearby, etc. Gowalla seems to be stuck firmly in their check-in / rewards / items mindset, while Foursquare is moving ahead with a larger vision, and other players are entering as well. So while Gowalla remains beautiful visually, they are not moving towards the experience phase.

An example of a technology cemented firmly in the possible? QR Codes. Engineers have figured out how to pack a lot of data into a small image, but no designer has yet figured out how to make the experience around QR codes useful. SXSW had them on badges last year, and made a big push to get people using their scanner app, and they were notably absent this year. Engineering the technology alone doesn’t make something useful or usable by the mainstream. The Segway strikes me as another cemented in the “possible”.

So, understand your market. Airbnb understood where the online travel market was, and become an experience company— they are doing very well without any defensible technology of their own, but through designing the experience (everything from hiring videographers and photographers to make the browsing experience amazing, to iPhone triggered locks on the rentals) they are on their way to a defensible marketplace and network effect. Path turned down a rumored $100M acquisition offer, similarly with no core differentiating technology, but a delightful design and key insight on a customer need, from which they are aspiring towards a network effect. If your vision is an incredible new piece of technology that achieves what nothing else on the market can, build yourself an engineering culture. If your market is more mature, you need design thinking early.

Many thanks to Jared Spool for inspiring this post.


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Serendipity: A View From SXSW

Meet Phoenix (Jean Grey) aka 500 SuperMentor Wendy Tan-White. Wendy is Founder of Moonfruit, a simple and powerful website builder for SMBs who expect better design tools to produce better designed sites. Moonfruit was founded in 1999, survived the Dotcom crash in 2000 and made a rapid resurgence in 2009. Wendy was Marketing Director of Gandi Group, helped start-up – first European P2P lending site and – first UK internet bank. She sold her soul to Arthur Andersen after getting a BEng Computer Science from Imperial College, London. Wendy’s also a designer for fun and has a MA in Smart Textiles from Central St Martins and is the mum of Josh and Bella!

Swag in the form of Moonfruit stickers

If I had to describe SXSW, or ‘spring break for geeks’ in only one word, it would be ‘serendipitous’. Put your ‘best laid plans’ aside, go with the flow and let it take you where it may.  There’s also a sense of connectedness, both in terms of who you meet in real life – in the bars, restaurants and auditoriums – or virtually through social networks; but also, importantly, in terms of a collective desire to make things happen as witnessed during the unfolding disaster in Japan.

Arriving on Friday Eirik, my co-founder and I hit the ground running. Checking in on FourSquare upon arrival, notifications of people I haven’t seen for a year flood in and I’m reminded that it was here last year that the tech startup made its name. You’re instilled with a buzz and a feeling that anything can happen here on the warm, breezy streets of Austin, Texas.

Meeting up with Dave McClure, founder of Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups, and a recent investor in Moonfruit, we head to a classically Texan BBQ house Iron Works. We queue canteen-style before dining with different startups; one being the dry and affable Aaron Batalion, co-founder of Living Social, one of the biggest group-buying companies in the world, and Jason Putorti, UI design rockstar previously from Mint and now Votizens.

It was whilst sat chatting to someone at a penthouse party in the hookah lounge that ‘kismet’ played its part once more. If you had asked me on arrival to choose the one dream partner I hoped to meet at SXSW – then it would have been this person. To stumble upon them was short of miraculous.

Preview of Eric Ries' new Lean Startup book

Saturday is our big event day, the day I give my talk at Lean Startup track. We’re also co-hosting the after party with 500 Startups and Eric Ries. At SXSW most people panel hop, rushing about getting lost between presentations.  The track is unique. Organised by Christen O’Brien and Sheila Goodman at 500 Startups, it’s based on Eric Ries’ philosophy of eliminating waste from startups. The amphitheatre is packed with 300 entrepreneurs, VCs, developers and designers who have made the effort to get off the beaten track; many stay for the whole day. As such, there’s a real feeling of a Lean Startup ‘movement’. We are all part of a bigger vision, with people sharing ideas and making ‘it’ happen.

One of my heroes, Steve Blank, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Stanford, is in attendance, he’s someone I admire as a serial entrepreneur, family man and now educator. He sticks around for my end-of-day speech, where I tell him (and everyone there) Moonfruit’s story.  I discuss the idea of building legendary products – that things are assigned to such a status in history because of the story around them. Rewinding 10 years to Moonfruit’s early days, it is important to highlight the failures as much as the hard work which has led us to our comparative success today. Apart from 500 Startups recent investment we took a $2.25m series A funding in Sept 2010, and re-launched Moonfruit on Wednesday focusing on SMB’s who want to build better designed sites themselves with better designed tools. It’s very much a cathartic process to share our story.

The new Moonfruit!

We co-host the after-party downtown with 500 Startups and Eric Ries.  It’s the culmination to an intense day, with 250 people showing up, and a further 300 on the waiting list who sneak in later. Maverick photographer social media diarist Kris Krug covers the event.

Full house for the Lean Startup afterparty!

Our new branding on ‘design control freak’ T-shirts and hoodies are a hit! I overhear girls talking in the toilets “Oh, wow that’s a Moonfruit hoodie? I only got a Hashable t-shirt!” Hashable, will be one of the big group introduction apps to come out of SXSW.

Dave McClure dons the Moonfruit hoodie

Some of the excellent speakers from the Lean Startup day turn-up, like Hiten Shah from KISSmetrics and Dan Martell from Flowtown. Watching Dave McClure embrace Mark Suster, a well-known Californian VC and author of blog, who turns up with entourage in tow, is across between the Godfather and the end of Rocky. I’ll take a quick diversion here to say I’ve always been a fan of Mark’s blog. He shares his reflections as a serial entrepreneur and VC very openly, and I often find a useful tip in his posts.

The three highlights of my trip are taking a crazy trip on the ‘delivering happiness bus’ and pedicab with Mark Suster; borrowing Randi Zuckerberg’s charger while discussing the merits of Swedish fish with her, Charles Porch also Facebook, Rob Coneybeer, Shasta Ventures and Kimberly Lembo from Nasa and the reverential moment of having a drink with Bob Metcalfe who invented Ethernet, founded 3com and Infoworld, was a VC at Polaris and now Professor of Innovation at the University of Austin.

Mark Suster, Dan Martell, and Steve Blank at the Lean Startup afterparty

Also a particular shout out to Sam Michel, CEO of Chinwag. He relentlessly works on behalf of British startups. The Global Grill with the UKTI is superbly well provisioned and full of the great and good of the London tech scene.

Despite being swallowed into the mania of SXSW, it is impossible not to be sobered by the escalating disaster unfolding in Japan. There are fundraising initiatives throughout the conference. Robert Laing, founder of MyGengo, is a Brit running his business in Japan. He’s part of the 500 Startups global family and is dealing with potentially evacuating his team and family from Japan. From here in Austin, I’m touched by Global Voices, an international group of bloggers who are supporting ‘social translation’ in times of crisis.

This whole experience has been humbling – meeting so many different people at all stages of ‘entrepreneuring’ gives you an appreciation and perspective as to what it takes to make something happen. It’s worth us all taking the effort to get out of our comfort zones and learn from people with a different world view.

Wendy and Eirik kick back after a long day
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