In April 2016, I joined the creative services team at Aspire Ventures in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I left the advertising agency world now for the third time and went back in-house…sort of.

Aspire Ventures (owned by Aspire Universal) is a venture capital fund/startup incubator/shared services internal agency located in the heart of the city of Lancaster, PA. Unlike many other VC firms, Aspire Ventures has a unique model. Without going into too much detail, here are the broad strokes.

Unlike many other VC firms where after a successful pitch a founder raises seed funding and goes solo into building their startup, Aspire Ventures works on the premise that once you get funding and become part of the portfolio, you get all of our benefits to help you succeed. Those benefits include physical space in our building to grow your team and work directly with our in-house experts and their teams from strategic growth, marketing, core technology and creative services. In essence, each of these departments act like an in-house agency that serves their “clients” aka our ventures. Aspire Ventures uses this model to give their ventures the best chance for success for positive growth.

As a designer and developer with years of experience working in-house and in agency settings, I find this model to be more of a hybrid between the two. While I work for one company, I work for every venture we have in our portfolio. With a diverse portfolio that includes many healthcare ventures, artificial intelligence, mobile security and predictive content marketing there is a lot of challenges for design.

Startups have been embracing design as part of their core business strategy for the last five years, understanding the need for well planned and executed user experience and brand identity. Companies like AirBnB, Uber, Zapier, Buffer, and InVision have extolled design as a cornerstone of their success. The ventures in our office also hold design with the same importance for their continued business success.

I’ve worked with a few startups in the past that had their first round of seed funding and they began to work in a bubble developing their product and growth goals without much thought given to design. All of them have failed. This isn’t solely because of their lack of design acumen, but rather a culmination of focusing on the wrong priorities. When it was time to launch a website, an app or product…the immediate knee-jerk reaction from the founders to poor response was always “The design doesn’t match the vision in my head” and then the heads roll.

Poor art direction and design systems will inevitably put your startup at a disadvantage. Agencies know this very well, and this is what many of their business plans are based around: branding/rebranding and development of a company in all things marketing related (aka the full service agency with design, technology partners, advertising, marketing, crisis communications, media production). All too often, most startups don’t have the funds to retain an agency and more importantly most agencies don’t have the time, knowledge or patience to understand the startups goals and industry (or creation of a new industry). In my experience, most agencies are behind the times in working in the startup arena. Their are certainly exceptions, but I wouldn’t out for a company like Big Spaceship to work with a tiny augmented reality company with less than $250,000 in capital. Another lesser reason why agencies eschew startup work is because of the potential of the startup getting bought and logistics of how the contracts will be negotiated for a clean exit.

Conversely, many startups opt to hire their own design team (be it a team of one person or maybe even a few people at first). The in-house team can be dedicated creating the brand identity, product and marketing efforts. When the right compensation is offered for a professional design team, startups can attract some amazing talent but all too often if the priority for design is low and the compensation isn’t there to attract the talent desired, often less experienced designers will be in the position to work with a startup. Now, this isn’t a bad thing if the time is taken to properly establish lines of communication and build a rapport with the team to understand the vision of the what the startup’s product or service is going to be, but that is not always the case. The smart founders know and understand the value of design and this a priority.

How Aspire Ventures work is quite different. Essentially, we are startup in a way as the incubator of shared services for our ventures, so we’re building the airplane as we fly. We do have much of our processes down and we are building systems around them to facilitate the best work. As an internal department that serves our ventures, our team is comprised of several motion graphics designers & video editors, copywriters, front-end developers, illustrators, and our creative project manager that serves the role of creative director and the traditional project manager. Our department is highly organized using PM tools like Wrike to coordinate our efforts and billing while we also use our daily standup to recap and give updates on what we are doing each day. Our open floor plan allows us to talk with each other easily and collaborate with other departments. While many of us look like we’re plugging away aimlessly with our headphones on, we’re all focused on our tasks and either using Slack to chat other departments or we just spin our chairs around for a quick real life talk.

This model allows us to iterate a lot and fast. With ten portfolio companies that use our shared services, you can bet we work efficiently…otherwise, we’d sink. The priority for design was part of our core since the beginning and as we grow we are developing better processes and systems that allow us to scale and continue to focus on designing the best experiences for our venture’s audiences.

So with that, this September take a look at the new Aspire Ventures website. Questions about startups and design? Drop me line.

August 3, 2016

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