Introducing Primary Venture Partners!

unnamedWhen my partner, Brad Svrluga, approached me about three years ago to join him to run High Peaks Venture Partners I wasn’t interested at first.  I was personally investing and helping start startups and was seeing real success and feeling very proud of the work that I was doing.  However, Brad presented the opportunity as one in which we would be reinventing High Peaks and I would be a true partner in setting a new path for the firm.  As a former entrepreneur of a venture backed startup, I had always wished my VCs would have done more to have supported my business.  And I also knew I was not the only entrepreneur that had felt that way.  I was excited about taking on this new challenge of building a VC firm that provided really impactful operational support as the next journey of my career.  The last two years have been an incredible experience.  We have set a new strategy and built a new platform of resources that I think will have a real impact on the NYC tech community.  Many people have asked me if I like being a VC versus being an entrepreneur.  I have told them I am still an entrepreneur as we have really co-founded a new VC firm over the last two years.  Now, with an evolved team, a strategy that is more focused and robust than ever, and a future full of promise, we thought it the opportune time to formally complete the transition with a wholly new identity.  So, we are thrilled to announce that as of this moment, High Peaks Venture Partners is now Primary Venture Partners.

For a fuller explanation of the thinking and process behind this transformation, please read the blog post on Brad’s blog, and let us know what you think of the new brand and identity. You can find us going forward at www.primary.vc, and on Twitter @PrimaryVC. Please help us spread the word today by sharing the blog post, etc. via your various social media channels!

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Great Opportunity – Venture Fellow Community Manager at High Peaks Venture Partners

High Peaks Venture Partners is an early stage venture capital firm based in New York City.  We are seeking a Venture Fellow Community Manager.   This program will be for 6 months and will be mainly responsible for the expansion of our Operating Partner Network (“OPN”) and Technical Advisor Network (“TAN”) in which we connect our portfolio companies with operating and technical experts to leverage their expertise. The Venture Fellow Community Manager will also assist our portfolio companies in accessing our OPN and TAN to solve operations problems and learn best practices. This is an exciting opportunity for those interested in getting greater exposure to the tech start up and venture capital community. You will have the opportunity to build an amazing network and get insights from top talent in NYC.

In the expansion of our Operating Partner Network or our Technical Advisor Network:

  1. Identify leaders in the startup and tech community
  2. Discuss opportunities to join High Peaks’ Operating Partner Network
  3. Enter information in our CRM system
  4. Assist portfolio companies in learning best practices, getting market intel, and hiring via the use of our Operating Partner Network
  5. Networking is a huge part of what we do in Venture Capital and we think this is a great opportunity to start building a presence in the NYC tech scene

Qualifications

  1. You love networking and have a genuine interest in helping people. You are a super connector. You need to be able to dig into people’s previous experience, motivations, and aspirations as well as develop an understanding of industry dynamics and can find the devil in the details.
  2. Strong business acumen. A strong interest in Ecommerce and SaaS really helps.   This is beyond knowing what SaaS stands for and/or having shopped on Amazon!
  3. You work hard.  Hustle is your middle name.
  4. You are not an A—hole.  You might be a superstar genius but if people don’t always refer to you as a “really nice person” then you definitely don’t belong here.
  5. You figure sh*t out and can work independently.   We don’t need to hold your hand to figure out what you have to do next.

Timing and other details

  1. Program is from February 2015 through July 2015.
  2. Venture Fellow Community Manager will be working primarily out of the office as you are expected to mostly be networking and gathering data from the field.
  3. You will receive a monthly stipend.

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Introducing Maple!

Last week, Maple officially announced its plans to launch a better food delivery service next year. The news was welcome with great fanfare (see a selection of stories below) and we couldn’t be more excited. A couple of our favorite entrepreneurs, CEO Caleb Merkl and COO Akshay Navle were working with High Peaks as an EIR and Venture Partner respectively when they founded the business, one of the most promising investments we made over the summer. We are excited to be part of Maple along with renowned chef and entrepreneur David Chang of Momofuku and other investors including Thrive Capital and Bessemer Ventures. Maple is will deliver delicious and healthy prepared meals to customers looking for more compelling food delivery options. We wanted to share this news with our friends at High Peaks as we look forward to supporting Caleb and Akshay in the development of this new culinary experience, and we hope you will also join us in enjoying their food! To find out when it launches in your neighborhood, sign up at www.trymaple.com. Bon appétit!

The New York Times

Momofuku’s David Chang Joins Food-Delivery Start-Up Maple

Business Insider

Ramen King David Chang Is Launching His Own Food Delivery App

Techcrunch

Momofuku Chef David Chang Backs Upcoming NYC Food Delivery Service Maple

Other

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Bet on The Jockey and Not the Horse

When people ask me how I invest in startups, I share the most important part of my strategy: bet on the jockey, and not the horse.

I first heard this analogy about 5 years ago from Michael Loeb, an incredibly successful entrepreneur, who shared this advice while graciously hosting a weekend trip for myself and other entrepreneurs. Nearly every seed investor says something similar – that the team matters more than the product – but this analogy stuck with me for several reasons:

  • It captures how distinct the two entities can be, yet how powerful in the right combination.
  • It makes it obvious who is driving success. A great horse will go nowhere without a passionate, savvy and motivated jockey racing against the competition.

When I made the transition from angel investor to institutional VC as a partner at High Peaks, I reflected on my years as an angel and realized that any mistakes I made were because I had not fully internalized this advice. My new partner Brad Svrluga had a similar experience over the dozen years as a VC; as he puts it: “I’ve always understood the jockey-horse lesson, yet every single year I feel like I learn it again and understand more and more how true it is.” The lesson really screamed out at us both, when we recounted our wins and losses. Our biggest mistakes came from when we compromised this value or thought there were enough compelling reasons to ignore it; our greatest successes came from embracing it.

Taking this strategy to the extreme, Brad and I made some bets on jockeys before they even had horses. Our first example is Akshay Navle. When I was first introduced by an angel investor, I had no idea what to expect. I took the meeting out of courtesy and scheduled just 30 minutes – which turned into 2 hours. Akshay told me amazing stories about his work and life and experiences, from building the ecommerce site for B&H to the long winding road between his start up and Quidsi (the parent company of Diapers.com). We got along well and I knew this guy was special – he had developed so many thriving and innovative businesses, yet he had a humility about him. He seemed like a young but talented jockey who expected his best race was still to come. We ended up working on a number of projects together, and last year, I brought him on at High Peaks as a Venture Partner.

Another favorite jockey is someone I met about a year ago when doing due diligence on a potential investment. I asked friends for contacts with experience in a specific industry, was introduced to Caleb Merkl, and was immediately blown away by how smart and insightful he is. We kept in touch and he later asked me for advice, since he wanted to be an entrepreneur but didn’t have a solid business idea yet. Like Akshay, Caleb seemed like a shooting star, so I convinced him to quit his job and become an Entrepreneur in Residence with us at High Peaks. That way he could learn from our approach and network, while developing his own business.

The plan worked well, and after about 6 months with us, Caleb teamed up with Akshay to develop a great idea and co-found a business together, with High Peaks as a seed investor. We may have lost an EIR and Venture Partner, but are more excited than ever because we get to be involved in this next journey. They are still in stealth, but we can’t wait to share more soon.

Brad and I love what we do because of this opportunity to work with great people.   We value great jockeys first and foremost (like Marc Lore of Jet.com or Rahul Gandhi at MakeSpace), and this is the foundation for how we invest in people, not just companies, at High Peaks.

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High Peaks MBA Associates Program – Now accepting applicants!

High Peaks Venture Partners is an early stage venture capital firm based in New York City.  We are seeking current MBA students in New York to participate in our MBA Associates program.   The MBA Associates will be specifically working on two main initiatives. The first is the expansion of our Operating Partner Network and and Technical Advisor Network in which we connect our portfolio companies with potential operating and technical experts to leverage their expertise. The second is to work with our investment team in conducting industry research to help refine and inform one of the investment theses that guide our investment and portfolio support strategy.

In the expansion of our Operating Partner Network or our Technical Advisor Network:

  1. Identify leaders in the startup and tech community
  2. Discuss opportunities to join High Peaks’ Operating Partner Network
  3. Enter information in our CRM system
  4. Assist portfolio companies in learning best practices, getting market intel, and hiring via the use of our Operating Partner Network
  5. Networking is a huge part of what we do in Venture Capital and we think this is a great opportunity to start building a presence in the NYC tech scene

In the industry research project you will:

  1. Work with our investment team in identifying the appropriate topic and thesis
  2. Conduct interviews via our Operating Partner Network or Technical Advisor Network to gather data and insights
  3. Get intelligence and point of views from other others in the Venture Capital community
  4. Present your findings at the end of the program to the Partnership and all other participants in the program

Qualifications

  1. Strong business acumen. Ideal candidates are currently enrolled in a top tier MBA program. A strong interest in Ecommerce and SaaS really helps.   This is beyond knowing what SaaS stands for and/or having shopped on Amazon!
  2. You love networking and have a genuine interest in helping people, beyond just building a business. You need to be able to dig into people’s previous experience, motivations, and aspirations as well as develop an understanding of industry dynamics and can find the devil in the details.
  3. You work hard.  Hustle is your middle name.
  4. You are not an A—hole.  You might be a superstar genius but if people don’t always refer to you as a “really nice person” then you definitely don’t belong here.
  5. You figure sh*t out and can work independently.   We don’t need to hold your hand to figure out what you have to do next.

Timing and other details

  1. MBA Associate program is from Sept 2014 through early January 2015.
  2. MBA Associates will be working primarily out of the office as you are expected to mostly be networking and gathering data from the field.

Email me your resume or LinkedIn Profile link at: ben@hpvp.com

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“We are all smart, Jeremy.”

CIA Director: What do you think of the girl? Jeremy: I think she's fucking smart. CIA Director: We're all smart, Jeremy.

CIA Director: What do you think of the girl?
Jeremy: I think she’s fucking smart.
CIA Director: We’re all smart, Jeremy.

It has been interesting to be on the other side of the table as the Venture Capitalist versus being an entrepreneur especially when it comes to evaluating the entrepreneur themselves.  I got a kick out of the fact that in our investment committee meetings that the most frequent response to the question “What do you think of the entrepreneur” would be “She/he is smart.”.  After seeing Zero Dark Thirty, I realized that it really is a crappy comment because it lacks any insights on the entrepreneur.  “We’re all f-cking smart” is now our immediate response when someone comments that the entrepreneur is smart.

So if everyone is smart, what else should we be looking for to determine if the entrepreneur will be successful?  As part of our evaluation process, we usually ask the following questions about the entrepreneur:

1. How much experience do they have that is relevant to the business?  Experience is a big deal.  Why?  Because you make less mistakes and mistakes equals cash burn.  Whether it is experience as a previous entrepreneur or in functional expertise or industry expertise, we consider that major pluses as we evaluate the potential success of that entrepreneur.

2. Is the entrepreneur coachable?  We don’t believe you should do whatever we say.  In fact, we don’t think you should do most things we suggest.  However, we think great entrepreneurs are always striving to be better and looking to solve problems.  Often when we bring up issues or questions, the entrepreneur may get very defensive or argue a counter position right away.  The best entrepreneurs are those that listen and take time to process the suggestion or question raised and are not afraid to say they were wrong or “I am going to look into that.”.  As investors, we want to help and if we feel like we are constantly being deflected instead of being treated as a partner, it usually doesn’t end up well.

3. Would you work for them?  This may be the most important trait of them all – the entrepreneur’s ability to hire.  There are three main responsibilities as CEO.  The first, you need to set the Company Vision.  Second, you need to make sure there is money in the bank.   Third, you need to Hire and Retain great talent.  When we evaluate the entrepreneur, we know that the Company is not a one man show.  Its success is based on the people that work there and being able to recruit A talent is a necessity.  Our test is to just ask ourselves “Would I work for them?”.  When you find great entrepreneurs, they have a level of magnetism that compels you to the point where you can envision working for them.  It’s based on charisma, sense of trust and a feeling that the person is a shooting star and you want to grab the tail of that comet and go along for the ride.  When you see that, you know that the person will be able to build great teams.

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Hire Uncomfortably!

When I started Community Connect Inc., I was 23 years old and my only job after graduating college was working at Merrill Lynch as an Investment Banking Analyst for 2 years.  I had never managed someone yet in my career and therefore never learned how to hire well.  I was recently reading the annual shareholders’ letters by Jeff Bezos and in the letter reviewing 1998 he writes the following:

During our hiring meetings, we ask people to consider three questions before making a decision:

Will you admire this person? If you think about the people you’ve admired in your life, they are probably people you’ve been able to learn from or take an example from. For myself, I’ve always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding. Life is definitely too short to do otherwise.

Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering? We want to fight entropy. The bar has to continuously go up. I ask people to visualize the company 5 years from now. At that point, each of us should look around and say, “The standards are so high now — boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!”

Along what dimension might this person be a superstar? Many people have unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us. It’s often something that’s not even related to their jobs. One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion (1978, I believe). I suspect it doesn’t help her in her everyday work, but it does make working here more fun if you can occasionally snag her in the hall with a quick challenge: “onomatopoeia!”

When I reflect on how I hired, I focused much more on  the question “Can this person do this job well?”.   However, I tended to hire people that didn’t intimidate me.  Meaning I avoided hiring people that were so smart, talented and knowledgeable that there was not much I can do to teach or instruct them on.  As a first time CEO and manager for that matter, I avoided those type of hires because I wanted to feel like I had full control.   It was like being a first time pro basketball head coach and then having Michael Jordan on your team.  Do you think being a first time head coach and coaching Michael Jordan would be a bit uncomfortable?  Definitely.  This insecurity pushes us to hire comfortably instead of what would be truly best for you as a manager or for the company.

The first time I hired uncomfortably was when I hired Court Cunningham as COO of Community Connect.  Court had more experience than me and is both an amazing strategic thinker and operator.  Court later went on to run Yodle which has been a very successful local marketing services company based here in NY.  Having Court around elevated my game because he pushed me in ways that I had not been pushed in the 8 years prior running the business.  I learned a valuable lesson at that point.  If you are not hiring uncomfortably, you are probably not hiring well.

I have a friend that was recently promoted to manage a team at a large media company.  She recently hired someone senior at her team and she said that she was intimidated by him because she said “he can probably do the job better than me”.  I told her hiring uncomfortably was a demonstration that she was hiring well which is one of the most important attributes in being a great manager.  As an investor, I see this hesitancy happen all the time with first time entrepreneurs.  To be a great entrepreneur, you need to embrace hiring uncomfortably and push your managers to do the same.  By doing so, you will constantly raise the bar and create an environment of excellence.

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