Betaworks and the Dance of Fashion and Technology

Debra Scherer speaks to key members of Betaworks, a New York-based start-up studio and seed stage venture capital firm, to discuss how tech is becoming a new form of fashion and uncover what fashion can learn from how the tech company designs its stylish digital products.

NEW YORK, United States — Clothing has always been one of the primary means of signalling to others your taste, your tribe, your aesthetic, your point of view. But over the years, fashion companies have started bringing, not just their name, but their aesthetic, their ethos, their culture to a much wider range of products, aiming to brand every inch of their customers’ lives — not just in their closets, but in their living rooms, bathrooms, country homes and hotel rooms. Indeed, today, many fashion brands aim to be complete lifestyle brands and, in this sense, the vast array of products that we use to express our lifestyles, from fragrances to smartphones, are now part of the fashion ecosystem.

Inside our “it-bags,” we all carry digital devices that may have initially been thought of as functional items (clothing once was, too) but very quickly have come to be defined, equally importantly, by their size, shape, colour, finishes and cases. Like clothing, these devices (and the apps they display on their home screens) now send important fashion signals to those around us, creating the same kinds of style tribes that have been one of the driving forces behind the fashion industry from the start.

Yes, your phone is a fashion signal just as how you dress might be considered your original home screen. The same is true of certain digital services. But as fashion companies slowly tune into this idea, do they have the potential to seep into, and bring their signalling power, to these new and important layers of our lives?

You may never have heard of them, but Betaworks, a New York-based start-up studio and seed stage venture capital firm, is a leader in understanding how apps and other Internet products can leverage design to emit fashion signals in the digital space. They bring an unspoken style, personality and functionality to all of their products, including popular apps like Bloglovin’, Digg, Instapaper, Tapestry, Bit.ly and Dots. They operate far from Silicon Valley and their offices feel more like a classic Parisian atelier, with big open spaces where experimentation is encouraged and artisans are at work creating beautiful things, surrounded by a curiously familiar installation of artwork by photographer Mark Borthwick, brother of Betaworks founder John Borthwick.

“We do one thing, but we do it several different ways. We love internet products and building internet products,” explained John Borthwick.

I sat down with John Borthwick and other key members of the Betaworks team to discuss how tech is becoming a form of fashion and uncover what fashion can learn from how the tech company designs its stylish products and services.

DS: So how do you develop products and services? What is the Betaworks way?

JB: With a focus on design sensibility, we started off, in the early days of Betaworks, focused on the social web. We were known as the guys doing things around the Twitter ecosystem. We built and sold to Twitter what became their search engine. We built Tweetdeck, Instapaper, Bit.ly, the shortening url — we built that up now into an independent company. We were first seed investors in Tumblr. We then moved into Bit.ly and Chartbeat, which is a measuring tool, and a lot of other wonderful data-related things.

DS: And now?

JB: In the last couple of years we have moved into “media as data” and obviously with a focus on mobile.

DS: Do you build every company from scratch?

JB: We build them, we bought few and we seed invest. Those are the three ways we do things around here. So, a company like Bloglovin’ was an investment, while Dots, our game app, is a company we built from scratch. And Digg is something we bought and relaunched.

Paul Murphy, CEO of Dots, the chart-topping iOS game developed by Betaworks, speaks to the unique sensibilities of Betaworks products. It’s hard to describe, but they just sort of make the ecosystem of your phone a little bit chicer, the same way that Bit.ly makes your tweet a little bit shorter and more elegant.

PM: When we think about recruiting, we know that the products are going to come from the personalities of the people that build them, so we spend a lot of time looking for creative talent that understands technology. It’s a bet on people who are thinking in a certain space and eventually creating great products.

DS: When I read that you guys had designed a game, I couldn’t wait to see what that was going to be like. How did it all come about?

PM: That really came about from one of our hackers in residence — we have 8 — who are focused on experimenting with different modes of interacting with the cell phones in everyone’s pockets, with the web, with data and, then from that, products start to emerge. We didn’t set out to build — or make a business plan and then spend months creating — that product. It’s all around experimentation, so that’s how Dots was formed. One of our hackers was experimenting with ways to progress throughout a story and in that process we realised that the thing he built was really fun, so we just spent the next four months iterating on that and, at the end of it, we had a game. That’s how a lot of our products come about.

DS: Why has design become so important to digital products?

PM: I think you’re going to see examples of successful start-up companies that value design and that don’t value design, and I think both of them will have a place. I use Gmail all of the time. I don’t think it’s a beautiful product, but it’s great. I think what we are doing with Dots is trying to take a point of view and that point of view is entertainment, art and fun, maybe with a little bit of science around what makes it addictive and enjoyable. 

DS: Do you think being in New York plays a part in your approach?

PM: Definitely, here in New York, there are people that value good design and strong design and they tend to emphasise that or prioritise that more than true tech companies. What’s interesting to us is that people spend 15 hours a day looking at their phone screen, so we care about the case we put on our phone, we care about the phone we buy, then we have stuff on our screen that says a lot about us, so why wouldn’t you care about the apps on that phone?

I think people do and I think that’s why there’s this space which is why apps like Bloglovin’ or games like Dots have really resonated with the fashion community, which is not necessarily where we come from.

CEO of Bloglovin’, Joy Marcus, explains the importance of striking the balance between beautiful design and simple functionality.

DS: What do you think is the aesthetic link between all of the Betaworks companies?

JM: I think that good design is becoming more and more important online. Consumers expect things to be beautiful. I think John and the team were pretty early in sort of envisioning the importance of design and a beautiful customer experience and I think that has been built into the ethos of Betaworks.

DS: Tell us how you came to Bloglovin’?

JM: When John and the Betaworks team approached me, I was very happy working as a VC (at Gotham Ventures) and I couldn’t imagine leaving that fun life. But honestly, when I first started using the product, I was so compelled by what I saw and it had a lot to do with the aesthetic. The difference between using Bloglovin’ and another RSS reader is like the difference between shopping on Amazon and shopping on a site like Net-a-Porter.

Sam Mandel, a parter at Betaworks, echoes Marcus as we sit in Betaworks’ big open-plan offices in New York’s Meatpacking District. And, looking around the space and seeing the company in action, it all comes together.

DS:  Where does the overall aesthetic of Betaworks come from? Is it a certain taste, a certain point of view?

SM: We are proud to be a cornerstone of the New York tech ecosystem. Part of it comes from John’s view originally. And his take on what he wanted to build was that design would always be very important. I don’t think we have an official design or an official aesthetic, but I do think it’s true if you look around at the setting, a certain sense of style is important to people. It’s expressed in different ways and people have different backgrounds, but it’s something we think is important. It’s part of our culture.

But we want the user experience to be paramount and for the design to reinforce that, not compete with it. Our objective is that every app that we build here, we want people to put it on their home screen.

DS: So I know you did a study of people’s home screens.

SM: We are very interested in data, generally. And with the home screen project — that is, research we are doing around what apps users put on the home screens of their phones — the rationale goes back to our core idea; we want to build products that people use everyday that make a difference in people’s lives. We started in a very hack-y and manual way, but now we have taken it a step farther and our data science group is trying to take a look at a bigger sample in a more scientific and less labour-intensive way. But the point of the exercise was to get some interesting information about just what the usage trends were to help us in our project of designing beautiful apps that people use everyday.

DS: I think a lot about home screen design and the choices people make. I have a few apps on my homescreen that I never actually use, but, for instance, the colour sense works well with some of the adjacent apps that I do use a lot. And in the same way that you might carry a certain designer bag, the apps on your homescreen send a public message about who you want people to think you are.

SM: You make a really good point about the relationship with fashion, because I think generally, one of the things technology has allowed people to do is to define themselves in a more complex way. In technology, definitely, one of the things that has happened in the last few years is that people have much, much more choice about what to do and how to do it. If you think back 20 years, there were certain core applications you used, like Microsoft Word. There wasn’t a lot of room for self-expression there. It was really about pure function and I think as digital media has developed, people have much more choice and so things like the user interface, the quality of the design and also the type of community that gets built around a certain app — all of those things sort of feed into that process of self-definition.

But the question remains: will fashion companies start seeing digital products that signal fashion and self as a way to become an even more integral and relevant part of their customers lives? Stay tuned.