The Design-First Approach
Building Products With People at the Center
The best technology products are those that emulate human nature rather than try to change it.
Most of the time, technology strikes a chord with us when it reflects our own nature back at us. Whether we deem a product successful can often be narrowed down to just a few core reasons: it inspired us and connected us to others; it functionally improved an everyday aspect of our lives; or it gave expanded or complete access to a utility (information, product, or service).
I’ve learned that developing a functional product that resonates with users requires a design-first approach to innovation, and that design must be rooted in the understanding of how people work, think, and take action.
I have been privileged to be part of product teams at companies like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Rent the Runway, and I currently serve as an advisor to lifestyle brand re – inc. While each organization is creating very different products, there are striking similarities to their approach, and the experience has shown me the various ways a design-first lens helps users and developers understand how things work.
Since joining Greylock’s investing team in January, I’ve focused on working with founders who operate under this mindset. The design-first approach has drawn me to companies developing tools across enterprise software, consumer commerce platforms, web3, and more. This includes my work with Josh McFarland on Scenery, a video collaboration platform whose Series A was recently led by Greylock. I’ve also been fortunate to work with David Thacker on Curated, which provides an ecommerce platform to connect consumers to experts for high-consideration purchases like sports gear.
The design-first approach is the overarching driver of innovation in several industries, and one that I believe will spur many successful startups. I’ve outlined some of the fundamentals below, and I recently joined the Greymatter podcast to discuss my perspective in greater detail, which you can listen to at the link below this essay.
Why (and How) To Take a Design-First Approach
As our partner Reid Hoffman has written, “If you develop a theory about how human beings identify themselves, connect with others, view themselves to be part of a group and pursue a theory of the good, the conclusions you reach can help you design a product or service that appeals to people on a fundamental level.”
To achieve that, product teams must be aligned on the same outcome: meeting users where they are, which means developing with empathy. As I witnessed firsthand as part of the team at YouTube tasked with launching their live sports product, being aligned on a single outcome – and understanding why it is the only true goal – is critical for keeping cohesion throughout endless testing cycles. Outstanding product teams and leaders are constantly in tune (and in direct communication) with their customers to design the best product experiences. Crucially, they embrace collaboration: they co-create roadmap plans with feedback from focus groups; experiment across both quantitative and qualitative variables; and ruthlessly prioritize feature requests. The best teams make decisions based on what makes most sense for the largest group of users – versus the users that are voicing their concerns the loudest.
Design-first has been the default approach in building personal tech over the past few decades. More recently, it’s also become the primary differentiator of enterprise software developed in highly competitive categories like productivity tools, fintech, and commerce infrastructure. Additionally, as nearly every industry has undergone a digital transformation, design-led innovation has been instrumental in bringing changes to sectors such as healthcare and transportation. As we get deeper into the era of web3, the strongest competitors will be those with design-centered product development.
I believe the following market sectors currently have – and will continue to attract – the best product and design leaders to tackle recent (and ever-evolving) changes in human behavior, technological innovation, and market opportunity.
Commerce: Enabling Experiences
Technology that enables cheaper, faster, and more direct access to products and services.
It’s become ever more important to design discovery and purchase experiences that feel non-transactional to the end customer. The intent is to build up a relationship that provides context, information, and personalization that encourages spending as the desired outcome.
When I worked at Rent the Runway, I learned the entire product experience was designed to facilitate a sense of ownership. The office was set up so that upon entering, you were met with a wall of customer photos – representing the core focus of giving every woman ownership over her “cinderella experience.” Facilitating the purchase of an RTR subscription is the goal, but the process involves educating the customer on the value proposition of renting (e.g. self-expression, sustainability, accessible luxury) before engaging in trial, purchase, and repeat usage.
Another important consideration in commerce is community. Community breeds loyalty, which in turn creates repeat value. At Rent the Runway and re—inc, I noticed the power of community-driven commerce. Recent trends point to young consumers recognizing higher authority and authenticity in peers vs in brands. At re—inc, we learned that launching a membership will empower our audience to think of the brand as both a marketplace of products and a staging ground for activism.
More recently, I’ve seen empathetic design in the way Curated continually delivers high-quality, personalized experiences to users of their platform. As Curated founder and CEO Eddie Vivas explains it, the company prioritizes matching users with the best expert versus matching with one who is the first available, demonstrating that finding the right fit is far more valuable than having a product right now.
Social: Presenting and Perceiving
Technology that enables self-expression and community.
On commerce platforms, users are coming on with high intent to purchase. Thus, incentive structures are designed to drive purchasing behavior. In contrast, users coming onto social platforms have mixed intent, so incentives are designed to offer distribution in exchange for consumer attention. For social platforms, the question is: how do you create the right incentive structure to empower people to use your product and do great things? The internet’s history inspires the answer: give people the tools to unlock the knowledge and network they need to do great things with like-minded people. For most internet platforms, the tool is what gets users hooked and incentives are what keeps them coming back. Platforms may differentiate based on communication medium (e.g. Twitter character limit, Snapchat ephemerality). Retention is based on driving success outcomes (is the platform driving distribution or monetization for its users?)
Another thing that becomes increasingly important to the success of social platforms is exclusivity. I saw this firsthand at YouTube where we were building for both content creators and publishers. For publishers, we were prioritizing monetization of content exclusive to the platform. For creators, the company prioritizes building an experience that would entice them to make YouTube their home platform e.g. the YouTube Partner program for platform feature access or YouTube Select for top category monetization).
Another emerging area is the potential for social platforms in crypto. As my colleague Christine Kim has written, web3 is evolving from a niche sub-sector into the underlying infrastructure of the next internet. We are entering a new internet age that is (again) redefining the concept of ownership. As we have evolved in complexity and potential from web 1.0, to web 2.0, and into web 3.0, we’re moving into a more user-centric world where information and services are more decentralized, private, and secure. Interestingly, a large part of the opportunity lies in the fact that crypto has historically lagged behind other industries from a design perspective.
Work: Getting it Done
Technology that enables better productivity and access to opportunity.
Perhaps the most straightforward area of applying product and design is to software enabling access to work and opportunity (or supercharging productivity). Similar to the wave of “consumerized” enterprise software products facilitating the evolution of commerce, founders building for the workplace are targeting stakeholders across consumer and enterprise. This is often because founders are typically tackling a fragmented market or system, or are looking to scale their model by subsidizing the end cost to consumers by partnering with larger enterprises.
While there are numerous new tools fueling more productive, collaborative, and invigorating workflows, they share a common thread: they are designed by those who’ve lived the frustration of products not created with how humans actually function in mind. In today’s competitive marketplace, such tools are no longer acceptable, and we welcome the opportunity to work with founders who feel the same.
Scenery, as I mentioned earlier, is bringing much-needed disruption to video editing tools through a collaborative platform. They’ve created a powerful tool that both consolidates your workflow and enables the social distribution of video, which I believe will be instrumental in furthering the development of video as a communication mechanism.
Across commerce, social, and work, there is open green field space to think about how to impact the lives of millions of people, shake up an industry, and leverage new technologies to design innovative products. I believe that taking a design-first approach is the best first step to tacking a problem in any one of these areas. Even more, product and company building takes a village. If you’re thinking about or actively building in any of these areas, I’d love to get connected.
You can listen to the podcast that was inspired by this essay at the link below, or wherever you get your podcasts. The transcript follows.
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greymatter, the podcast from Greylock, where we share stories from company builders and business leaders. I’m Heather Mack, Head of Editorial for Greylock.
Today, I’m happy to be talking with fellow Greylock colleague Maya Frai. Maya joined our investing team in January and is focused on working with founders building the next generation of consumer software.
Technology built for a wide range of consumers is Maya’s wheelhouse. Prior to joining us at Greylock, she was part of product design and development teams at Google, Facebook and Rent the Runway. She’s also an advisor to the startup Re Inc, which was founded by world cup champions.
Maya’s experience has distilled her focus to a core aspect of product development. Design centered products, which tend to be the ones that best resonate with us. The reason being, they are made to work in accordance with our existing behaviors, rather than attempt to change them. But of course, in the process of us embracing them, these products inevitably change almost everything about our everyday lives.
That’s a lot to unpack. So let’s dive in. Maya, thanks so much for joining me today.
Thanks so much for having me.
Before we get into product design and your path to becoming an investor, can you share a little about your personal background? Did you always know you wanted to build businesses?
So I was actually born and raised in Miami – and this was before all the [other VCs] moved to Miami in the last couple of months. I was born and raised there; my mother’s Brazilian, my dad’s Israeli. They met in Miami almost 30 or so years ago, and they started a jewelry company together. And ever since then, they’ve been working together and have been building up this business from the ground up. And I think that has actually really formulated a lot of how I think about building up a business (and thinking about businesses, especially small to medium size businesses). And in Miami it’s such a vibrant city and part of what I think about design and how I look out design is actually through my upbringing there.
Right before I was deciding to go to school. I wanted to do something of my own. I was fiddling around with a couple projects. One thing that I had built was an education platform actually for AP students. At the time I was such a nerd. I mean, I was writing outlines for all of these AP courses. And my friends actually had asked me, “Could I get these outlines to study for the exams?” And it actually evolved into so many requests that one friend was like, “You know what? You should just build a website and put all your outlines on this site.” And I was like, “Ok, sure, I’ll do this.” And so I put it on, and over the course of a month, I saw thousands of users coming to this site in order to prepare for their AP exams. And a couple months later, it ended up looking at multiple countries of people going to this site.
And that was one core example of me trying to use technology in such a way to share education. I joke often that it’s also where the biggest lesson I learned is that it’s really hard to monetize education platforms. I remember I had hooked up AdSense for a bit over the week to try to understand if this is something that I can monetize. Based on advertising over the course of a month, I think I had made a cent, and I realized that there’s a lot that goes into how you monetize a consumer product.
Thereafter, I got really fascinated about brands and I got really interested in starting a brand of my own. So my sister and I had gone to Brazil very often for months prior. And we’d come back with cheap swimwear – and very high quality swimwear. And in Miami, the best thing you do is go to the beach every other weekend. So we started this swimwear brand called Killer Ivy Swimwear, and it was all around empowering young women.
We designed all the swimwear, we had found all the partnerships, we’d done multiple trunk shows. It was 2014 and Instagram had just reached its peak popularity, so I remember building the entire business on Instagram. It was reaching out to photographers, getting models, from getting our first sale all through Instagram, and we were using Square to get transactions and trunk shows. And I just saw from every touchpoint of building up this brand, one, the creative side that I loved and the other, hard and grit that goes into trying to get your first transaction and get people to come back. And so I realized that technology really enables that. And I was like, How do I do this? How do I enable other people to start businesses?
So how did that set the tone for your path towards product design and development?
When I got to Cornell, I got very involved in the design community, and I started learning so much about computer science. I started learning so much about product, and learning about how to go about building a product. And that was really my first goal: How do I go about learning about really, truly building a business from the first principles of how to develop out a product, and from a lot of different experiences there, I had actually gone back to Miami for my freshman year. And I had gotten to know there was an event that the CTO of Rent the Runway was actually there at the time.
And this is also Miami back in like 2016, with virtually no tech whatsoever, like now it’s changed so dramatically. At that point I learned about Rent the Runway and I was able to land an internship there that following winter. And I remember going to Rent the Runway and understanding this just crazy logistical business, and understanding how they go about both building a really great product as well as a really great business.
And when I was there, I was really, really inspired by Jennifer Hyman. I think she was really able to build up this team that blended this creative aspect of fashion with technology.That’s kind of one of my first experiences working for a company in the industry and almost setting my own framework of how I think about the intersection between design product and technology.
And I remember at the time, having this question around, do I go all in on software engineering? Do I do the traditional path of going into software engineering, or do I go into product design? And I actually knew at the time the end goal was to get a job in product management. I saw product management as the beautiful intersection of those three areas. And I netted it out by talking with a friend. I was telling him I was worried, like, “I don’t necessarily think of myself as a designer. I’d never studied graphic design. I don’t think of myself as an artist.”
And I remember him mentioning where like, “This is just a way to structure your thinking and how to solve problems. And you almost just learn the ins and outs of the exact outcome that you’re trying to get to, a product, a business. And it all starts from understanding what users want.”
And I remember that really stuck with me, and I landed in a product design internship at Facebook. And I remember the first two weeks of that internship were the most interesting to me. We had gone through a product design camp, they took us through everything from Android design to localization, to the fundamentals of prototyping.
And at the end of the summer, I had worked on a number of different things there. I was primarily focused on the Facebook pages platform, which was funny enough, something that I used so often when I was building that business in Miami and same with my parents. So I definitely understood how to think about empathy for a product like that. And working with teams on the local side, working with teams on Instagram, and just being so entranced by what the Facebook team was doing.
So, I netted out at the end of the summer, talking with a bunch of product managers, people that were there at the time, especially the women product management teams like Fidji Simo or Ashley Yuki, and learning a lot from them on how to get to product management.
And it was really actually then learning about the Google APM internship of almost this next step as getting into product management more formally. In between that time though, I continued to do a bunch of different creative projects at Cornell, and it was right around the same time, it was March of 2018, when there were a lot of conversations around Me Too. The Me Too movement was really kicking up speed. It was something where it almost just hit us all. It just hit us all almost every week with a news story. And I remember at the time wanting to contribute, wanting to keep these stories relevant, wanting to better understand and better visualize the amazing women that were doing great things, not only for this movement, but in their own lives and their own industries.
And so I started a female empowerment platform at the time, a couple weeks later. It was called “Let’s Hear It”. Initially it started to be a discovery platform. It was like your directory, and you could filter by venture capital. You could filter by technology or politics and almost find your role model; find your role model and your key person that you would find inspiration from, and learn about them. Learn about their career, learn about how they’re thinking about their current movement or thinking about their place in all of this.
It was a way to create a discovery platform for a lot of these stories, as well as the ones that were the leading women in a number of different tech fall-outs at the time, like Susan Fowler and looking at a lot of her work and her publication around her opinions at the time. And it quickly evolved into a publication.
I started talking with a lot of these women and a lot of them were just so interested in sharing their story and inspiring the next generation of young women. And I remember at the time talking with a bunch of people that were subscribing to the newsletter or listening to some of the interviews that I had done. These were interviews with women from all walks of life, and it was just such an interesting process to learn more about some of these career journeys, and getting feedback from a couple people. I was thinking ,”What’s the next step for something like this?” And so many people had shared, “Maya, this is already so great. You can stop at inspiration.”
Inspiration’s such an important part about why people use platforms and why people listen to certain things. Inspiration can be a really key driver for really great work.
From then on, a couple months later, it was the summer, and I had joined Google as an APM intern. I was working on Google Search at the time. And one of the other things that actually came out from that summer was working with re-inc – funny enough, I’m Brazilian, but I don’t follow soccer very much. I follow Brazilian soccer – and the brand is founded by four World Cup soccer players. But I had only known the players through their work for gender or pay equity. I didn’t necessarily follow the soccer players via their leagues. So when I had seen that the players banded together to create this, and I was looking at the brand identity behind it, and looking at all of the purpose behind it, it was truly something where it’s like, I need to learn more. It was very much about the empowerment of people.
"Inspiration's such an important part about why people use platforms and why people listen to certain things. Inspiration can be a really key driver for really great work."
How did working with organizations focused on inspiration and empowerment influence your next career move in technology? I think it will be helpful for founders to hear how you took what you learned and applied to product design and development.
I knew that going into product management was the thing I wanted us to do after college. And it so happened that I landed the Google APM program. So the full time program, right after I got the internship, and I had just graduated Cornell December of 2019, and took a couple months right before joining YouTube in April of 2020. I joined YouTube right at the start of the pandemic, so this was a crazy time to join a new company, as well as be in a role as a product manager, where you’re dealing with so many different people. And so all of this was done fully virtually.
I joined YouTube, and at the time the team was tasked with launching live sports. And right before I joined the team, they had bought around 25 games of major league baseball. The main goal for the team was really to prepare for the bigger leagues, like the NFL. And YouTube at the time was in this turning point (and still continues to be) around paid content and elevating the content that’s live and available for streaming on YouTube. Live sports is the big one, right? So it’s where people still use cable for – just to watch live sports. And our general charter was, “Hey, we want to bring the technology around dynamic ad insertion, which is essentially the proprietary technology that personalizes ads in real time.”
You want personalized ads, and a lot of these traditional media companies don’t necessarily invest in that same technology. A lot of these ads are just burned into the streams.
What we tried to do at YouTube was this: we had essentially built out all of this DAI for short technology on YouTube TV, and we wanted to transport that over to the YouTube main platform so we could monetize live sports. Ideally, the whole strategy behind that is that we want to nail down the entire market of cord cutters. We want people to go watch on YouTube TV if they want to subscribe, or they can just watch it for free with ads on the YouTube main platform. And the YouTube main platform has 2 billion-plus users, so if you can nailed out that market of people watching live sports, you’ve definitely won a good portion of the market. And so, that was our primary strategy.
Walk us through the process. How did you go about implementing that?
We started thinking about, Okay, we have these games, we need to start testing them. And in the coming months we were still on the fence about whether or not we would even be able to test. The team had actually started testing on live news and some other content that we just had and could re-purpose in order to be prepared for the first game.
It was weird. We were in the chicken-egg problem where every month it was getting more updates. We were very much trying to get in tune with the MLB team, trying to get updates, trying to get a sense of how to continue to test the product. And you can imagine, I’m a first time PM trying to get things out the door, trying to keep up team morale. It was definitely a crash course in a number of things.
And at the end of the day, it’s a job in managing product, managing the outcome. And the outcome for live sports at the time was getting to that first initial launch, and showing proof of revenue. And because that was delayed for so long, and I was constantly in this chicken and egg where it’s like, Okay, I want to take this team with me in seeing the behind the scenes process of how we’re going about picking the games, but nothing was happening. We were constantly delayed. And so I was trying to balance this out with managing a pivot.
I was like, Okay, what can we do if this doesn’t happen? If we don’t get these live games, what’s the next best thing that we have on YouTube? And so we started exploring a couple different avenues, at the time eSports was booming. We had live streams hitting peak concurrencies, so highest, highest viewership at a given time for things like the SpaceX launch, for things like the eSports games. And we were constantly thinking about, okay, how do we apply this technology to these new content streams that are just peaking and are just surging during the pandemic?
And I guess the TL;DR on that is it’s not that easy. And I think we were trying to almost be scrappy about the technology, but because we had developed it in such a way where it was almost going to align with live sports the best.
And because we hadn’t tested that out, we don’t exactly know the limits of the technology for this content. And so, applying it to something like a different content category like eSports wasn’t the best one-to-one relationship. So we were working through those things. But again, I think what I really learned from that experience was truly understanding that he best developments often come from working with your team towards an outcome.
And so it was going this back and forth around making sure that the team was feeling like we were getting somewhere, while also showing that we had ideally some backup plan, and ideally some proof points for us to show at the end of the year. And so, right before I had left, we actually launched. That was great. We had launched basically about a year later, and I was right about to transition to my next team when we had our first live game.
From there, you moved into different verticals at Google. What were your primary takeaways from working at such a big company, in terms of lessons that are applicable to companies of all sizes?
I moved over to a different team within Google. It was Google’s food ordering team, as well as their reservations team, so it was kind of everything within the food vertical and was oriented around our team on search and maps.
We were working with a lot of marketplace-oriented food companies. So things like DoorDash or UberEats in helping them get more users via Google, and ideally through organic experiences, not necessarily always through advertising. And so it was actually this balance between building up organic experiences on search – to enable transactions, to enable end-to-end reservation, or to enable an end order – while fielding some of these concerns around disintermediation. Because for Google, the best thing it could do is acquire users, and then oftentimes they’ll leave. So search, you’ll issue a query, you see a bunch of links, then you leave Google.
There’s a lot to learn, again, in almost thinking about products in terms of meeting users where they are. And I think for Google search, it was really about showing people the highest relevance results and ideally getting them to their decision faster. So it was a question of how we get the highest signal in order to make that conversion more likely to happen? And so that was a lot of what we’d been tasked about in order to prove revenue and as well as to prove usage and conversion for these end customers that we worked with.
It was a really interesting crash course on how Google is just this giant acquisition engine. Very similar to YouTube – I was amazed because there’s so many things that go into just monetizing, not to mention the whole creator platform. And so there was so much to learn just in terms of being both a PM on a monetization team, to then switching over gears onto a consumer team.
Was it a natural progression to investing from there?
Overall, from that experience, I was really, really interested in understanding, Okay, I’ve had these experiences on product teams. I’ve talked with a bunch of different people, both in technology, as well as venture capital. And it was very much the decision around supporting early stage teams. I had been on a lot of teams where I could see scale. I could see getting to the next billion users. I could see getting next consumer shift, like at Rent the Runway or at Facebook where it was like, How do we almost elevate the product that exists already?
And I think a really big thing for me was just trying to understand what’s the process just from day one ,or even day zero. A lot of it I’ve actually been through, with a couple small checks I had done through angel investing over the last two years. I had gotten involved in a couple different companies. Also through re-inc, it was really just seeing that full process and just being there from really, really early days, and then just seeing how it’s just growing and growing month over month. That experience was truly, truly inspiring as well as telling for me, that I would love to do this every day and I would love to be part of this every day. And I think that’s really where you learn the most.
Right before I joined Google, I had been connected to M.G. on the Google ventures team ever since I had been an intern on the team, and he was kind enough to say, “Hey, why don’t you spend some time on our consumer team before heading out.” And that was really great, and the team over there is amazing and super design driven, super design oriented. And that was just a further validation. I was like, This is definitely something that I would love to do full time.
Greylock had been a firm that I had known for a couple years prior. I’d been involved with a couple other student events and always held Greylock in very high regard. I often tell people it really brings me back full circle because I was that 14 year old reading Reed Hoffman’s books, and reading about venture capital through a lot of the literature that Greylock puts out. So it was a full circle moment for me when Greylock had reached out and shared that there happened to be an opening on the team. And I think at the time it was such a serendipitous moment for me, it was very much in line with what I had been thinking about.
You’ve had some amazing background experience and with really incredible people – you mentioned in there Fidji Simo and Jennifer Hyman, who are amazing leaders. So from these past experiences, and how you think about approaching human focused product design, and how you work with teams? Building on that…How did that help you structure the specific areas of interest to invest in?
I like to think about the areas I’m interested in based on where companies can meet consumer needs and approach design from first principles, to really develop the best product to solve those consumer needs.
I think the first is really the team and the wedge, and this is really the differentiator. So the people and the starting entry point that differentiates them from others. And this could really be anything from Shopify starting from the liquid template language that enables custom storefronts, that then evolves into this truly beautiful infrastructure company that now many, many different companies are now built on top of it. And I think you could probably say the same about a lot of social platforms, where a lot of creators are now building businesses on top of it, same way as going back to the initial brand that I had started in Miami, built right on top of Instagram.
And I think the second thing is really the technologies. So these are the enablers. And I think this is really when you think about how founders came to execute the idea. So the idea could be coming into fruition based on personal experience, but what really probably gets them over the edge is a new technology that they are starting to experiment with, or starting to see that it’s further developed to the point where they can build a company that leverages the technology. I think AI is a big one here. I think the blockchain and crypto is a big one here. And it’s really these very, very new and interesting technologies that create the best innovations that ideally can achieve scale. And the last one is really markets. So these are really the tailwinds. These are the things that ideally push your company over the edge.
"The first thing I look for is the team and the wedge: the people and the starting entry point that differentiates them from others. The second point is the enabling technology that gets them over the edge."
How do you see companies building for today’s experiences? What do they need to keep in mind?
I think about this in a couple different ways. I think, it’s not necessarily just the public markets, it’s really the general sense of where consumers are. So this is actually a lot more economical and oriented around consumer behavior and almost government regulation as well. Almost thinking about the entire picture of macro economic activity, and really understanding how this is so impacted by how consumers think and how consumers spend and their reactions to certain things. And so I think it’s truly behavioral, and I think it then evolves into where markets price certain things, and how companies end up getting valued at their exit.
I think a lot of three different factors have altered how I think about certain companies. The simplest way that I like to think about a couple different areas is just like really understanding where founders can create a very design centric product.There’s so many things that go wrong in a company.The story of starting a company is just like day zero. I mean, everything after it is really where the bulk of the work comes from. But I do think that what I believe stays really consistent among successful teams is the focus on design.
And I also don’t mean that it’s just how the product looks or how it’s communicated, but it’s truly designed across product function. It’s around culture, it’s around organizational structure of the company, like all the inputs that you can control for. Right now the public markets can put a valuation at a company, but how do you control the inputs that you are working on day in and day out, that make your company really, really impactful?
I’ve always referenced Airbnb as like a really great example of this. I think from the get go, if you look at early interviews with Brian Chesky and the two founders, Nathan and Joe, they’ve had such a great setup from the day one in terms of leveraging each of their skill sets in navigating the first initial milestone for the company.
I think Brian and Joe especially nailed down design as being truly core to the development of their product. And they had this infamous storyboarding, the 10 star Airbnb experience. And that was one part of developing out the company. And the second was really thinking about design around the development of culture. And I think that was seen in installing the Airbnb replicas as their conference rooms. And now, many years later this move to a fully remote culture helps them even more, right? The conference rooms was all about achieving empathy for guests and hosts.
There’s so many examples, and it could be from founders that come from a design background or founders that are just super interested in leveraging design fundamentals and methodologies around building really great products. And I think it really comes down to just having empathy. I think as a product manager, you constantly need to be in tune with your customer, with your end user.
Another good example here, even just going back to designing products around inspiration is Pinterest. So Ben Silverman has really always prioritized user empathy, have always prioritized the user above everyone else. And he’s often said that, they have tons of dashboards, they have tons of metrics that they track, but they have always from the beginning emphasized this loyal community of people that love the product and are the ones that are using it day in and day out. So they have the feedback. These are the community driving product decisions. And if you have that line of connection to that community, then you can really create a really great product.
And I saw this at re-inc. I saw this at Facebook. I saw this at YouTube. I saw this at Rent the Runway. Community breeds loyalty, breeds so much interesting insights that you as a product manager just love. You want to get these insights from these people that are truly obsessed with your product. And I think so much of that is truly almost you have to create those opportunities. You have to create those opportunities for people to give feedback. And you have to have the mindset that you can take those as truly critical nuggets, that you can often digest. And then ideally put that back into how you’re thinking about designing your roadmap.
"Community breeds loyalty. It breeds so much interesting insights that you, as a product manager, just love. You want to get these insights from these people that are truly obsessed with your product. And you have to create opportunities for people to give that feedback, and have the mindset that you can take those truly critical nuggets of info that you can digest, and then, ideally, put that back into how you're designing your roadmap."
Let’s talk about how that’s playing out with your work here at Greylock so far. Where are you spending most of your time? Start with telling us about which deals you have worked on so far.
I started to work with David Thacker on this company called Curated. Curated is a marketplace for high consideration commerce purchases. So it’s really a company that allows you to not necessarily get connected with a chat bot, which was the situation before: If you wanted to ask a sales rep online to get advice on a certain product, you would probably ask a couple questions in this chat feature. And depending on the response, it would probably just delegate you to a customer support agent. Maybe they wouldn’t necessarily get into the nuances of exactly what you’re trying to get from a product.
Instead, what Curated tries to do is match you with an expert. One of the things that’s really resonated me with me that Eddie (Vivas) has mentioned about the company is that they’ll prioritize matching you with the best expert, versus matching you instantly with maybe the expert that isn’t the right fit. And I think that was really interesting because you could prioritize speed, but what he’s really prioritizing is quality.
It’s so important to have the best first experience because in commerce, the switching costs are pretty, pretty low. I would say, I think there’s certainly a lot of brands out there and it’s certainly very competitive. And so developing a super unique product in order to make that first experience, really, really great. Obviously the bar is going to be super high. And I definitely think that for businesses like this, I definitely saw the complexities of innovating with a new business model like this.
I saw this certainly at Rent the Runway where there’s this new model oriented around rental, where there’s a whole logistics operation that’s happening in the background just to make those shipments possible and efficient. And I think it’s just shown that in order to do something that’s new and different, there’s a lot of infrastructure that’s happening in the background.
Okay. And you’re also interested in all of the various aspects of how the way commerce is changing. So how are you thinking about this area as an investment opportunity?
Yeah. Commerce is such an interesting area, and I think it’s also really one of my favorite ways to think about tech and design because it’s really both social and transactional. And the other interesting thing about commerce is that it’s really dynamic.
And if you just take right now, right with inflation, if you think about the outcome of that, people are going to spend less on higher priced goods and discretionary spending or the pandemic where there was DoorDash increasing the revenue by 600%. And the pandemic just shifted this online spending pattern. And so I think it’s so interesting to see how commerce is this dynamic oriented business, which makes it really hard to start a company in this space, but truly when you have both a technical moat or a logistics moat around commerce, you can win a lot of strong user adoption and you don’t have to necessarily worry too much about revenue just because you are already driving purchasing behavior, so people are coming to you with high transaction intent. So it’s a little bit different than social platforms that have some mixed intent around it.
I think the interesting thing that I’ve really loved, always, about commerce and e-commerce businesses, both from technology companies in the space, as well as brands in the space is that it’s really always been about storytelling. And it’s always this question around, why do you want someone to spend their hard-earned money on your product over another? And as a brand, this is the number one thing we all think about. And I really noticed this in supporting the re-inc team, where we’ve always talked about brand positioning, we’ve always talked about how do we stay very true to our mission statement, which is very broad, it’s to reimagine the status quo. And it’s this similar way that you can look in Nike around empowering people to be like athletes, to adopt the athlete lifestyle and mindset.
And similar to re-inc, we want people to adopt the activist mindset. We want everyone in their own lives to think about how they both make an impact in their own lives, in order to make the lives of other people better. And this always been the anchor to everything we prioritize and decide on everything that we do.
So from partnerships to collections, to new products, we are always thinking about the impact that we have. And I think a lot of this has been certain products that we’ve developed that may not necessarily be core revenue drivers. It could just be a really interesting way of visually representing some of our core values. think for really commerce as a whole, what I feel like we’re really seeing is almost this massive transformation around distribution and thinking about relationships with your end customers.
I remember talking with another investor in commerce and he had put this quite well where we’ve almost gone from local distribution to bazaars and shops, to mass distribution, to marketplaces, to hyper-personalization. And we’re almost still moving back and forth between all of those with some overlap in between.
What’s been really interesting is following this e-commerce boom over the last couple of years. We saw this with the D2C boom, where everyone wanted to create a D2C brand and have that end-to-end conversation with their customers and truly own that relationship. And then we’ve also had advertising models where it just became about acquisition, and there was less and less direct relationship with our customers in that way, but you could achieve scale. I think it’s probably one of the most efficient ways of scaling your audience and reaching new audiences.
The interesting thing is trying to understand where you can find organic models of distribution. So I do think that there’s certainly a lot of interesting companies that are propping up just to help support these new purchasing models, and these new distribution models, from shipping to logistics, to operations and supply chain. I think there’s certainly going to be a lot more innovation around there as well.
Web 3.0 And crypto is going through an awkward stage right now, but it’s still a big area of focus for you and a few investors here as we’re getting through the next stage. So how do you think about that space as a whole?
Yeah, definitely. I think crypto is definitely a big space that’s getting a lot of attention right now, and I think crypto and going back to certain framework around companies, I think crypto blockchain is a great technology. I think it is certainly going to be the foundation of a lot of companies, the next generation consumer companies.
I think with crypto though, you both have community oriented design principles around crypto being developed right now. Not everything has to necessarily use the used blockchain technology in order to be successful in the next 10 years time. But what could also be interesting is companies that are just adopting the underlying design principles that some crypto communities have started to evangelize, and started to adopt.
And one of that is ownership – ownership around assets or ownership around certain media. A lot of this, I think, has already been starting to get a lot of excitement in the community around the creator economy or thinking about how people have already started to become independent on certain platforms.
The interesting thing about crypto is it does have a very large design problem at this moment in time. I think for a really long time, crypto has been associated with just the financial industry. For a really long time, there was the common perception around crypto just being an investible asset. It’s just all oriented around investing in a token or investing in Bitcoin. And I think it’s in its own definition, it truly is the financialization of an asset. And so I think because of that reason, a lot of users haven’t yet onboarded to the consumer facing application of it. And I think there is certainly now going to be a lot more interesting consumer applications, but the utility has yet to be proven out. I’m super, super excited about what is to come.
I think it’s certainly already seen success outcomes in terms of NFTs. When NFTs really took root, we had the first visual representation of a token. And I think in that such a way you can put an image to a financial asset. And I think so much of that is about design. And I think so much of that captures people’s attention. And I can only imagine the next set of applications that we have that are built on NFTs. I do think we’re entering truly a new wave of crypto applications, very similar to how the advent of mobile ushered in so many interesting consumer applications that we now use on a daily basis.
Yeah. And this is a good opportunity to talk about social, which, as you are saying, has a lot of overlap with everything.
Definitely. And I do think that social is definitely really at the core of a lot of the products I’ve worked on and certainly helped impact how I think about technology. And I think there’s certainly two aspects of social that I’ve always found really interesting. And I think the first piece is, social has always been about how we present ourselves online. And the second is how we engage with other people online. I think the beauty of a lot of social platforms is you get access to an audience, but you also get access to a tool. And I think you can evolve that into owning an audience and becoming a consistent content creator, but it can also just be a platform for consumption.
I think, going back to thinking about how new social platforms are innovating in this space, I think it’s actually largely been oriented around the creator, but I do also think that there’s going to be a lot of new, interesting models and new ways of driving authentic creation for the everyday creator on a lot of these platforms.
Overall within social platforms, what I’ve learned is I think founders and companies, they look to create tools that either offer distribution or a monetization for users. I do think that a lot of these platforms, they either do one or the other, or they try to focus a little bit more on distribution for a specific vertical. And I think going back to before, I think what happens a lot of the time is users will either appropriate some of these tools to do something totally different than what it was intended for, or it actually becomes this major part of how they think about their independent identity, how they think about work, how they start to monetize their content. And I mean, the best example here is certainly something like Substack or Medium.
Where two different companies approached it with two different models. And I think one was a little bit more focused on distribution, like Medium versus Substack, which was focused on monetization very on the onset. And I think for now there’s a lot of new, interesting individual led social platforms that may think about differentiation relative to the medium. So it’s like video or audio, as well as what is the first entry point in order to get users onboarded. So is it the tool? Is it the fact that you can create an audience? Is it the fact that you can monetize audience? So I feel like there’s definitely a lot of context collabs inside of some of these social platforms, and certainly very interesting in how new business models are going to be created in the coming years.
Going back to talking about crypto earlier, there’s certainly this underlying push on how users can own the data that they’re giving to some of these social platforms, and thinking about what the opportunity is around DAOs. And I think a DAO, in and of itself, is a social network. You’re getting a group of people together you’re trying to achieve a shared goal. And a lot of it is truly about trying to optimize for a shared level of interest in a certain topic.
The best examples of a lot of these DAO is investment collectives. You’re trying to reduce the barrier to entry, to invest in an asset on the internet. So something like an NFT and you can set up a DAO to do just that. When I started looking into DAO early last year, I really came from it from the perspective of thinking about how people can set up new and interesting projects, get a group of people together to contribute to that shared project. And it’s truly just become a really powerful way to organize people online, to crowdfund, as well as collaborate. And I think for any social platform to really be successful, it’s certainly a product of its people. And it’s certainly a product of whether or not people feel like they can consistently contribute.
Great. And so a lot of these elements at play with these other sectors, we’re talking about commerce, social, Web 3.0. They’re also at play with a lot of the new software that we’re seeing, especially with that enables remote work, hybrid work, anything that helps with productivity and collaboration. And we saw this with Greylock’s recent investment in Scenery, the firm led the series A and you worked closely with Josh McFarland on that partnership. So tell me about that.
Definitely. Yeah. Scenery was super fun companies to work on. Definitely one of the first deals that I’ve done at Greylock, and Josh was super, super great on getting me along for the journey for that company. And it’s really interesting because it’s one of those companies that I had been almost thinking about for the past couple of years, actually ever since joining YouTube and joining Facebook, is that when I started using some design tools like Sketch or then evolved into Figma, really saw this beauty of real time editing in the cloud. And I think it was almost a question of what other types of tools can come out from this.
I remember using Sketch, seeing already all of the different nuances that I had learned, all the certain shortcuts that I had done, and Figma coming in, they already had that. The switch from Sketch to Figma was actually super easy. And it was because Figma for such a long time, was so in tune with what product designers were already doing. And it was just a question of how to supercharge that, how to get them to the next level, how to level up the existing workflows that product designers were already doing. And Scenery’s doing exactly just that for video editing, for creating a video.
The last time I actually had set up a video was for “Let’s Hear It.” I was editing podcasts. I was editing a bunch of different content types, but the last thing I had done was a compilation video for international women’s day. And I remember we were trying to get certain points of feedback, and it was like a lot of these disparate workflows that you have with video. You’re recording things. It’s very similar to product design because it starts from an idea. It starts from this brainstorm with maybe a couple people or just individually. It then gets into this experimental mode where you’re trying to create a bunch of different things, and you’re creating and setting up different art boards to get that visualization. Ideally getting feedback here and there. You are using so many different tools to achieve even just that setup period of just getting to that first initial cut. And that’s not even to mention all the other edits that you need to do to get to the final cut.
I think video was just one of those big opportunities for disruption; for something that’s more collaborative, for something that’s more consolidated. That’s really the other big thing about Scenery – how do you consolidate all of these asset uploads, feedback, as well as storage, and just putting all of that into one tool? That is really, really powerful. And so when I saw the first demo of Scenery, I was like, Wow, these guys did it. That type of thing. These are repeat entrepreneurs in the video space, very perfect for solving a problem like this, and already had a working prototype of what this could look like. The social aspect to it is getting that network effect of people to use the tool. And then you’re just going to be seeing all these different creations that you’re just going to get inspired. You just want to create a video. And so I think there’s going to be a lot of really interesting organic marketing opportunities for Scenery, as well as some organic hooks to get people introduced into Scenery that I think, we’ve already seen some other companies do, but I think with video, we haven’t yet seen the same adoption.
In terms of adoption in terms of tech products, just because for so long, they’ve been using, Adobe as well as some of these disparate products like Frame. io for certain feedback cycles. So I think with something like Scenery, it’s just going to be this really powerful tool that both consolidates your workflow, as well as just think about how to really enable this social distribution of video that we’ve already seen has blown up on social platforms today. So I think adding Scenery to the mix is only going to further that development of video as a communication mechanism.
Well, Maya, that’s all really interesting, really cool areas to look into, lots of opportunities there, and anyone would be lucky to have you on their team with your background experience and your intelligence. So thank you so much for sharing all this with us today. Thanks for joining Greymatter..
Thanks so much.