NEA Studio wants to help good designers become better businesspeople

A good product needs good design. A good company needs a lot more.
With this in mind, New Enterprise Associates launched NEA Studio in April with the goal of helping design-centric companies navigate the saturated and scary tech business world. NEA, a global venture capital firm, began NEA Studio in New York to incubate what partner and founder of the studio Dayna Grayson calls the city’s “groundswell of design talent.”
According to Grayson, NEA focused on designers because their craft is the most important part of a product, a topic we’ll thoroughly cover at this year’s Roadmap conference in November. “Certainly in the consumer space, if a product is not immediately delightful, if it doesn’t immediately capture their attention, you lose them,” Grayson said. “It’s not tech that ends up winning, it’s design and user experience.”
That said, the creativity and open-mindedness that marks good designers doesn’t necessarily translate into making them practical — or profitable — businesspeople. “Someone like NEA can come in and give them structure, access to advisors, investors, a place to hang their hat for a while as they’re making the transition from not quite a business to really building a business,” Grayson said, adding that NEA will also be investing in some of these companies.

Advisor Albert Lee (standing) from IDEO speaks at NEA Studio.

IDEO’s Albert Lee (standing) advises at NEA Studio.

What this translates to is a recently ended 14-week program set in Union Square co-working space work-bench where 5 design-centric companies learned from a series of advisors how to successfully make a business out of their product. Nearly 100 designers and their companies applied to receive advice from a wide range of industry specialists — Liz Danzico, chair and cofounder of the MFA in Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts; Pulse cofounder and CEO Akshay KothariIDEO’s New York Location Director Albert Lee, to name a few — many of whom come from NEA’s portfolio.
The companies are mostly in stealth mode, so they didn’t want to be named, but those we spoke with seem to think the program works.
Some of Karta's themed maps

Some of Karta’s themed maps

Karta founders Samia Saleem and Dana Steffe were almost ready to launch their social mapping tool when they started the program. The site allows people to share themed maps — The World’s Best Coffee, Best Wall Art in Bombay/Mumbai, Ceilings of New York — with friends and people of similar interests. Users can add unlimited items to the map, accompanied by a picture and a tweet-sized explanation.
Formerly part of the design and user experience teams at Cuban Council, a design firm bought by Google+ last year, Saleem and Steffe had been working on Karta and freelancing for funds on the side since January. With the help of NEA they converted to full time and were able to launch their beta in July. They also were able to find a technology co-founder and are getting ready to launch a redesign based on feedback from the beta. Steffe said they already had a good grasp of the product but that at NEA they started “thinking above the product, about building a business outside of development and design.”
From IDEO’s Lee they learned about project maps and understanding user types. From Buzzfeed CEO and founder Jonah Peretti they discussed how to monetize their product and to look outside the travel revenue model.
“At NEA the possibilities became no longer high-level but a lot more legit,” Saleem said. “They validated that it’s OK to think bigger.”
Another designer who asked not to be named because he is focusing on fundraising efforts, said the business, finance and market advice helped him form a business foundation, while the connections he made while at the program aided in equal measure.
“Any program that helps either first time entrepreneurs or veteran entrepreneurs is very beneficial obviously,” he said. “Hearing advice from people is always helpful.”
NEA plans to hold some public events about entrepreneurship for designers this fall and are considering holding another 14-week program next summer.
For Karta’s Steffe, the objective of the program lasts much longer.  “It’s about thinking long-term rather than short-term,” she said.