This Former Hillary Staffer Is Building Aloe, A Self-Care App. Meet Amber Discko.

I know Amber via her kind and helpful Twitter presence (I *think* @Iano introduced us). So when she launched a recent Kickstarter for Aloe, a self-care app, it felt right to jump in and support her. As the project gained momentum I was surprised by two types of reactions: first, the large number of teens who really were into the idea, and second, the harassers who belittled the concept. As a friend, and now Aloe backer, I wanted to learn a bit more about Amber and Aloe, so Five Questions.


Hunter Walk: Besides the holder of an awesome name, who is Amber Discko?

Amber Discko: Professionally I’m a freelance digital strategist who most recently worked on the Hillary for America campaign, a creative strategist at Tumblr, and fun fact I was the community manager for Denny’s Diner back when it was innovative for a brand to be good on Twitter. Personally? I’m still figuring that one out. I live in Brooklyn, NY with my cat @ScotusCat and partner. I’m a huge fan of using social media to create social change and filling my followers feeds with wholesome memes and positivity.

HW: You spent a few years working at Tumblr. What was your gig there and what did being on the inside teach you about how people were using Tumblr?

AD: I was on the creative strategy team there which involved helping brands understand Tumblr and all the wonderful communities that make it so special. I’d also sometimes go to different agencies to talk about using the Tumblr platform and working with its creators. Talking about these communities constantly and seeing how they interacted and grew was really cool to watch. It definitely made me feel like I was witnessing something unique.

HW: Should platforms like Twitter or Facebook take stronger stances on harassment and hate speech or is it too slippery a slope to centralize this type of judgment instead of giving users the tools to moderate their own experiences?

AD: Yes I do believe social networks have a responsibility to protect its users from harassment and hate speech. As someone who was a target of online harassment for many years, the self moderating tools are nice to see. It just sucks that they allow people to cause so much pain to others. It would be nice to see more action and holding people accountable versus just making the community do the work. The people at the top of these platforms shaped their communities and allowed hate and harassment to thrive, it’s their responsibility to make it better if they truly care about their users.

HW: I backed your Kickstarter for Aloe, a self-care app. What’s the origin story behind the project?

AD: Thank you so much for backing!!! Long story short, I was not taking care of myself while working on the Hillary Clinton campaign. I realized that I kept forgetting to do basic tasks like drink water, give myself a break from the news cycle, and even eat. I created a self-care survey tool which I used to help me check-in with myself at various times throughout the day by setting alarm reminders on my phone. It was the only thing that seemed to be working for me. After the Inauguration, I decided to share my tool and start building this new community around a topic that is so important, especially now. I noticed a lot of people were using the check-in tool on mobile, and I kept getting people asking me for an app, so it only made sense.

HW: Since I follow you on Twitter, I’ve seen you RT a number of teenagers who seem really excited about Aloe, why do you think it’s connected with that demographic so intensely?

AD: Growing up I always felt an intense pressure to be “normal” or “fit in” and in return was always too hard on myself for how hard it seemed to be this way. I would have loved to have had a pocket cheerleader encouraging me on days that seemed extra hard. There’s so much pressure to be online and using social media, so having an app to remind someone to take a break when they need it is proven to be something that works. Since bringing this idea to life, hundreds of young people have come to me expressing how much they love Aloe and how excited they are for this app to come to life.

The reality though is that these teens can’t afford to back this app. That’s why I’ve made it so people can donate their beta ($30) or alpha tester ($60) account to someone in need. After the campaign ends I’ll be matching people with a sponsor and it will be really wholesome and good for all.

Thanks Amber! You can follow her on Twitter

Founders Should Set Aside More Equity for Their Team & “Split the Pain” With Investors

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As you can see, Weekend VC Twitter gets pretty wild and crazy!!!! But employee option pool is important enough that I wanted to briefly expand upon my comment above.

Employee options pools, typically created at the point of financings, shouldn’t be treated as haggling over dilution, but rather a strategic resource that will help founders build the best team and, by extension, a more valuable company. Satya and I rarely see less than a 10% pool created at seed and Series A, but are increasingly engaging with founders about 12-15% pools, especially if you’re going to be hiring in-demand engineers (computer vision, AI) and/or (more typically post Series A), building out a senior executive team. While you should expect these sorts of hires to take below market cash comp versus what Google is paying them, this tradeoff needs to be replaced with equity upside.

Since Homebrew typically leads/co-leads seed rounds, we assist in helping founders design and manage their pool against their hiring forecast. No one wants to run out of equity pool midway between financings (and larger seed rounds these days usually means more hiring pre-A)! As a result we’re often amenable to a CEO suggesting, “hey, I’ve thought about it and I’d actually like to create a 12% pool instead of a 10% one. What if we split the pain [ie increase pre-money valuation slightly on our end and founders take slightly more dilution off their end]?” To me these types of conversations, when backed by a hiring plan, show real maturity and proactively valuing the construction of a high quality team.

Of course these conversations also work best when both the founders and investors have had a productive, give-and-take negotiation up to this point. If I’ve been stretched to my absolute limit on pricing and beaten up a bit, it’s less likely I can dig deeper for these other points, even if I think they’re overall constructive. There just may not be any more flesh to give! But in most cases it’s worth at least engaging with your investors around strategic pool creation rather than just termsheet defaults.

“We are one of just 13 industrialized countries with a rising maternal mortality rate” – Christy Turlington Burns on Fighting for Healthy Mothers

I’d open this post by saying “Christy Turlington Burns works tirelessly to improve maternal health” except Christy doesn’t seem even recognize the concept of ‘tired.’ Attribute this energy to her yoga and running dedication, or maybe the very personal experiences in Christy’s own pregnancy which caused her to start Every Mother Counts, but either way her internal combustion engine breaks the rules of physics. And it grabs everyone she meets, including me when I first learned about EMC and have been an enthusiastic supporter since, helping them connect with theSkimm and other startups which can spread their message. So it thrills me to share a bit more about Christy, EMC and being a public personality here in Five Questions.

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Christy doing work in Haiti

Hunter Walk: Every Mother Counts is a nonprofit focused on supporting maternal health. It’s difficult to imagine that mission would be controversial but we seem to be in an era where everything becomes politicized—including women’s bodies. How has this reality impacted the type of community building you do—does it make you more careful? More fearless?

Christy Turlington Burns: Our focus from the start has been to educate the public with the facts. Hundreds of thousands of girls and women die every year from largely preventable complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Every Mother Counts raises awareness of the issue and highlights the challenges and the solutions, of which there are many. Our goal is to ensure that every woman has the same chance to survive pregnancy and childbirth and thrive in motherhood.

The best way to achieve this is to have access to evidence-based information, good nutrition and quality health care well before pregnancy and throughout one’s reproductive years. There will always be those who want to hijack the conversation and put the value of individual lives at odds with one another when in fact, you cannot have one without the other. It can be frustrating and disheartening to see the constant efforts to lessen what we know to be essential and a human right, but that makes the work we support all the more urgent. We have to stick with the facts and work together to create change.

HW: When I first learned of EMC my assumption was that your work was outside the US, erroneously believing maternal health is a “solved problem” here in the US. In reality, there are still many challenges for women in our country too. As you built EMC did the scale of the challenges domestically surprise you? Has the situation in the US gotten better?

CTB: I became aware of the global problem after giving birth in the US and experiencing a childbirth complication personally in 2003. I soon learned that women around the world with the same complication die because they don’t have access to care. The majority of these deaths occur in the developing world but the US is ranked 46th in the world. That was almost more shocking to discover. Every day 2-3 American women die bringing life into the world and every 10 minutes a woman in the US suffers a near miss, a near-death experience from a complication during pregnancy or delivery. That’s what happened to me and to more women than people realize. We are also one of just 13 industrialized countries with a rising maternal mortality rate, which has been steadily climbing for the past two decades. This is unacceptable and should shock people. And it is only going to get worse with the decreases in funding for women’s health and cuts to Medicaid that have been proposed.

The future of Georgia's Obstetric workforce

The United States is going backwards and we must do something about it. Perhaps most troubling is the outrageous health disparities that exist for women of color in this country. Black women are as much as 4 times more likely to suffer or die from a pregnancy or childbirth related complication as white women. In some states such as Georgia, the number of counties without a single obstetric provider is staggering (“In much of rural Georgia, maternal healthcare is disappearing”). We created a film series in late 2015 to examine the contributing factors impacting American women called Giving Birth In America and to inform people about the maternal crisis here at home heading into an election year. The first three short films highlighted three states (New York, Florida, and Montana) and we will be releasing our 4th installment profiling Louisiana on in November.

HW: EMC has been pretty tech-forward, such as your 2015 participation in Apple’s Watch launch and use of social media. Any of this attributable to your upbringing in the Bay Area? Did you feel connected to Silicon Valley back then?

CTB: Being a part of the Apple Watch launch was really exciting. We have a very active community of supporters and running distance races such as a marathon or half marathon has become one of the ways we communicate how far some women have to walk when in need of healthcare. There are many common metaphors between childbirth and marathons that have proven effective in helping to convey what women go through to bring life into the world, and what is needed to get her to the finish line in good health.

Apple helped us to amplify our message by sharing their vast platform with Every Mother Counts. I grew up in the East Bay but left for NYC in 1987 and Silicon Valley was just starting to percolate. I still feel like a California girl at heart and come back as often as I can. My mother and one of my sisters are there and a few of our board members and many partners are based in the Bay Area. As a result, we have been cultivating a community on the West Coast through events and races and we are grateful to the Silicon Valley community for being so supportive and active on our behalf.

HW: You’ve been a recognizable, public figure since your teens. There’s always an opportunity to trade off your privacy, and that of your family, to promote the causes you care about, such as EMC. How have you decided where to draw the line on a public life versus a private one? And did that change over time?

CTB: I was barely a teenager when I started working as a model. I did not think that it would take me half of the places I have been since those early years when I would take the bus to Bart and commute into the city after school to work for Emporium Capwell or Macy’s. Modeling was hardly a childhood dream or destination in my mind, but it did offer me opportunity and life experiences beyond my wildest imagination. But I always saw myself doing more, making an impact of some kind. I have never sought the trappings that come with living a public life and I feel blessed to have had the option of leading a very private one.

My public persona has been useful for getting Every Mother Counts’ mission out in a broader way, but I am conscious of taking the focus off of me and my story and putting it on the challenges and solutions of a tractable problem. I also want my children to have the freedom to choose for themselves what lives they want to lead so their privacy is important for me to protect as their mother. I talk about them often in the work that I do, why it is so important and how it could impact their futures. Because my daughter’s birth is what put me on this path, our birth story is shared a lot, but I am careful not to exploit her and hope that she learns a bit of self-control as a result. We are living in a very strange time where we all know too much about everyone and it is hard to turn that around. I value discretion and anonymity immensely.  

HW: You’re a dedicated practitioner of yoga. Also a runner who has done multiple marathons. Do you listen to music or podcasts when you run (if so, what) or are you more the type who enjoys the silence and nature?

CTB: I am lucky to have discovered the benefits of yoga early in life and have had a practice since I was 18. I studied comparative religion and eastern philosophy at NYU’s Gallatin School and that deepened my practice substantially. I wrote a book called Living Yoga: Creating a life Practice (Hyperion 2002) and continue to thrive on all that the philosophy of yoga has to offer at every stage of my life. Before yoga, I was an active child and teenager and played soccer and softball, ran, skied and rode horses. Growing up in the Bay Area was great for all that.

I returned to running in 2011 when I trained for my first NYC marathon with Team EMC. Since then, I have run six full marathons and 10 half marathons and am training now for my 7th, the Berlin Marathon this fall. I have found yoga and meditation in running and so really enjoy the solitude and peace of no music. There is a lot of stimulation in the races themselves and live music along most marathon courses. It is a fun change from my day-to-day runs, but I prefer to go inward. Our running community is inspiring and we have had almost 80,000 people run on behalf of our organization. We still have a few spots left for the iconic New York Marathon on November 5th so email to join us!   

Thanks Christy! You can follow Christy and Every Mother Counts on Twitter, and donate to their work here

“the iPhone created a sea-change for women—as consumers but also as entrepreneurs” says BBG Ventures’ Susan Lyne

Susan Lyne founded BBG Ventures in 2014, just a year after we started Homebrew. New fund managers are generally a pretty collaborative group and we got to know the BBGV team, sharing dealflow and asking each other “is this normal?” when facing a weird one-off situation.  While her venture fund might be new, Susan’s resume is deeper and more impressive than most seasoned GPs, spanning executive tenures at iconic companies such as Disney, CEO of Martha Stewart Living and a number of public company Directorships. I learn from her every time we chat, and I’m excited to bring some of that to you via Five Questions.

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Hunter Walk: After a successful career on the operating side, what prompted starting BBG Ventures in 2014? What was the original relationship between BBGV and AOL/TW?

Susan Lyne: I was at Gilt from 2008-2013 when NYC saw its first big wave of female founders. The year I joined was the year the Apple app store launched. When I look back on it, I think the iPhone created a sea-change for women—as consumers but also as entrepreneurs. For every new door it opened, every efficiency it created, there was a woman (or 20) who imagined something else she could build on that mobile ecosystem.

Women are consumer problem solvers—it’s in our DNA—and NYC has always been a magnet for women with big ideas. I had an open door at Gilt for women who were starting companies, and it was Gilt founder Kevin Ryan who first suggested I raise a fund. But it wasn’t till I went to AOL that I got serious about it. Two things happened there: I found the perfect person to partner with: Nisha Dua. We had complementary networks and skillsets, and a shared belief that the time was right for a fund focused on women. And I found the perfect sponsor—Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, who believed in the thesis and agreed to back us. Our first fund was 100% backed by AOL.

HW: BBGV invests in startups where there’s at least one female founder. People might think on a sheer numbers game that that’s a disadvantage because you’re excluding a number of talented teams. And that strong companies with a female founder have a number of funding options. Why is your differentiation also a competitive advantage?

SL: You’re not the first person to ask whether the focus on women founders is a limitation. Here’s the thing: We’ve seen or been approached by almost 1800 startups since we launched, so there’s clearly not an issue with deal flow. There are a ton of women starting companies. We’ve invested in companies that have lots of funding options—like Zola, GlamSquad, Modsy, Lola—but also companies that were under the radar. No one was talking about The Wing, Flip, goTenna, when we first backed them, and they’ve all gone on raise from first-tier VCs. What we see is that more and more female founders want women on their cap table: A couple of founders have re-opened rounds for us; one even got a major investor to sell us secondary. We like to think we add value beyond a second x chromosome—operating experience, talent relationships, a direct line to companies that could potentially accelerate your growth. We’re also good listeners, we’re pretty good coaches, and we’re discreet—so if a founder needs to talk something out, we offer a safe haven.

HW: You’ve led, and served on the board of public companies such as Martha Stewart, GoPro and others. There’s a narrative among startups that the public markets should perhaps be avoided because they force short-term thinking. Do you agree? Are IPOs and long-term thinking incompatible?

SL: They don’t have to be. Look at Amazon—Bezos still plays the long game 20 years after the IPO. The reason he can do that is that he was clear from day one about how he planned to manage the company. His letter to shareholders that first year had a “buckle-up” message: We’re going for revenue growth and customer happiness, not near-term profits. I’m sure it pushed away a certain class of investors, but it said to everyone working at Amazon that short-term thinking wouldn’t be rewarded. Part of the avoidance right now is that private valuations have gotten ahead of the market. That, and the belief that staying private gives founders more control. But impatient investors can be just as challenging as the public markets. I think you’ll see more IPOs in the next few years. It’s still the best option for the vast majority of companies.

HW: Gender diversity and sexism have become more urgent topics in the venture industry. Are you encouraged by recent discussions? Many venture funds lack a female partner, let alone gender balance. What’s going to change this?

SL: I’m not sure “encouraged” really covers it. I admire the women who came forward to describe the harassment they’ve experienced fundraising—and I’m glad that it forced a few of the worst offenders to step down. But I’m pretty appalled reading about the NDA’s and ignored complaints that preceded the press coverage.

Look, fundamental change doesn’t happen fast in a community that’s as homogeneous and closed as venture capital. I think the biggest driver will be when a half dozen women-led companies exit as unicorns or IPO. When VCs start realizing they’re missing out on key deals because their networks are too insular—that’s when you’ll see a real drive for gender diversity.

HW: With a significant portion of your career in the media industry, what’s your reaction to the backlash against “journalism”—not just “fake news” but a more general distrust, reduction of authority? Will there ever again be news brands or bylines that we trust and have broad reach?

Yeah, it concerns me a lot. I’m old enough to remember a time when the country had a shared reality. We didn’t agree on what should be done about it, but we all saw the same footage of the Vietnam War and read the same facts about the Watergate break-in. The flip side of that was the huge amount of control it put in the hands of people who owned media companies. I’d never argue that we were better off then, but we saw in the last election how easy it is to use digital targeting to sow mistrust and hate.  You end up with a balkanized population that only sees or reads things that reinforce their beliefs. I’m not sure what the fix is. Especially with a president who has contempt for real news-gathering. I see it as a small victory that subs at both the NYT and the Washington Post are up materially since Trump took office. And I have to believe that there are people out there working on an antidote to the echo chamber phenomenon. Bad times produce breakthrough thinking—at least that’s what I’m counting on.

Thanks Susan! Go follow her on Twitter

“Everything is a marketing campaign now, even policy ideas” – Renee DiResta Connecting Politics, Anti-Vaxxers & Social Media

Badass. Renee DiResta is badass. Not self-proclaimed badass. But like seriously badass. Click on that bio link in the previous line. Look for yourself. Then read the below. Seriously badass. Enjoy Five Questions with Renee. 


Hunter Walk: You went from Wall St Trader to VC at OATV to operating side now at Haven, a logistics startup. Is there a consistent attribute underlying those different roles, or do they reflect changing perspectives on what interested you?

Renee DiResta: Some of it is changing perspectives, but the common thread is marketplaces. I started at Jane Street as a clerk, writing code to automate myself out of the boring parts of my job (basically, writing scrapers because there were no APIs). When I freed up time, I asked the partners if I could start attending the trading classes even though I hadn’t been hired into that role, and that’s how I became a trader. I was a market maker, so it was my job to build models to derive fair value for certain types of emerging market equity derivatives; it’s a fast-paced environment with incomplete information. I loved it…did it through the financial crisis and the European debt crisis. In 2011, the market became less hectic and I started getting interested in pricing private companies—even less information! This was before the Facebook IPO. I was really interested in Second Market and idea of a market to trade pre-IPO shares. So I switched careers into venture capital because I wanted to learn the ways of valuing private companies. I guess I kind of did, as much as one can; it took me awhile to get my head around the ad hoc nature of seed deal pricing. I started focusing on hardware because it made more sense to me, mathematically.

I would never have helped to found Haven without these experiences. I saw our hardware portfolio companies struggling with their supply chains; they were overly reliant on expensive air freight because the ocean freight market was so opaque. I saw them literally calling freight forwarders on the phone—basically the brokers of the freight industry—getting charged some unknowable markup. There’s no transparency, and a lot of variability, and as I started doing research I learned that this affected even the largest shippers. Matt, Jeff, and I believed that there was an opportunity to bring market dynamics and workflow automation to the freight markets…better visibility into prices, access to a broader network of providers, eliminating the human error component in order entry, etc. All things that happened on Wall Street while I was a trader, as tech became more prevalent in trading. And I love being on the operating side. I can personally make an impact in a way that I was one degree removed from as an investor.

HW: When you dove into the world of anti-vaxxers you encountered some really interesting conclusions about how extreme groups use social media effectively, and how traditional voices are getting drowned out. Can you share an overview of what you discovered?

RD: After the 2016 election this is going to sound obvious but: our social network framework has created an easily-manipulatable environment that allows the loudest voices to get the most attention, facts be damned. And plenty of people have known this for years. In 2015 when we started working on the law to eliminate vaccine opt-outs in California, it became pretty obvious that there was an asymmetry of passion on social channels that was pretty much the opposite of actual public opinion (which is 85% in favor of vaccination requirements for school). I reached out to Gilad Lotan and we decided to map the network, to look at message dissemination techniques. On Twitter, we saw a very small minority of prolific users who spent their days shouting about vaccine conspiracy theories, changing the specific thrust of their messages over time to appeal to other communities.

These accounts were longtime pushers of the “vaccines cause autism” trope, but as it became clear that was a failing strategy, they started to reach out to Tea Party-dominated Twitter hashtags, to cloak their true objections under more relatable concerns about “parental choice” and “government overreach.”  We saw specific verbatim message coordination across networks, including automation—bot and cyborg accounts. Some of it was of course real grassroots, but there was a fair amount of manufactured consensus, overrepresentation of certain niche points of view. 26% of the tweets in the overwhelmingly anti-vaccine Twitter conversation were sent by .05% of the participants (literally, 10 people, five of whom didn’t live in California). That’s not representative of reality, but most regular people aren’t on social channels talking about how they vaccinate their children. They just do it.

The other piece of the problem is harassment. After 2016, I think attitudes on that have changed too, because now it’s affecting all types of people. Twitter let some pretty terrible stuff slide as “free speech” out of some combination of idealism and laziness, and as a result, they allowed free speech to stifle free expression. A subset of the people opposed to our law, for example, turned to extreme harassment as they realized they were losing; they went after our families and children, started doxxing legislators and lobbyists, etc. This is not conducive to healthy conversations about ideas, or growing real grassroots activism on either side of the political spectrum. It makes speaking up a liability, and that’s terrible for democracy.

HW: And this “manipulation” is becoming more pervasive across sectors by groups who have different goals (financial gain, electoral influence, and so on). Are the platforms like Twitter just caught in the middle or is there more of a role for them to adjudicate?

RD: Everything is a marketing campaign now, even policy ideas—they’re just marketing campaigns for an issue. The power to influence opinions lies with those who can most effectively disseminate a message. We’ve democratized propaganda, and created dissemination channels in which it can be effortlessly delivered by fake people (bots, sockpuppets, etc). State actors and terrorist groups realize this, and so do political parties and corporations. We’re in the midst of an arms race; no one wants to be the one not using all of the tools at their disposal.

For some reason we continue to let our tech platforms pretend that they bear no responsibility for the current dismal state of affairs, and that’s just not true. They are responsible. As long as they monetize attention and prioritize engagement above all else, as long as their recommendation engines push people further into echo chambers and down conspiracist rabbit holes, nothing is going to change. At the same time, I believe that the engineers and creators of these products are fundamentally good people. This was not what they built for. Engineers and designers have a lot of power here, and I think design ethics is going to be an increasingly important priority for tech companies.

HW: Post-2016 elections you’ve also gotten involved with some campaigns to assist their tech efforts. How did that come about and did being “on the ground” make you more or less encouraged with regards to the way Democrats/Progressives will use tech in 2017, 2018?

RD: I’m a centrist—in San Francisco, that makes me the most conservative person in the room—and I’ve been disappointed by the rise of the extreme fringe on both sides. I think it’s directly related to what I’ve described above, a system designed to engineer virality, which is basically a rage machine at this point. We have to do better, and that includes doing a better job reaching all Americans with real, accurate policy messages about the issues that matter to them, giving them better ways to connect with their representatives and moving beyond sensationalist, expensive TV ads.

The 2016 election really galvanized the tech community and as a result, there are dozens of new entities that help people be meaningfully active—using their talents in marketing, engineering, design. I led digital teams for the Thompson and Quist special elections for Tech for Campaigns. The Thompson campaign in particular was incredibly tech-savvy; James Thompson really leveraged Facebook Live and Twitter to connect on an individual level with the people in his district. With these special elections, we’ve been able to try out new and innovative tech-mediated strategies that will be useful in 2018. There are also campaign-agnostic communities like Data for Democracy, which has projects on everything from race ranking to policy analysis to exposing disinfo campaigns. The DCCC and DNC are receptive to what we’re sharing back with them. They’ve made some powerhouse hires. It’s not a quick fix, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

HW: Is Silicon Valley now serious about increasing diversity, improving the experience for women in the community? What metrics would you look at to understand if change is real or just posturing?

RD: I’ve been amazed by the tech industry’s willingness to take an unvarnished look at itself. I think that folks who do the hard work on diversity in tech are having a meaningful impact in changing attitudes, particularly around sexual harassment. Lots of women in groups I belong to were DMing articles to each other after the recent stories broke, saying, “Can you believe this is actually out there now?” Going forward, it’ll be very difficult for firms that excuse bad behavior; I don’t think it’ll remain hush-hush any longer, and that’s a big deal.

Buzz and press coverage aside, picking the right metrics is important. Diversity experts have deeper knowledge of this than me, but I see it as a funnel, and it’s important to track trends at all levels, from top-of-funnel talent pipelines to increasing diversity in C-level leadership positions. In my early 20s as a trader (there are very, very few female traders), I once asked about industry outreach efforts to recruit more women and heard “girls don’t want to be traders.” I think Wall Street lags tech in awareness, though, and out here in SV I think that excuse is basically done. I’ve seen increasing numbers of women in venture capital in the six years since I’ve been in SV, including as partners at top firms. VC firms like First Round are building communities not just for their female founders, but for women in tech in general (which I hope translates to more women starting companies!). The benefits of diversity on the bottom line are inarguable. And on that note, Haven is hiring.

Thanks Renee! Follow her on Twitter

“We have a common philosophy that it all starts with people” – Heather Hartnett on Human Ventures, NYC’s Startup Studio

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. 

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Thanks Heather. Follow her on Twitter and check out Human Ventures!

Heather Cheddar tv