When I was about 7 years old, my parents told me that if I had been female, my name would have been Heather. So when Joe Marchese introduced me to Heather Hartnett for more information about the NYC startup studio they were cofounding, I was predisposed to feel a kinship. Heather isn’t just building Human Ventures to be valuable, she’s building it to be meaningful and enduring. I can see this in the people they bring onboard and the founders they work with. I’m lucky enough to be a small personal investor in HV and the Five Questions below will give you a sense of why I’m excited.
Hunter Walk: Give readers a brief overview of Human Ventures and how you got involved.
Heather Hartnett: Human Ventures is what is now called a startup studio—a hybrid of early-stage VC fund and company builder. We’re based in the heart of New York City and our mission is to be the very best co-founder to the most talented entrepreneurs.
I started Human Ventures with initial backing and a push from a long-time friend and brilliant entrepreneur, Joe Marchese. Joe and I shared the same vision that we didn’t want to just add more money to the ecosystem. Instead, we wanted to create a fertile framework for builders to build, and to help bring valuable companies into existence. As you know, Megan O’Connor (now co-founder of our portfolio company, Clark) quickly joined us, and then Michael Letta, Human’s third partner and CFO/COO. Together we set out on this journey. After two years we now have an accomplished executive team, and will have 15 companies in our portfolio by the end of this year.
We have a common philosophy that it all starts with people (hence the name, Human). Our operational platform and valuable network help founders leverage their unique skills and form early teams to give them a distinctive edge in building industry-changing businesses.
HW: From my perspective, one of the biggest challenges with incubation is project lifecycle management. How do you decide that an idea should become a company, and have you had to kill any companies because they just weren’t working
HH: Fortunately, no, we haven’t had to kill any that have launched. However, we recognize and appreciate how early we are in the process. The bulk of the companies we’re working with are growing fast but are still fresh out of the gate.
Here are 3 ways we think about this:
- It’s important for us to have a person in place as early in the ideation process as possible. If we don’t have the right person (or two people) in place to drive an idea forward, we’re comfortable tabling it—we never launch a company without a founder in place.
- The founding dynamics and incentives mirror that of a company that is created on its own, but just with a lot more support and experience in place. Founders also get the benefit of learnings from their sister companies who often just went through the same challenge or opportunity a few months earlier.
- To increase objectivity, we bring in external investment early on so we’re not in the position of pricing our own companies. We sit on the side of the founder and we let the market value the company. Similar to the perspective that David Frankel takes in “I can grade you or teach you but I can’t do both.” This takes discipline, but we feel external validation is critical.
HW: Human Ventures is a close knit group—in the sense that many of the people involved as principals, founders are friends, spouses. How has this impacted the culture? Is keeping “business” and “personal” separate an outdated notion?
HH: Creating a deep sense of community and trust is very important for us at Human. In an industry where founders often burn out, can’t always be honest with how they’re doing, or feel deeply alone and in unchartered territory, it’s really empowering to work with people who you share your values. It doesn’t mean there isn’t constant pressure and competition, but in general, there’s something to knowing that you’re working with good humans that have your back. Especially when times get tough.
As far as my thoughts around working with friends and spouses, and the notion of business and personal merging; first and foremost the skills have to map to the job and every situation is different. I’m never quick to work with close friends or family for the obvious reasons. But when you can, and the trust is there, it can work very well. The simple question is, have you worked together successfully in a business situation before? If the answer is yes, having prior knowledge and experience of working with someone can be a huge advantage.
HW: Besides traditional financial metrics, how do you measure the health of Human Ventures?
HH: We’re very intentional about this. We spent a good amount of time on our company’s values and how we incorporate them into our hiring and operating plans. Ultimately, values dictate your culture and overall health as a company, so we’re deliberate about keeping each other accountable to them. We call it “Our Guide to Being Human” and in addition to measuring how we’re tracking against living those values, it also helps guide our bigger decisions.
From a network perspective, we measure how many quality founders we’re engaging and what our extended ecosystem looks like. We track how efficiently we can activate our network to build the right team and/or get expert help in areas where we don’t have in-house expertise. Another indicator that we use internally is the willingness of our direct and extended network to refer high caliber talent.
HW: Human Ventures does a good job of finding talented people outside of traditional tech backgrounds. When you’re talking with potential hires or founders, what qualities do you look for? Any favorite questions you ask them?
HH: This is a great question and one that speaks to how Human Ventures takes a different approach to other studios. We’re very interested in “the future of people,” which speaks to the name of our whole operation. How can you uncover the skills and motivations of a founder and early team members that might not be gleaned from their resume, their former industry, or the last title they held? In other words, are there non-traditional ways of evaluating an individual’s capacity that allows for skill mapping and personality matching? It’s been proven that skill sets, along with personality traits that work well together, make up the best performing teams. We have a framework that we use for bringing together our early teams and assessing execution ability. It’s early days, but we believe it’s core to the future of how well-rounded teams will and should form.
In a less methodical way, we look at qualitative traits as well. What is their tolerance for risk, desire to grow as a person, or influence in a particular sector? Our executive team has a lot of diversity in terms of background, so it naturally draws out different types of founder profiles. This requires different methods of evaluation—it has to go beyond the traditional tech profile and pattern recognition.
In terms of raw qualities, we like persistence, grit, and people who are keenly self aware. This one is really important, because it helps us build out a complimentary team. If you can’t articulate what you’re uniquely qualified to do, as well as where your weaknesses are, that’s a real flag for us.