Accidental VC: How Much Does Design Matter for Seed-Stage Startups?

Accidental VC is a series of short posts written by me, Jay Acunzo. Though I never planned it, I somehow wound up working in VC as NextView’s VP of platform. As an operator, not an investor, I’m amazed at how many casual, throwaway comments that happen inside a VC’s office would be genuinely useful to entrepreneurs building their businesses. So this series is my attempt to share that knowledge beyond our walls … one overheard lesson at a time.

Few projects in an entrepreneur’s life can lead to more scope creep and more agony over little details than the company pitch deck. The overarching story and slide content are both monumental tasks by themselves, but then comes a laundry list of smaller things to decide: fonts, colors, icons, layout, and much, much more. I even had one veteran entrepreneur pull me aside in the office to ask which vector icon best illustrated “more sales.”

So it’s no wonder that one aspect of an early-stage startup’s existence can be perpetually up for debate: their graphic design.

Just how good should a young company’s various assets look? Does it matter? How much?

Now, I recognize that every founder wants their pitch deck and website design to be quality. Everyone wants to feel premium and impressive. But startups need to make tradeoffs, so the question is really, Does polished design matter, or should we focus on other things for now? 

The same debate around pitch deck design also extends to other important touchpoints: a company’s homepage, careers page, product pages, social media profiles, business cards, and so on. These all serve as doorways to different but important audiences that a founder needs to impress, ranging from investors to target customers or users to potential new hires.

Had you asked me before this week, I would have assumed that, in the era of “lean” everything and “Eff it/ship it” mentalities, the graphic design can wait, if only for a little while. Things should be legible, but they don’t need to be great.

But not so fast.

Something NextView partner Rob Go said the other day really stuck with me: “A little design goes a long way.”

For interactions that are typically met by snap judgments or perhaps create your first impression with someone, a little design love can provide that small boost you need to come across in a positive light.

Consider the fate of your deck after you send it to an investor post-meeting, for example. As your advocate, one of the first things that investor might do is share your deck among the partnership or perhaps to other firms. These are all busy individuals who may only glance at it, and they don’t benefit from hearing from you directly to form an opinion. So your design (in addition to your writing and a slew of other seemingly “unimportant” details) can help or hurt your crucial first impression.

Even if it helps to a small degree (though I’d argue it’s even more important), good design could be what you need to tip the scales in your favor and land that next meeting, that next key hire, or those first few customers.

A little design goes a long way

To focus on hiring briefly: Seed-stage startups lack early traction but make up for it with tons of promise. And it’s hard enough to convince top talent to join your team based on pure vision without having some shoddy design in tow. What you lack in press and track record you can make up for in future potential, and good design conveys that you’re serious about creating a premium-level company. It’s a great way to generate excitement and pride.

In the past year — my first in VC — I’ve heard investors practically cheer for a startup ahead of meeting them based on their design and branding skills. (What a great thing to happen to a startup!) On the other hand, I’ve also watched as top talent, once keen to meet a founder, suddenly changed their tune based on the lack of quality and care a given company seemed to put into its online presence.

I know what you’re thinking: This is all about optics, and you have more important things to do.

Design is a luxury. It can wait. Who cares about a handful of early reactions? We’ll grow and polish it later. True believers will see past it anyway.

It’s easy to write off. And that makes sense — sometimes, the tradeoff will still end with you focusing your efforts elsewhere.

But if it were me, the debate would be over before it began: Clean up that design, whether it’s your deck, your website, or something else. You can hire a professional, outsource to various marketplaces and task management platforms, or rely on any number of free tools. To name a few:

No matter what you choose to do, just don’t overlook the need for some polish, even if it’s just a slight upgrade. Because in the end, a little design can indeed go a long way.