Steve Schlafman has been an East Coast investor for roughly a decade — scouring deals for the Kraft Group ahead of joining Lerer Hippeau as an early employee, then spending more than four years as a principal with RRE Ventures before announcing on Twitter, to the surprise of some, that he was leaving the New York firm.
Many guessed that Schlafman, like a growing number of people right now, was setting off to create his own venture outfit. Today, Schlafman says it was a consideration and that he did a bit of research toward this end, but that as an identical twin, he’s not really programmed to work on his own. Enter Primary Venture Partners, a seed-stage firm in New York that was previously known as High Peaks Venture Partners and has backed numerous high-profile startups — Jet.com and Coupang among them — even while flying low itself.
Schlafman had been friends for years with co-founders Ben Sun and Brad Svrluga, co-investing with them in the civic app startup PublicStuff (acquired in 2015 by a better-funded peer), and turning to them for advice as he was figuring out his next moves. When they suggested that he join them as a venture partner, he thought the move made perfect sense. “It feels like buying a stock that’s on the rise in some ways,” he tells us.
More from our conversation yesterday, edited for length:
TC: Why did you leave RRE when you did?
SS: It was an incredibly hard decision, but after soul-searching about what I wanted to do long-term, I just felt that seed investing is where my heart is. RRE tends to be a Series A investor, and while I enjoy Series A, my super power is really spotting founders early and helping them along that journey.
TC: Were you thinking about launching your own fund?
SS: I was under the assumption at the time that I’d go start a fund as a solo GP, but after doing work [on the idea] for four or five months, I decided I didn’t want to work alone. I’m a collaborative person by nature, and the idea of working on my own for the next 18 to 36 months as a solo GP just wan’t attractive. I was in touch with Brad and Ben and they said, ‘What would think of joining forces with us?’ They’d been helping me think through different models, and it evolved that I could bring a lot to Primary.
TC: You’ve led deals in some companies that seemed strange at the time. I still remember chatting with you years ago about Breather, the on-demand network of meeting rooms, and thinking it was pretty far out there.
SS: I tend to like the weird things. I think part of the reason Primary works so well is that Ben has worked with transactional marketplaces, and Brad [knows] business-to business applications and I’ve traversed both worlds. I’ve also done things like [crime reporting app] Citizen, [indoor farming startup] Bowery Farming and Groups [an opiate treatment center and community]. That’s just my style, so I think they’re excited to get my brain to the table and bring a new perspective.
TC: ‘Venture partner’ means different things at different firms. Is this a part-time role?
SS: We did spend a lot of time talking about this, and there are a few roles that I’m going to play for them. Certainly, I’ll be being active on the investment team. I’ll also be helping with the broader firm strategy given the perspective I’ve gained by working in three investment firms previously.
But over the last six months, I’ve also been going through training to become an executive performance coach, which is something I really believe in. Not only have I personally gotten the benefit of coaching, but founders who’ve worked with coaches will tell you the experience transforms the way they lead. I plan to bring that to Primary, too.
TC: That’s interesting. Whose coaching program is it, and how involved is it?
It’s 250 hours of classroom [learning] and coaching at Leadership that Works, an accredited coach training program that [renowned VC-turned-coach] Jerry Colonna and other coaches at Reboot [a coaching firm Colonna co-founded nearly four years ago] have gone through.
For me, I’m married to a founder, and she’s been a big inspiration for me as an investor and taught me a lot about the daily grind of running a company. [I’ve learned much more about] not telling a founder how to run their company, but asking questions that ultimately help them make the tough decisions themselves. At the end of the day, I’m showing up for them and meeting them where they are in their process and hopefully helping them get to answers themselves versus being a traditional investor who tries to have all the answers.
TC: Are you on any boards right now?
SS: I’m not. I rolled off all my RRE boards when I left the firm.
TC: A year from now, will you be a general partner with Primary? I’m hearing the firm is raising another fund after closing its last fund with $60 million in 2016.
SS: Part of the appeal of working with Brad and Ben — and much of why I believe in Primary’s current trajectory — is that it’s building out the only true fund that’s focused on New York as a seed platform. Right now, I plan to spend half my time with them, and there will be a certain portion of my time spent evaluating alternative paths, in terms of maybe starting a company, or coaching could certainly be one of those paths I decide to take.
I’ll be working from Primary’s office every day like a team member, but I will have a bit of flexibility to explore a variety of avenues. It’s a fluid role. I imagine I’ll get entrenched pretty quickly, though.