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Yves Behar: ‘Prototyping is the most important part’

Yves Behar of fuseproject presenting in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall at a Design Alliance Omaha event on February 24th. Pictured onscreen is fuseproject’s work for Puma, the “Puma Clever Little Bag.” Photo by Danny Schreiber.

For over an hour, renowned industrial design Yves Behar of San Francisco-based fuseproject spoke to attendees gathered for the Design Alliance Omaha (daOMA) speaker event this past Thursday, February 24th in the Joslyn Art Museum‘s historic Witherspoon Concert Hall.

In the opening of his talk, Behar recollected his entrance to the museum earlier that day and his thought to immediately ask, “Who was the architect?” He transitioned that thought into everyday life, bringing the importance of good design to the forefront. In fact, in the Q&A that followed his presentation he was asked what he thought was the greatest thing in need of a redesign. He quickly replied “everything” before mentioning a few items that stood out in his mind.

In his talk that preceded the Q&A he used examples from his acclaimed career to demonstrate the importance of design. Whether it’s the office chair for Herman Miller that took months of prototyping or the set of lighting that needed to provide a similar effect but be a less-expensive alternative to chandeliers, Behar and fuseproject have overcome a variety of desin challenges.

With my interest in startups, Behar particularly caught my attention when he spoke about entering into partnerships with stratups. For example, he and his team at fuseproject recently provided assistance to PACT, a maker of responsibly-manufactured, premium organic cotton underwear that gives 10% of its sales to social and environmental causes.

To learn more about Behar’s work with startups, I spoke with him after the event. The following is a transcript of our short discussion in which I only had time to ask him three questions. If you’re a designer or a startup, I strongly suggest you read Behar’s input below as it could very well change your plans for the week ahead.

Silicon Prairie News: What’s your approach to working with startup?

Yves Behar (left, photo by Alan Tipp): First of all, working with a startup has to be a partnership. What we do is have an approach we call “Design Venture,” where essentially we have a portfolio of companies that we believe in, that is diversified, that we invest in with sweat equity, royalty, or find some kind of ROI system.

The first thing you have to do is select or get a volume of interesting startups coming through, and then you sort of select the ones that you believe in. It’s not that different from a way a venture capitalist would pick his or her bets. Then, what you establish is essentially a partnership where you’re going to be able to work with a company for a while because the needs of startups aren’t just “Oh, we need to come up with a name and a logo and a website and we’re done.” The needs of a startup are ongoing…you need to be able to find a mechanism where you can constantly support them.

What we do essentially for them, and why venture capitalist like us to be involved, and angels like us to be involved, is we remove execution risk, which is the biggest challenge for anybody investing in a startup. It’s like, “Oh yeah, these guys are great technical guys…how good are they at commercializing, or how good are they at building a community, or how good are they at building a brand?” And that’s what we bring. We remove some execution risk and what we believe we do is create successful products.

What was it that got you to say, “I want to spend time working with startups?”

Behar: What got me excited about it was the ability to create a brand from soup to nuts, and to really create something that has longevity. When you do a name and a new brand, and you create a personality and the soul of a company, that lasts, that’s going to go on, that’s going to go on even, let’s say, some time when I’m not involved with it anymore. The notion of creating things that have longevity, rather than just seasonal design work, is certainly one that attracted me.

The other one is that fact that we could do things differently. We could move faster – I totally believe in the entrepreneurial spirit, which is: think big, start small, move fast. We could do all these things with design, and design is a great way to actualize things. Design is a great way to make reality happen before things are real. So, in a way, the kind of skills that we bring to a startup are actually essential because a startup has to show vision, has to always kind of look like it’s further down the road than it actually is, and design can do that for you. You know, design sort of both creates the basis, the foundation, as well as opportunities that are ahead.

Can you expand on the part of your talk regarding prototyping at fuseproject?

Behar: In many ways what we do is design prototyping, but it’s also business prototyping. You can do the same. Basically, prototyping is the most important part because that’s how you can stress test, that’s how you can test things with potential costumers and potential partners. If you have a story that’s well put together, that is compelling both in the way that it articulates the business and the value that the business has, then you’re much more likely to acquire partners, customers, etc.

I call that business prototyping, and because it’s a prototype, you’re not trying to build the final house, or the final business plan, you can iterate on it faster, you can prototype it, break it, throw it away and start a new prototype. Just as you can do with a chair, you do that with the notion of brand, with the notion of how you commercialize something, with a strategy, etc.

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