Applying Design Thinking to a VC Firm
With thanks to Andrew Sather, Dave Le, and Dani Metz Shuval
The history of our design process, and how we’ve always applied a design thinking approach to VC.
Most people think of design as shapes, colors, fonts, and making things look nice, but design—and design thinking—is a broader approach and set of skills that can apply at multiple levels to a business or a team.
When you’re designing something, you have to remember that you’re not the end user. To create a successful design, you need to spend time trying to see things from another person’s perspective: Who are your users? What do they care about and how do they think? What problems are they looking to solve? What is the context of their situation(s)? What they might be thinking at each stage of using a product? What are they trying to get from your brand?
Good design can make or break an overall user experience, and in turn, can make the difference between a struggling startup, or a company worth billions of dollars.
Airbnb is a classic example of this. In 2009, Airbnb was considered a failing startup. The product had launched, but the website was filled with dimly lit, poorly framed, Craigslist-quality photos. As a result, the company’s revenue was flatlined, and the founding team had to max out their credit cards to survive.
After a meeting with Paul Graham, Airbnb’s founders found a solution to their problem. Airbnb needed to present the properties on offer in a more appealing, even aspirational, way if they were going to attract users. They rented a $5,000 camera and updated their website with beautiful, high-quality images of listings. Shortly after taking better pictures of their New York listings, revenues from properties across the city doubled.
Initializing Initialized Capital
When Initialized Capital first started, we took a design thinking approach to develop the visual aspects of our brand. A new VC firm is just another sort of startup, and all startups can benefit from such an approach.
We initially launched a simple text-based website in 2016, around the time we launched Fund III (we didn’t even have a website before that). At the time, we wanted to emphasize who we were and how that made us unique.
Back then, few VC firms were made up of investors with engineering, design, and product backgrounds. We wanted to highlight our backgrounds as founders and operators who had navigated a thousand landmines ourselves. We wanted to position ourselves as a one-stop shop for all the things an early-stage founder needs to make their startup successful, and we knew we had the collective experience to succeed.
By late 2017, we had built some traction and expanded the team. It was time for a new visual identity. I’ve always believed setting the right tone and messaging can be a massive differentiator for recruitment, customer acquisition, follow-on fundraising, and more. We were committed to applying a design thinking approach to our VC firm.
Not Another Corporate Website
I called an old friend and former colleague from my design agency days, Dave Le, to help us refine our visual identity.
There was a common theme when Dave started the research process. Many other VC websites at the time were boring and corporate. It was very common for firms to have the last names of their founders on the door (similar to law firms), and most chose similar fonts and employed similar muted color palettes of insipid blues, greys, and white.
It was important to us that Initialized visually differentiated ourselves to reflect the uniqueness of our team, our approach, and our values within the world of VC. We resolved to go a different direction, something that resonated more with who we were. We wanted founders to be able to tell, even only at a glance, that we were not their granddad’s VC firm. Initialized was something new and different.
Garry and I both previously worked at Adjacency, the same design agency as Dave, and had design backgrounds ourselves, so we gravitated toward a bolder color palette. Here are some examples of the early mood boards we explored:
And some example of early website design mock-ups:
The Creation of Hannah the Honeybadger
In March 2018, we launched our site. My co-managing partner Brett Gibson, a fountain pens and letterform nerd, selected our font. Coincidentally, it was called “Founders Grotesk,” which made us feel it was the correct choice.
We also knew early on that, like many startups of the era, we wanted a mascot. Coming from design and product backgrounds, we knew that a brand’s most memorable visual aspect is usually the company’s logo. When we compared the logos of other VC firms, the same theme came up. Most had some version of the firm’s initials arranged in a traditional monogram format.
From the earliest days, Garry referred to us as honeybadgers for our bold approach to VC and the fierceness with which we fight for our founders. That really resonated with our team. We aspired to remain agile, fierce, and relentless.
We started with these initial sketches of a honeybadger.
As she came to life, we started referring to her internally as Hannah. The name has stuck over time, and over the years, we’ve learned that our founders have loved seeing her pop up in various forms as part of our community efforts.
For example, this year, we launched the “Honeybadger Den,” our founder portal. If you’ve received a holiday card from us over the years, you’ve seen Hannah and her extended family.
Introducing Our New Look
At the beginning of 2022, we started to explore what an updated Initialized visual identity could look like. Some of the greatest brands in the world go through periodic design evolutions. Have a look at Apple’s logo evolution from 1976 to 2007:
Our team looks and feels massively different today than it did in 2018, and our tastes have evolved. Our position and notoriety within the industry has evolved as well. We’ve come a long way with our current visual identity, and we felt it was time to refresh it to reflect the contemporary Initialized.
A few things were important to us in designing our new visual system, especially our new website.
We wanted a website that conveyed the strength and uniqueness of our expanded team and conveyed our non-traditional VC backgrounds. We’ve always felt it’s a distinguishing factor in who we are and how we approach venture.
We chose to work with Strohl Design, an accomplished independent design studio based in San Francisco. We share their love of brand and dedication to the craft of good design. Eric Strohl, their founder & principal, drew inspiration from long conversations with our team about the boldness of founders (and the investors who believe in them) in creating things that are different and better, that defy the status quo and the naysayers.
Eric picked up on the theme of rebelliousness and re-creation. The design aesthetic we arrived at is more than a little inspired by the second-wave punk rock movement of the 1980s and the rebellious, DIY underground zine culture of the 1990s. We love the way rebels and cultural outsiders seized new tools of self-expression and started to write, design, and publish print content featuring ideas they cared about and how dedicated fans reproduced and distributed it even further afield.
The rules-breaking, creative ethos still informs some of the best aspects of startup and internet culture. We like to think we’re helping to keep that flame alive in the world of VC. Some of us, myself included, grew up in this era and we feel that rebellious verve is a reflection of what it’s like to work with us, and even more so, the sort of spark we see in some of the best founders.
In a cheeky homage to zines’ print pedigree, Strohl proposed, and we selected, a color palette based on CMYK—cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black)—the four ink plates used in color printing. We think the visual results speak for themselves while also serving as a nod to the aesthetic roots of many of the founding team members of Initialized. Any witness to the exacting processes of intentional image degradation and color-fields placement that went into the website redesign will recognize a certain fastidious nerdiness and attention to detail many associated with Initialized share, even celebrate.
“Our team has grown so much since the last website launched in 2018 and we wanted a new visual identity to reflect the firm we are today,” said our head of marketing Dani Metz Shuval, who oversaw our rebranding efforts. “We didn’t want to lose our distinct aesthetic, but we did want to refine and mature it.”
In working with Eric, he told us early on his approach to designing brands is always with an attitude of challenging the expected. “The Initialized team one-upped us, countering with, ‘how can we create a brand and visual style that would make people say wait…this is a VC firm?’” said Eric.
“In our initial research with the Initialized team, we were surprised to see the range of visual design that interested them,” he said. “It wasn’t just the expected technology brands, but an eclectic group of innovative brands from fashion to music and film, all while maintaining a nod to traditional design roots.”
As for Hannah, don’t worry – she’s still with us, but as you can see, she’s also matured a bit. When we first partnered with Strohl, there were many discussions about the evolution of Hannah.
While we love the playfulness of the original Hannah design, we felt that she was due a refresh. One of the first changes we explored was making her look a bit fiercer.
Where we ultimately landed for the website was this more naturalistic, volumetric version of Hannah included as a sort of easter egg in the footer. She’s graduated to a well-earned “emeritus” position at Initialized, reserved primarily for cameo appearances in founder-facing content, design, and swag moving forward.
We feel our new brand aesthetic is a strong reflection of who we’ve always been and will continue to be. We didn’t come from traditional VC backgrounds, and we’re proud of that. Our new visual identity positions us to continue to grow into the next phase of Initialized, expanding our diverse, non-traditional team, broadening our content platforms, and giving our founders even more of a voice.
Our varied interests and perspectives, combined with this new visual identity, will help us continue to champion the next generation of inspired, obsessive builders and thinkers. If this resonates with you, please come talk to us.