Anyone who has entered the workforce in the past 10 years knows very well that life has a way of paying very little heed to our best laid plans. Nick Chirls, the co-founder and general partner of pre-seed investment fund Notation Capital, found that out quickly after graduating from Yale in 2007 and matriculating to Wall Street, where he thought his career in finance would take flight. However, Lehman Brothers wasn’t the most stable launching pad.
Nick recounted this story to our small band of InSITE fellows over huevos rancheros and bottomless coffee mugs last week in the first installment of the 2015-16 InSITE Breakfast Series. The InSITE program boasts a diverse group of fellows, sourcing talent from a handful of top doctoral programs, business and law schools. What we lack in shared background we make up for in a common thread of curiosity and willingness to explore unfamiliar territory. So when Nick said he left Lehman unsure what he would do next – just certain that he wanted to feel engaged and intellectually challenged –more than a few heads bobbed in knowing agreement.
Instead of returning to the world of finance, Nick joined forces with two friends at HappyFunCorp – a firm that specializes in web and mobile development. The company grew quickly, but for a second time in as many years Nick had an opportunity to transition again, this time from a position of ownership at his start up to one where he could serve as a mentor to (and investor in) others in the early stage of their company.
Nick took a job at the startup studio Betaworks when it was still in its infancy – he was one of the first couple dozen employees. The way he describes it, Betaworks at the beginning was a crash course in startups every day from the moment he walked in to well after the lights went out. He was involved in every aspect of developing the cadre of newfound companies, from business development to customer acquisition to technical execution and higher level strategy.
At this point, Nick took a beat and sat back in his chair, letting the momentum of his story rest a moment. He told us about what it was like in those early days, when, honestly, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to be doing, or how he was going to get it done. It was a small example of what we, as young people trying to make our way in the world of non-traditional career paths, negotiate daily. His story, like many others in the VC/startup space, is fraught with uncertainty and exploration. Fact is, he said, it can be scary. There isn’t always a road map, or a script, or someone to tell you which decisions to make or what to do when you get stuck. So, you keep on doing what you can and the best you can and surround yourself with the smartest, brightest, most dedicated people you can find.
Eventually, things work out. Nick thrived at Betaworks, becoming the company’s head of investments. This was again another steep learning curve, but one which armed him with the experience and skillset to adjudicate the wisdom of an investment with confidence, if not always certainty.
After three years in that role at Betaworks, Nick made what would be, he hopes, his last transition for a very long while. In 2014 he and the technical director at Betaworks left to found their own small-scale, pre-seed venture capital firm. Christened Notation Capital and located in the fast-developing tech-centric Gowanus region of Brooklyn, this was a sort of culmination for Nick. The firm specializes in making small-scale “pre seed” investments – less than $200K – in companies that are often no larger than the core team of founders. Nick and his partner are truly there from the beginning helping grow and structure their family of startups from the ground up.
Having himself been forced to adapt to what life threw his way, with the collapse of the financial world a year out of college then starting and leaving his own firm to become an in-house mentor for entrepreneurs just beginning their journey, Nick is well adjusted to the uncertainty in the world of venture capital. But, as he said when we had finished our eggs and drained the last of the coffee, that doesn’t mean it gets comfortable. Some days will be ecstatic, others grueling, either way, you keep moving forward.
Lex Kiefhaber is an MBA Candidate at Columbia and an InSITE Fellow. He recently escaped a career as an anti-teetotaler, working as the Wine Director at Smith and Wollensky NYC.