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Designing the future: Making technology more accessible

Design matters. In 1980, when I was working on my first startup, Daisy Systems, I hired my first designer, David Kelly. This was long before his IDEO days and much to the chagrin of people who thought we were wasting precious venture money. The attitude towards design has since changed dramatically; mobile is the ultimate example. Cell phones were around for decades and then the iPhone came along and that changed everything. It also changed the perception of design’s role in technology, not just in terms of aesthetics but also in user experience and design thinking.

Design makes technology accessible and effective. Whether it’s hardware or software innovation, at Khosla Ventures, we understand design’s power to make even the most complicated technology usable. It even goes beyond that and has the ability to define a brand in a more organic way than traditional marketing is able to achieve. We see this in many of our portfolio companies from Nutanix’s IT console to Jawbone and Square’s consumer products. We constantly look for the best design thinkers to work with our portfolio companies, and today, I am excited to announce the newest addition to Khosla Ventures, design operating partner, Irene Au.

Anyone who uses the Internet has been touched by Irene’s work. She was among the earliest designers on the Internet and helped birth the first web browser to achieve mass adoption – Netscape. She then went onto join Yahoo as the company’s first interaction designer, where she established human centered design practices to influence web product development. Yahoo was one of the earliest companies that employed product design to define their brand with a strategy of “pull branding” by consumers instead of “push branding” by marketers. Somewhere along the way Yahoo lost its focus as a company and developed a muddled brand image.  Irene also spent six years scaling Google’s design organization, another “pull brand”, and pioneered the company’s simple design aesthetic. Since Google’s inception, focusing on users has been such a core value that branding was part of the UI design team in its earliest days. She also has spent most of her career mentoring some of the brightest design minds in the tech industry, many of whom have since gone onto influence design at such innovative companies as LinkedIn, Facebook, AirBnB, Twitter, Etsy and Rackspace, to name a few. Still others have joined design firms or started their own companies.

Already, KV portfolio companies, like Square, are industry leaders in their approach to design. They recognize that great design is as much, maybe even more, about what one leaves out as what one chooses to include. This is a practice that Jack Dorsey calls product editing instead of product management. Designers are akin to the great tradition of newspaper editors of yore, catering to their audiences’ needs with regard to product and experience. Among the hardest things about great design is identifying and doing a few key things really well. It takes great discipline to do this effectively, and Square’s approach to product development is a reflection of that discipline.

At Khosla Ventures, we have always believed in providing the best possible assistance to our entrepreneurs. It’s easy to simply get funding but getting good advice is much harder, which is why we continue to steadily grow our team of seasoned and experienced operators. Our operating partners offer real, targeted help to companies based on their long history of building organizations at the most senior levels. They have real life experience and actually have performed the tasks on which they now advise. Far too many people in venture have not earned this; since they themselves have not been in the same position. Design, though in vogue today, should be no exception. Irene has built and led design organizations and done interaction design, visual design, user research and front-end web development herself, enabling her to go well beyond design fashion statements to provide real, nuanced advice to entrepreneurs.

We believe advising entrepreneurs is a job laden with responsibility, and the best advisors turbo-charge companies, but only if they themselves have done enough to earn the right to advise entrepreneurs. With our advice, prodding and challenging, we’ve done our job if a team is able to expand its opportunity and potential.