3 Important Things I Learned from Early Stage VCs Today
The following post is from Debi Kleiman, Executive Director of The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship.
Talk about learning from the best! Today in Babson’s MIS3615 Tech Entrepreneurship Bootcamp we were fortunate to have three top Boston-based venture capitalists come to class and share their insights on tech entrepreneurship. I honestly wish we had all our students there, so many great lessons for our business-minded, young entrepreneurs at Babson. What came out in this session was the real deal.
Visiting us today was Rudina Sesari, co-founder of Glasswing Ventures, Jamie Goldstein founder of Pillar, and Nicole Stata, co-founder of Boston Seed Capital – a truly awesome group, for many reasons. It didn’t occur to me when I asked them to come to class but these investors are also all founders – creating a new breed of VC with a thoroughly modern approach. They’ve taken their experiences and knowledge, and dedicated themselves to not only really interesting investment philosophies but also to using their funds to help bring up the next generation of stand-out Boston tech companies.
I want to use this post to point out a few things that were said in the session that really stuck with me, but I am hopeful that the students in the class will also chime in via the comments section to add what they found to be most relevant and interesting from the discussion so others can learn from what we heard.
First, we talked about what it takes to be a founder and what kinds of skills tech investors look for in the founders that they consider funding. For all three, it wasn’t whether this person was technical or not, it was about whether this person had an insight into solving a problem that was new, different, or even disruptive. For this class, where the students, for the most part, didn’t have technical backgrounds, I think it was really important for them to hear that it’s not how tech your tech is. Rather, it’s about the idea and execution. That great business minds matter a lot in this process — the ability to understand customer needs, whether there’s a market for what you want to build, or how you will execute better than anyone else. It’s about being flexible and focused, and being willing to fail fast and intelligently.
We segued into a really thoughtful conversation about what’s hot in tech startups right now. A very cool conversation about AI and machine learning ensued. AI is a buzzword in nearly every pitch today, it is, no doubt, having a moment. As Jamie talked about access to computing power and Rudina added thoughts on automation, it became clear that we are at the beginning of another huge era of transformation for all kinds of businesses that will affect both our work and personal lives. And it’s really exciting stuff.
Nicole picked up this thread and discussed the digitization of the home, IoT and connected devices as well as voice powered automation. Again, opening a whole new lens on what’s next as we move closer to the Jetsons’ version of life on Earth. These tech trends are hot, but they are also much needed as they will improve healthcare, security and environmental arenas in unique ways. But they aren’t without controversy, as Jamie mentions, pointing to how robotics / robots will also change work and the jobs of the future. I could have listened to this go on for a lot longer, I think we were all starting to see this vision of how what’s next will touch nearly every part of our lives and that spells opportunity to every entrepreneur in the room.
The last topic I’ll mention was about people. I think that often the view of venture capitalists is that they are just about the big exit. But instead what I heard today was all about people – finding founders that they really believe in. Most of them invest in really early stage companies and there may not even be a fully formed product when they first meet these entrepreneurs. Jamie talked about wanting to really know their story – where are you from, what was it like growing up, what are you passionate about? Rudina referred to her portfolio companies as her children, she cares deeply about their success and being hands-on to solve problems with them. She will give time, effort, mentorship, ideas –whatever it takes to help them be successful. And Nicole’s approach was the same, it’s about the people, especially when it comes to the student entrepreneurs they’ve backed. They often have no track record or experience to de-risk them as an investment, but these VCs (and I suspect a few others around Boston) can spot pretty quickly what an entrepreneur is really about. They are looking for people who are trustworthy, open to learning, smart about failing fast and executing even faster, and have an attitude of busting through walls at every turn.
So, that’s what I learned today. Huge thanks to Jamie, Rudina and Nicole. It was so fun to see them together having this conversation with our students. What do you think of what they shared?