What's in a (venture capital) website ?
Late on Friday we launched the new website of Atlas Venture. The launch prompted me to tour our VC brethren in the Boston area and was surprised at how many have been redesigned recently: NorthBridge, General Catalyst, Charles River or Longworth. Since I am new to the Boston scene, I thought it would be fun to take a designer’s viewpoint on what VC’s are really trying to do with their online presence and how they’re faring.
The death of traditional copy and the vexing issue of differentiation
One of the challenges that all venture capitalists are dealing with is that we are all peddling essentially the same product. Funding “disruptive innovation” ? Check. Backing “world class entrepreneurs” ? Check. Building “World class companies” ? Check. Bizarrely no one wants to back dimwits with no ambition. To make the copy less obvious, some firms like Flybridge tone the style down and talk about working with “great entrepreneurs to build innovative companies”. At Atlas we went down the same route and talk about “partnering to solve difficult problems”. And since “disruptive” is the most overused word in the history of innovation, we got cute and talk of “non-linear innovation”. After all, I do sport a fractal on my blog, so why not…
Another piece of trivia found on VC website that has to make you smile is the entrepreneur testimonial. I am sure one could build a quote generator here with a very simple algorithm; “VC X has been [invaluable] [transformational] [momentously influential] [godlike in this abilities] and helped us transform our business from a dead end no hoper to a dominant world class player thanks to [an endless stream of incredibly valuable intros] [a relentless commitment to our success] [deep strategic insights delivered in an incredibly subtle and non patronizing manner].” And so on. Atlas’ previous site was a particularly bad offender in the mind-numbingly boring quote department and I always felt deeply for the poor company CEO’s who had to come up with these and try to make them sound vaguely different.
The bottom line is we all sound pretty much the same, so what is a venture capitalist to do ? How do VC’s, a population steeped in mythology and often deluded about their own influence on outcomes, adapt to the brave new world of the chastised venture capitalist, the SuperAngel meme, the new transparency ? Let’s look at how folks are trying to stand out in the world of venture 2.0 through the lens of their web presence. To make it a bit more fun I am declaring myself judge and jury and giving out awards. What is your view ?
Straight Talking Award: Kepha
If you’re a new shop and you don’t have an Apple or a Google to boast about, why not go with a low tech, plain talking approach. Jo Tango and Eric Hjerpe at Kepha Partners have done a great job of differentiating with an honest, simple style centered around a “back-to-basics” approach. The design sucks, but with this level of un-design that’s certainly on purpose (right guys ?). Mission, operating principles explained in jargon-free, direct manner, with a focus on entrepreneur SLA’s. They lost me a bit with the search for perfect haiku (“Presume Trust, Seek The Truth, Be At Cause”) but overall I give them 5 stars for pragmatism.
“Back to Me” Approach: Founder Collective
Founder Collective does a better job than anyone else at making you feel a personal connection with each of the members of the Collective. I love the way you can feel them reaching across the page to grab you and tell you their story. Eric says “It was painful at times, but I learned a ton about building lean businesses, because we were undercapitalized and sweating to make payroll". David says “our early forays into Internet enabled media & healthcare taught me poignantly that we are always better served betting on great people than themes and momentum.” Each of them tells a story with passion and humility. Like it !
Fresh design award: Longworth
There is really nothing that special about the Longworth site, but that’s partly the point. I liked the lean style, rounded edges, soft fonts, fresh and clean feel and in particular the very neat visualisation of Longworth by the Numbers. Here is your FAQ for the firm in one simple image. Economy of means is a beautiful thing. Well done.
Big Balls of Steel Award: Spark Capital
Spark’s randomized navigation site has been out for a while, and it can be frustrating to actually get to the information you need, but I have to give it to these guys: as a differentiated experience, it works. But what is most striking is the choice of words and sheer level of aggression and ambition that it is designed to convey: screw disruption, we’re gunning for “Blowups” and “Juggernauts”. The navigation serves the purpose and the message is implicit: you want to build big companies, you have to deal with uncertainty (as in the random navigation), messiness (as in you cannot easily find stuff) and have huge hairy goals (red and black, in your face, naked ambition). Overall, I like it and it can’t really be copied by anyone.
Best Overall Design Award: Matrix
You can take issue with the small fonts and the relatively classic feel of this website, but as a piece of VC web design the Matrix Partners effort does its job wonderfully well. Lead with entrepreneurs, clear navigation bar underneath, direct access to subsections from the navigation bar, clean and clear interface etc. It’s rich and deep and easy to navigate. They even manage to make some of their quotes work, because they keep the endorsement implicit. See Marc Fleury’s: “everybody told me JBoss would never succeed”. Nice touch.
I am only going to pick on people who I presume have better track records than we do, but here are a couple that puzzled me.
I will start with Bain Capital Ventures. Apparently, these guys are very good!; with my ass now covered, let me nitpick over their positioning. They have a section of how their approach is differentiated because a/ they have more people per $100m managed and b/ they contribute 15% of capital. I am naively reading that as a/ we employ a ton of junior folks and b/ we are very rich. Clicking on team I am counting no fewer than 35 “senior investment professionals”. The third leg of the differentiation pitch is on that famously elusive concept of “value-add” which lists “providing strategy counsel, recruiting additional managers, raising equity etc”. I bet every VC would write the same list. For my money the exercise is an own goal, or it may just highlight the difficulty in defining a messaging and positioning that works both at the early stages and in buyouts.
I also got slightly puzzled by General Catalyst’s new effort. Their refreshed website is pretty cool and very, very rich in content but one of those “could have been great but tries a little too hard”. Besides the little Sequoia induced smile of the tagline (“Entrepreneurs Investing in Entrepreneurs”) the navigation is where this one struggles. I am a sucker for good old analog interfaces that change when I decide they do and have big fat buttons. This one is full of movement with swishing lists and a confusing moving wall of pictures on a home page that mixes two fixed widths sections. Urgh. The team page can be filtered by company or by entrepreneur, which I bet is never used except by visitors like me who are compelled to understand why the many is used as a filter for the few.
The new Atlas site
We (shoutout to Dustin) got going with a 99Designs competition to get mockups of the layout done and then turned to the excellent Fresh Tilled Soil here in Boston to get the ergonomics and the code just right. I am a big fan of the architecture of John Pawson and Peter Zummthor and we were trying to get an incredibly streamlined website that would still make you feel at home and make us feel approachable. We like the Founder Collective or Google Ventures designs too which provided some inspiration. As an organization that’s gone through its share of changes, recently regrouped in Cambridge in our spanking new offices, the website is meant to be the visible piece of the evolution at Atlas. We’ll be adding some content, such as a few success stories (we’re struggling with how to fit the whole history of Atlas in there without hurting functionality and usability), but not much.
But, wait a second, there’s zero attempt at being social, engaging, connected, you say ? True ! And on purpose, too. Between blogs, twitter, plancast and facebook, there’s really no need to duplicate and we decided not to bring all that back to the site, to keep it completely clutter free.
It’s designed for you to get to the people you want to get to, fast. We have a simple FAQ on the site, but we’ll be using Quora or our blogs for more detailed policy questions (such as my view on high velocity seed investing). Another important consideration: we can maintain it easily through the WordPress CMS, and it’s content light.
And now walk the walk…
The death of traditional copy (“disruptive”!), the influence of app-style design and the consumerization of everything, the famous Sequoia search box and other factors have all led to VC’s sprucing up their online image to align with the times. Now let’s see us how many of us have also changed our ways meaningfully, and overcome the arrogance that has come to define our group in the mind of entrepreneurs. Let’s see who really walks the walk and matches behavior to their newfound online coolness.