Founder Collective’s Eric Paley likes to say that when he graduated from Harvard Business School, only 1 percent of the class was headed into entrepreneurship. If that’s true, his partner David Frankel may have funded all of them.
And even as a young angel investor, Frankel seemed to be pretty good at it. He backed Chris Dixon’s company SiteAdvisor, which sold to McAfee for $74 million only a year after receiving funding. He backed Paley’s company Brontes (co-founded by their classmate and now partner Micah Rosenbloom) which sold to 3M in 2006 for $95 million. Context Optional ended up part of Adobe; Bragster was acquired by Guinness World Records; content platform Big Think remains active.
In each case, Frankel provided some or all of the seed capital to a fellow HBS 2003 grad. He had no thesis, just relationships with people he believed would achieve great things, an approach that he’s largely stuck with to this day. It’s working: this year, the Boston VC was named to the Up and Coming section of Forbes’ Midas list for his firm’s investments in companies like BuzzFeed, Makerbot, and Uber.
A Non-Compete That Included Everything But Business School
Frankel, who is South African, was just a year out of school when he founded Internet Solutions, which would become the nation’s primary internet service provider. He sold a majority share of the company to Dimension Data in 1997, and within a few years found himself looking for something new, tied to an aggressive non-compete.
And so he decided to do something he’d put off since receiving an acceptance years earlier: go to Harvard Business School.
Fast forward to 2008. Frankel had continued to prove adept as an angel investor, expanding his network but maintaining his talent-centric strategy and backing notable startups like Opower (founded by a friend of Paley’s). Paley, meanwhile, had sold Brontes and was being courted by Boston VC firms. Frankel had offers of his own to join Accel. Instead, the two decided to start a fund together, quickly adding Dixon – now working on Hunch – to the initial team.
When I met Frankel yesterday, I asked him how his approach had changed, going from an angel investor backing classmates to a VC at a firm that people have heard of. He acknowledged that he’d learned quite a bit over the years, but that the primary ‘signal’ that he looks for is still about people. Great talent isn’t enough, of course; it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. Timing and market opportunity matter, too. But his central strategy remains plumbing his network for great people and hearing what they’re working on.
Though his home is in Boston, Frankel’s network skews toward New York and Silicon Valley. Yet, he maintains that the Boston ecosystem is poised to excel in the coming wave of hardware innovation, and, like Paley, emphasized that Boston must do better at telling its own success stories.
He was quick to point out the contributions of MIT and Harvard to Boston’s success, including HBS. The latter has inarguably gotten more entrepreneurial since 2003, graduating many more founders than it did in Frankel’s day. One wonders how many winners he might have backed had it been that way then.