Lessons learned on our quest to build nine new companies
We’re no strangers to starting from scratch here. High Alpha is a venture studio that conceives, launches, and scales enterprise companies. In other words, it’s a venture firm that also creates its own high-growth technology companies. We set out to generate 8–10 new companies; each one needing an identity, product, website, sales and fundraising decks, etc. That’s where my team comes in.
The design studio is one of our greatest differentiating factors here at High Alpha. Having an in-house design studio allows us to offer unrivaled services and expertise to our portfolio companies. We use design frameworks and methodologies to inform everything we do, and give our portfolio companies the tools to operate the same way. One of our other designers, Kolby McElvain, wrote a great article on why a designer should be your first hire. I highly recommend giving it a read.
As we near our third anniversary (4/14/2018), it seems like a great time to reflect on the lessons we’ve learned while launching and designing for our first nine companies.
1. Embrace Ambiguity
Every company has its own fingerprint, which makes it impossible to standardize on a single playbook. The team composition is different. The founders’ personal tastes, opinions, drives, and values are different. The size of the MVP is different—and consequently, the amount of time it takes to get funding will vary. Sometimes we have a name or product wireframes to start with, but in most cases, we’re starting with a blank canvas. The ambiguity and uncertainty can be daunting—“How can we create a product when we don’t even have an identity yet?” We’ve learned how to lean into the ambiguity, but we’re still figuring out how to get from concept to minimum viable product as efficiently as possible.
2. Start With Why
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”
As we begin designing the identity for a portfolio company, we’ll interview the founding team about why they’re passionate about this particular business. We’ll dig deep and push past surface level reasons. The driving motivator should be much more aspirational and specific than “it’s a huge opportunity”. This exercise is also a great way to refine messaging and market positioning early on. Check out Simon Sinek’s TED talk on starting with “Why.”
Once we’ve established a deeper understanding of why we’re building what we’re building, we’ll continue using it as a North Star to point to as we work toward launch. We’ll reference the Why when creating company values, designing an aesthetic, developing messaging and writing content for the website. We can even use it when designing the onboarding experience for new employees. Core values and the Why can act as a foundation for all future design decisions.
3. Communicate & Demystify
Stakeholders appreciate great design work, but they appreciate transparency and communication more. The design function is often seen as a mysterious black box, because designers want to do what they do best in isolation and then present a final product.
Instead of hiding our work until we present the final product, we work to keep stakeholders up to date, and communicate with them about the decisions we’re making along the way. Sometimes it may feel like we’re saving ourselves from unsolicited advice from “non-designers”, but obfuscating the process only leads to miscommunication, anxiety, and a worse product. Not to mention, those non-designers bring a critical point of view to the table that will certainly enhance the conversation. Don’t lock yourself away. Work to demystify design, and be inclusive.
Don’t lock yourself away. Work to demystify design, and be inclusive.
Our team has been reading Articulating Design Decisions lately. If you’re struggling with getting buy-in on your designs or your process, give it a read. It has super helpful tips on how to generate healthy, inclusive relationships with stakeholders.
It’s human nature to pack as many features into a product as possible. We work to prioritize each feature, and most importantly, get early user input on which features they’re most excited about. We may end up building all of those features eventually, but ruthless prioritization (especially early on) allows us to focus all of your attention on the features that matter today.
We try to be very intentional about how we spend our time. It’s easy to get lost in the daily minutiae of a startup. As we work toward an MVP, we’ll encounter an endless stream of distractions and side-requests. We avoid some of them, but sometimes those requests are just as important to the business as product work and can’t be avoided. That’s okay—we do our best to stick to the roadmap and communicate with stakeholders about how those small projects affect the overall timeline.
In the beginning we have an identity, a website, product features, presentations, swag, and more to design. Context switching can have a massive impact on efficiency and the overall quality of our work, so we try to block out time for each, and avoid doing them all at once. Julie Zhuo (VP Product, Facebook) regularly writes about unstructured time. This podcast she did with Hurry Slowly is great too.
We value unstructured time so much, we baked it into our creation model (in the form of Sprint Week). When it’s time to start a new company, everyone at High Alpha clears their calendar and focuses their undivided attention on building a business model, prototype, and pitch around a new business concept.
In the early days, energy will be at an all-time high. Everyone is excited to get together and share ideas. It’s an amazing environment to be part of, and should absolutely be harnessed (in the right way). Recurring meetings creep up on us, and before we know it, we’re no longer using our time wisely. Be conscious of how effectively you’re spending your time together, and be on the lookout for meetings without an agenda. If you’re a designer or engineer who’s sitting in three-hour meetings that only semi-relate relate to you, politely ask if it’s necessary for you to be there, and get a recap later. Or if you’re comfortable taking the lead, present an agenda yourself, and be the one who keeps everyone on track.
5. Don’t Stop Building
Make as much as you can. Seriously, don’t stop. We iterate so often, we end up “throwing away” 80% of the total design work we create on the way to an MVP. That might sound like a massive waste, but it’s actually a crucial part of the process. If someone tells you they sat down and created anything on the first try, they’re probably just trying to impress you (lying). Everything we create has value, and informs the end product in some way or another. The faster we crank out designs, critique, iterate, and repeat, the faster we’ll get to a great product. Be weary of anything that keeps you from building.
Everything we create has value, and informs the end product in some way or another.
Most importantly, we just try to keep our wits about us, support each other, and have fun. Startups are absolute madness, and each new company will challenge us in ways we didn’t even know were possible.