Many of the world’s most innovative startups wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for GV, Google’s $2 billion venture capital fund. Their portfolio of 300 companies includes Uber, Slack, DocuSign, and Medium. We’re proud to say they’re part of the InVision community.
GV’s full-time design partners work with their portfolio companies on everything from marketing to engineering, to hiring and, of course, design. We sat down with GV Design Partner Jake Knapp to talk more about their 5-day design sprints, something he’s co-authored a book about.
How is the design team set up at GV?
We have 5 design partners. That word “partner” is obviously a venture thing, but we take it seriously. Within our design team, we’re an equal partnership. And that’s how we work with our startups—as partners.
Bill Maris placed a big bet on design when he founded GV. Back in 2009, he hired Braden Kowitz as the first design partner at any venture capital firm. Today, 5 design partners is unparalleled in venture capitalism.“Design makes our investments more valuable.”
We have so many design partners because we think design makes our investments more valuable. When GV invests in a startup, we’re saying that we believe that business can be many times larger than it is today.
Design can turn a founder’s vision into a product or service that perfectly fits the real world. So good design is good business.
What’s the structure of your team?
We help our companies with design in whatever way makes sense: coaching, advice, hiring, and so on. But our sprint process is the cornerstone of our work with startups. It’s the best way for our companies to tackle their biggest challenges.
The big idea of the sprint is to take a small team, clear the schedule for a week, and rapidly progress from problem to tested solution. On Monday, you make a map of the problem. On Tuesday, each individual sketches solutions. On Wednesday, you decide which sketches are strongest. On Thursday, you build realistic a prototype. And on Friday, you test that prototype with 5 target customers. It’s like fast-forwarding into the future to see your finished product in the market.“Design can turn a founder’s vision into a product that perfectly fits the real world.”
What’s the mix of designers on the design team like? How do they report and collaborate?
Michael, our design research partner, is … a researcher! Braden, Daniel, John, and I are all product designers—we each have experience leading design on products like Gmail, Digg, and YouTube. We also each have our own specialty, whether that’s interaction design, brand, writing, or facilitating.
All 5 of us are peers, so there’s no reporting structure. That probably sounds like a recipe for disaster, but in practice it really works.
Why do you structure your teams this way?
Sometimes we’ll all work together in a sprint. Other times we’ll split up and work individually. There’s no model for us to follow—we can’t look to another team of designers at a VC and say “Oh, let’s do it like that!” We have to experiment and evaluate and make it up as we go.
What is the design culture like?
We say ‘no’ a lot and try to focus on a few really important things. We all share a mindset of experimenting and improving. We don’t stick to the status quo—we’re not going to keep doing any method just because we’ve been doing it. We’re not afraid to stop things that aren’t working, or take risks on projects that we don’t all agree on.“We say ‘no’ a lot and try to focus on a few really important things.”
Basically, we have a lot of trust in each other. And we work hard to be honest and direct. For evidence, check out our Anxiety Party.
How’d it come to be like this?
As the first design partner, Braden set the tone. He was really responsible for recruiting our team and establishing the principles of experimentation. And a lot of it flows back to Bill. He always says, “I trust you guys. Make our startups successful.”
What’s the largest challenge of your team structure?
Surprisingly, it’s not decision making. We don’t aim for consensus, we just trust each other and do our own thing, or we work in twos and threes.
The big challenge is this constant sense of uncertainty, because nobody’s telling us what to do. Again, that’s where the Anxiety Party comes in.
How did you get to where you are now?
I’ve always been a computer nerd—I started by making games on a program called HyperCard back when I was in middle school, and did a bunch of Photoshop (back before it had layers!) and web design in high school. But then I went to college and studied painting, freaked out because I realized I wasn’t a real artist, dropped out of the painting major, and got a basic art degree.
All along, I was doing what amounts to design for fun, on the side. I decided to try doing it as a job, and I learned at first by experimentation, and then I was guided by excellent mentors at Microsoft and Google. I’m still learning design all the time—from Braden, Daniel, John, and Michael at GV and from all the smart people I get to work with at our startups.
What would you be doing for a living if the Internet didn’t exist?
Writing books. It’s hard, but super fun.
What do you think is the most powerful part of your design process?
The sprint. That answer should come as no surprise—after all, that’s what the book is about!
The sprint is a powerful method for applying design and making rapid progress. But the sprint also gives us the opportunity to work alongside our startups, and that’s allowed us to accumulate an amazing amount of experience.“The sprint is a powerful method for applying design and making rapid progress.”
In the past 4 years, we’ve worked with more than 100 companies—digging into problems with them, watching how they discussed decisions, watching customer research. That’s an amazing learning opportunity.
What does a typical day on the GV design team look like?
If it’s a sprint week, then you can very accurately predict what we’ll be doing by following the sprint structure. On non-sprint weeks, we might be doing office hours with startups, writing, or even working on internal projects like gv.com.
Can you run us through a typical design sprint?
The sprint is a 5-day process, where a team takes a big problem, clears their schedule, and follows a series of steps to progress through ideas, tough decisions, and a realistic prototype.
On Monday, the team creates a map of the problem and picks a target. Everyone builds a foundation together. And there’s no question about prioritization: the team leader sets one single, clear focus for the week.“If you run a sprint, you can see the future.”
On Tuesday, we come up with solutions—but there are no group brainstorms! Each individual sketches a detailed solution. This work happens quietly, and with plenty of time to focus.
On Wednesday, the team decides among the competing solutions with a process we call “The Sticky Decision.” It combines silent review and structured discussion. We do all this to minimize sales pitches and make sure all the ideas are evaluated fairly (and efficiently). In the end, the team leader makes a unilateral decision that’s informed by the team. That might sound harsh, but it eliminates a ton of second-guessing later on—and it keeps the design opinionated.“At GV, we often use InVision for prototyping.”
On Thursday, the winning sketches become a realistic prototype. So basically the team switches into Ocean’s Eleven mode: everybody has their special skill, we divide the work, and we get to it. All the decision-making and design flows are figured out earlier in the week, so it’s actually easy to make a realistic prototype in just a few focused hours.
Finally, on Friday, the team brings in 5 customers for one-on-one research. In another room, the sprint team watches over video and takes notes. By the end of the day, the patterns are easy to see. Teams don’t always get it right on the first try, of course. But there’s this amazing sense of clarity at the end of the sprint. Whether your ideas were a hit or whether they need to be reworked, you know what to do next. That’s a powerful thing.
How do you use InVision during your design sprints?
We often use InVision for prototyping. One thing we really like about InVision is that the sprint team can divide up the prototype—each person might use a different design tool (Photoshop or Sketch, for example), but you can stitch those disparate pieces together in InVision.
Later, when the sprint is over, that same prototype can be improved, shared, discussed, and so on—InVision offers room for the prototype to grow up.“InVision offers room for the prototype to grow up.”
What is the biggest problem in design today?
Most non-designers are intimidated by or dismissive of design, because it’s seen as the role of a special class of “creatives.” Design is just a way of solving problems. Designers, engineers, marketers, product managers, customer support, founders—everybody should be part of the design process. Better work and better products will be the result.
What role do you think designers should play in developing business strategy?
Designers have a lot to offer to business strategy. And it’s not just the typical answer about human-centered design. We designers have the ability to very quickly test a business strategy. We can use prototyping and research to fast-forward to the day when that strategy has been implemented in the market, to see if it’s right.
Too many strategies are cooked up in conference rooms and on spreadsheets. If you run a sprint, you can see the future. That’s only possible through design.
Photos by Peter Prato.