Highland Capital Partners Lunch Visit

StartLabs recently had lunch with Highland Capital Partners, one of the leading venture capital funds in the Boston area. Through a connection that also helped us get in touch with Skipper in our New York City trip (post coming soon!), we got to meet and chat with Freddie Martignetti, Craig Driscoll, and Bob Davis, three general partners in the fund, over lunch in the One Broadway Cambridge Innovation Center. Each one of these men has an amazing resume: Freddie is a graduate of Harvard Business School and founded Suffolk Equity Partners before joining Highland; Craig was an early partner in Beacon Power Corporation, which went public in 2000 for over $5 million, and currently leads recruiting for Highland; and Bob was the founder and CEO of Lycos, one of Highland’s first investments, and now sits board of nuTonomy.

Highland Capital’s brand is based off an active investing model. In addition to owning a part of a company’s equity, they sit on its executive board, attempting to leverage their experience set and networks to help to build the company’s value within their industry.

While some VC firms take approaches such as optimizing for data flow, the partners at Highland believe that by the time there’s a lot of data, the market is probably already overplayed. Instead, they try to look at the macro trends and judge where the next big “thematic concept” will be. In this way, they’ve become leaders in many fields, such as autonomous vehicles — they’re the leading investor in nuTonomy, having just helped them complete a $16 million Series A funding round. Additionally, this has allowed them to differentiate their approach to talent, especially young talent, and look out for people’s careers. So far they’ve been very successful, with 15 multi-billion dollar exits, and hopefully many more to come soon.

Currently, their focus lies in ideas like the future of work and software as service, whether that be B2B or B2C. Freddie and Craig talked to us about RemoteWork, a company that creates programs where you work remotely (surprise, surprise!), sort of as a combination of Airbnb, WeWork, and Catalant. Seventy-five students are selected for each program out of 3,000+ interested. Each cohort travels to 12 cities, one per month, across a wide range of geographies and locales. We were also informed about various opportunities that Highland Capital is related to, such as the E14 fund, a venture fund to exclusively fund companies out of the Media Lab. Specifically, Highland runs a summer program called “Summer at Highland,” a summer incubator in Boston and/or Palo Alto. The idea of the program is to nurture ideas, concepts, and teams, and hopefully help promising business ideas as through a partner/investor relationship. Applications will open mid-to-late December, will be in contact with MIT with official announcements. #YouHeardItHereFirst

We attempted to ask some thoughtful, critical questions, such as how to get people who are more experienced to work with you on a very risky new project, what makes a company a good investment, and how to find new market segments and startups of the future. We learned that it’s often hard to get someone with a lot experience to jump ship into uncharted waters (even harder than you think!). However, a lot of people like startups because they want to test out that risk: those who have stability but are bored and want more challenges join startups that they feel could be part of a revolution. In Highland’s experience, the most important thing for the success of a startup was the caliber of the team — the exceptionality of the founders. Importantly, only second to that would be the disruption of new markets or solutions to major problem. On the Venture Capital side of things, we realized that a lot of it comes down to hustle. As Freddie said, “Venture Capital is 60% hustle, 30% network, 10% intelligence.” To succeed in the world of venture capital, one has to motivate themselves to go out and find opportunities in spaces that aren’t obvious — both an art and a science in the method of approach.

“Venture Capital is 60% hustle, 30% network, 10% intelligence.”

To finish off, Craig gave us a reminder to consider one’s career management and optionality. With regards to startups, his highly reasonable advice was to split the difference, and not necessarily go to the 3 person startup or the huge huge company, but try to find a rapidly growing team where one’s skills could be clearly used, but one could also juggle many roles and gain experience in numerous fields.

All in all, it was a great visit to Highland, and we look forward to keeping in touch with them.

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