In October 2014, Slack raised $120 million in funding, enough cash to keep the company running for the next 60 years, CEO Stewart Butterfield told The Verge. But even in a market rich with venture capital, the story of Slack and Butterfield, who also co-founded photo sharing website Flickr, is an unusual one.
Fortune’s “The Unicorn List,” gathers stories of startups that turned their initial funding into billion-dollar businesses and raises the question: what leads startups to such rapid success? Google Ventures (GV) new book works to answer that question, and get you running with the unicorns.
As the venture capital arm of Google, GV supports promising startups with their expertise in design, recruiting, marketing, engineering and partnerships, throughout the seed, venture and growth stages of company development. With a portfolio that includes successes like Nest, FitStar and Blue Bottle Coffee, GV was referred to by The New York Times as ‘a venture fund that could count on one hand the number of its investments that had failed.’
GV’s design team helps its portfolio companies to overcome challenges by focusing on fine tuning user experience (UX). To do this, they created the design sprint: a set of activities grounded in models from the Institute of Design at Stanford University and the human-centered creative methodology conceptualized by Palo Alto international design firm IDEO. In a week long sprint, GV helps teams to quickly build, prototype and validate their ideas. The technique saves startups time and money by testing assumptions, before they actually design and develop a digital product.
Design Sprints at Work
The design sprints phases serve as a framework for fostering conversations, massaging ideas, turning them into critical paths for winning ventures and, above all, opening space for a democratization of ideas. As part of an organization regularly employing the design sprint, I’ve stumbled upon some interesting implementation examples that shed light on why they are effective.
Blue Bottle Coffee
If you love coffee, you must have heard of Blue Bottle Coffee, a California company that puts coffee in its customers cups within 48 hours of it being roasted. In 2013, the company faced the challenge of fully redesigning their website to help customers “discover their brand, and buy their coffee.” To fulfill that mandate, GV worked with Blue Bottle Coffee and Dynamo (the Montreal design agency where I work), in an intense week of discovery, sketching, testing, and planning for the new website.
I interviewed Bryan Mahoney, partner at Dynamo (and, full disclosure, my colleague), who described his experience working with Blue Bottle in a design sprint at GV’s headquarters. For Bryan, allowing participants to test different ideas and prototypes without making substantial investments is what sets the design sprint apart.
Alex Blumberg is the former co-host of Planet Money, and co-founder of Gimlet Media, “a network of high quality, narrative podcasts.” A few months ago, he started a show called Startup, in which he narrates the challenges of taking off with his startup idea.
In just a few months, his podcast enjoyed great success, and GV offered to help them visualize the unfolding of the startup’s future through a design sprint. Specifically, they worked to understand whether they should build an app or not.
Through the design sprint, Gimlet and GV were able to prototype and test a fully functional app. The startup saved hours of development and money, gaining better insight on the critical value proposition of their business and how customers perceived its translation into the app. If you want to explore their experience in detail, it’s been nicely documented on Startup’s thirteenth episode, and also in a video created by GV.
The design sprint is a replicable methodology, and many organizations are introducing it to their work process.
One of my favourite spin-offs comes from thoughtbot, a consultancy helping companies “to strategize, design, build and grow their products.”
In an interview, Kyle Fiedler, managing director of their Philadelphia office, told me that using GV’s blog posts about the design sprints as starting point, thoughtbot was able to widely incorporate the technique into all of their projects. For Kyle, the sprints enabled thoughtbot to better evaluate their assumptions, quickly redirecting their energy as new opportunities and threats arose.
The design sprint says a lot about the importance of building products grounded in human needs and emphasizes the need to learn fast and embracing change.
So get ready for the book launch and, in the meantime, start gathering reading materials, sort through what’s required, be open to learn, and run your own sprint.
Photo of Blue Bottle Coffee cup by Phil Dokas via flickr