Design's Seat at the (Cap) Table: Part I

March 23, 2021

My journey as a design angel investor and why we need more

Until recently, angel investment felt out-of-reach due to my perception of what it took to get started—a lot of capital and deal flow. The vivid dream turned into a reality when Paige Finn Doherty inspired me to make it real by investing in a syndicate she led. The experience was so inclusive it was a rude awakening for me on what’s really needed to get started.

Alumni designers who found success early at Silicon Valley startups formed entities like Designer Fund, Combine VC, and Form Capital. They’ve set the vision on what design can play in the role of venture capital. Despite that, there's still a large opportunity for designers to focus on individual angel investors.

Design continues to struggle to find that proverbial seat at the table on the executive level. We hear about the importance of design, yet we don’t see much representation at the most crucial level. Designers may not have a seat at the table at companies until there are more seats occupied on the cap table of design angel investors to advocate for it from the other side. A design angel investor has a proven track record of what happens when Design is (or isn’t) represented in leadership and strategy.

I’ve dipped my toes in many different roles, and I am a designer at heart. I love solving problems to create elegant software experiences for humans. In the investment world, you might call me an operator, which is a cool word for someone who works at a company. I work at Webflow as an operator leading Design, a practice I’ve done for almost as long as some of the founders I work with have been alive. I also have experience in scaling startups and been a part of product leadership teams which brought me closer to how a company operates.

I’m still a neophyte when it comes to angel investing, and there are so many more qualified people who can tell you about angel investing than I can. What I can offer is a fresh perspective of a designer who wanted to invest in founders and startups. I’ll tell you what I tell all founders I invest in: you can get more money from other angel investors, but I can give you other forms of value if I’m on your cap table. I’m deliberately letting people carry me to be involved and gain experience. You won’t see me cutting big checks or leading rounds yet for two simple reasons:

1. I’m not ready to write big checks based on how much I’m willing to allocate in angel investing

2. My primary commitment is as an operator and leading a round is time-consuming

This is what makes micro-investing so appealing. I get to take high risk while keeping it low-key. Let’s not pretend that you don’t need money to invest. What people might not realize is the size of the check, which ranges from $1,000 to $100,000 (or more). I have absolutely no shame in the size of the check I write at this moment.

Though value is typically attributed to the size of the check you commit to, you can add value in so many other ways. Let’s go through a hypothetical situation. If you invest $1,000 in a round as a value add investor when others might be putting in $100,000, then chances are you might feel 100x inferior—I know I did. Investment starts with the check and doesn’t end with it.

An angel investor once told me that the value you can deliver as a value add investor can truly change the trajectory of a startup’s success. As an experienced operator, a quick call or email to advise a group of founders can save them time and money from figuring out themselves. So you might cut a $100,000 check, but you might also provide guidance for a startup to save them hundreds of thousands of dollars. This perspective completely changed how I viewed my tiny investment. A $100,000 check helps only when it converts to value.

The opportunity for designers in venture

Why would designers want to become angel investors? Isn’t that what product managers and engineers with successful exits do? That’s the problem within itself...why not us?

Guiding design decisions

By the time designer joins a company, there is already so much legacy debt. Working with early startups gives us the opportunity to be proactive about problem-solving and having a design advisor can help flag dependencies early on.

Product strategy

Designers talk a lot about how they’d like to have more product influence in the companies they work at. This has resulted in some product designers pivoting into product management. There are other ways aside from a career change to have product influence, and startup advising is a great way to flex your product strategy muscle.

Angel investing is mentorship

Design leader coach Mia Blume (formerly IDEO, Pinterest, and Square) often speaks about how we need sponsorship in design leadership. One way to sponsor is to allocate funds to it. By committing to a check, even at a smaller size, it’s representative of your belief in the founders and their ambitions. If you don’t have the privilege of allocating funds to investments, see how you can get involved such as being an advisor to a startup.

Being an accredited investor before meant you possessed a certain level of capital, but with the Series 65, Series 7, or Series 82 exams are new pathways for accreditation. There’s no better time to get started.

I treat my angel investing the exact same way as I might back a Kickstarter project or invest in publicly traded companies on Robinhood; a way to build a portfolio of bets for things and people I believe in.

Don’t let the size of the check discourage you about the value you bring. It’s more than you probably give yourself credit for. The cap table may be the ultimate seat at the table design needs to enable more representation in companies. Stay tuned for part two of this post to discuss in deeper detail the value of having a design angel on your cap table as an investor and startup founder.

Read Part II: The Value Add a Design Angel Brings

Investing