What I’ve Learned Working at a Venture Studio

by Brigitte Hackler - Head of Finance, LTSE (Long Term Stock Exchange)

A reflection on two years working at High Alpha

I’m coming up on my two year anniversary at High Alpha, a Venture Studio based in Indianapolis, IN. The concept of a “venture studio” was new to me when I started — actually, the concept of venture was new to me. In the past two years, I’ve worked on the launch and early operations of ten companies and a couple venture funds, built a sizable t-shirt collection, witnessed the peaks and troughs of the startup lifecycle, and worked with some spectacular people along the way. I’ve learned a ton from this unique environment and wanted to share my top takeaways so far:

1. How to Embrace Ambiguity

taking a leap forward

I’ve become quite comfortable with ambiguity in the past two years (coming a long way from the world of auditing). Everything in startup life is ambiguous: from defining your product scope to figuring out who’s supposed to take out the office recycling. Ambiguity can be paralyzing — but startups don’t have the luxury to wait around for more information. In ambiguous situations, I’ve learned the importance of defining a target outcome and taking a step (or leap) forward toward progress. You may be completely wrong, but at least you’ll have gained new information to iterate on.

When we’re starting a new company at High Alpha, we use a lot of frameworks and fluid processes, which provide a starting point for an ambiguous problem or situation. Each new company is completely unique and has different challenges that we don’t yet know how to solve. I’ve learned to address the ambiguity methodically — make a rough plan, execute and adapt it until it just doesn’t fit anymore, then take your learnings back to the drawing board. Using resources like a pitch deck framework or a SaaS financial model template makes it easier to get going — you know your first iteration will be wrong, but define your goal and start somewhere.

2. How to Build Trust

and the effect it has on teams

In a startup environment, you’re working in a small team on a high-risk venture (re: ambiguity). Nothing is certain, there are no set processes, no historical data. Needless to say, you’re often relying on the trust you have in the people you’re working with in order to keep moving forward.

At High Alpha, I’ve seen the huge impact that trust can have on a team in a business setting. The outputs produced by a team built on trust are incredible. I’ve picked up a couple tips — by observing some great role models around me — on how to build trust.

Tip #1: show trust to gain trust. This I’ve learned from observing my own manager, Blake Koriath, our CFO. Blake shows a high degree of transparency with his team, which in turn earns him our trust and respect. It also instills in the team a sense of responsibility and ownership for the work ahead. The “think like an owner” mentality is essential for a healthy startup culture, but is impossible to cultivate if employees don’t feel trusted. Max Yoder, CEO of Lessonly, preaches the power of sharing your vulnerabilities, and as a leader, this goes a long way towards building a team that trusts you.

Tip #2: be reliable. Something I value immensely about the High Alpha team is everyone’s unshakable reliability and work ethic. I know the team will get the job done and then some because they’ve proven it time and again. I’ve heard Scott Dorsey, Managing Partner at High Alpha, speak about the trust necessary between a CEO and CFO, and how you build this trust by being extraordinarily reliable, thorough, and always delivering.

Tip # 3: be accurate. I’ve also learned the power of being meticulously accurate and owning up to what you don’t know. As soon as you make an avoidable mistake or are wrong about something that you pretended to know, you erode trust, which is then a lot harder to build back up. However, owning your mistakes and taking responsibility goes a long way in building back and maintaining trust.

3. What it Means to Dream Big

thinking about the world 10+ years from now

I was recently chatting with Eric Tobias, another partner at High Alpha, about businesses we start in the context of the macroeconomy. He made a comment about building businesses for the world 10 years from now, rather than the world today. This is how every good investor thinks, but the conversation stuck with me because as Eric noted, the challenge is envisioning what the world looks like in 10 years. A good idea solves a problem that exists today, but a great idea solves a problem that is going to exist in the future. Being around entrepreneurs and investors that think this way — about what will be — has made me look at the world and my role in it differently.

One of High Alpha’s core values is Dream Big, but I didn’t really internalize what this meant until recently. The problems of the future don’t look like those we’re solving today; the opportunities look different as well. Dreaming big involves widening your perspective and having a long-term vision that fits into an ambiguous future world. Of course, the next step is getting down to work, with grit and tenacity, to see out that vision. We’ve got a big vision and a lot of work ahead of us at High Alpha, but it’s been a fun ride so far.

Dreaming big at Machu Picchu