The Highland Europe story and my story are one and the same, for the past twenty years anyhow. Although I began my career as and IT consultant with Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP) and enjoyed a genuine home-run entrepreneurial experience during the decade after college, the idea of investing in technology companies always intrigued me. I recall hearing the expression Venture Capital at Brown University, most likely in Engineering 9 or 90 introductory business studies classes with the one and only Professor Barrett Hazeltine, who provided life-long inspiration. In my senior year, I interviewed with Providence Equity Partners having no clue what PE was all about, and certainly no idea of the radio-station business which, if memory serves correctly, was a core investment strategy of that firm in 1989.
Not fit for the world of investing straight from Brown, I joined the company from which Cambridge Technology Partners was created. With a whopping $2M of venture capital led by a syndicate of VCs, CTP grew from one office in Cambridge, MA to 56 offices globally with over 5,000 employees, more than $600M revenue and a peak market value of $5B in 1999. We had taken the business public on the NASDAQ back in 1993 and as head of business development, I was fortunate to have had a lead role in shaping the equity story for that IPO. The die was cast. Tech investing was my destiny.
With that mind-set, I departed in 1993 for Harvard Business School to hone my finance skills and begin the process of navigating towards Venture Capital. I failed to capture the attention of VCs, with GA declining me for summer work in 1994. That was more than fortunate as Morgan Stanley not only delivered a wonderful summer experience but also brought me in touch with my one and only darling wife, Janey Kent.
Peter Brooke (RIP), founder of Advent International and doyen of the PE / VC industry, spoke to the class one evening and I remember him counselling anyone who had the ambition of becoming a Venture Capital or PE investor to get some operating experience first. Heeding his advice, I returned to CTP in 1995 leading Business Development and M&A for two years before jumping into an operating role running one of the businesses I had acquired. That was 1997. At the same time, I was working on launching a corporate VC fund which we called Cambridge Capital for which we raised $25M from our VCs, Board Members and Company Executives. 1997 is perhaps the best vintage of all time and that fund returned 10X with fourteen IPOs out of twenty investments and a number of successfully acquired companies. The failure rate was ridiculously low. From 1997 to 2001, I remained focused on my operating role and learned a great deal during this period. Thank you Peter Broke for your sage advice.
In 2001, RSA Security wanted to launch a Corporate Venture Fund and one of the board members – my former CEO and mentor Jim Sims – tapped me for help. From that perch at RSA, an investment opportunity in Ireland, brought me in touch with Highland Capital Partners and ultimately, I made the leap to the world of institutional VC in 2002.
One of my first investments was in VistaPrint and it was undoubtedly this successful and rewarding experience that shaped our current investment strategy. Although Highland Capital Partners was strictly early-stage focused at that time, as new kind on the block, I managed to navigate this Series B, growth-stage, $50M investment, through to completion and resolved from that moment that my personal investment strategy would be Europe, Tech, and Growth focused. To this day, that has not changed.
Indeed, VistaPrint, Photobox and ultimately Privalia were investments that had a formative impact on the strategy and shape of Highland Europe. While VistaPrint defined our investment strategy, it was through Photobox and Privalia that the team took shape. Events conspired in the context of the PhotoBox investment bringing my former HBS classmate Stan Laurent and I together for nearly a decade of collaboration before selling very well to PE. Stan ultimately joined Highland Europe – an idea of my Partners – but one I enthusiastically supported. It was Photobox that brought me back to Europe so often for board meetings and therefore brought me in touch with Laurence at a conference in 2006, but more on that later.
Irena joined from HBS in 2007 while still Boston based but the plan was to launch in Europe which we did in the summer of 2007. Shortly thereafter, we competed for Privalia and were somewhat crushed to learn that the founders Lucas Carne and Jose-Manuel Villanueva had decided to go with Insight, Sam Brooks and Larry Handen. Fortunately for us, the Privalia boys were having fun on that call and had decided to cut us in, more or less as equal partners.
For the next year, we had the pleasure of working at the board level with Sam. Turns out he had married an Irish girl who he met at Harvard College and as luck would have it, had been in my younger sister’s class at school in Dublin. In fact, I had recruited her sister to Brown on a running scholarship. Wheels within wheels and all that.
During the wonderful Privalia journey, an old friend Tony Zappala, then at Index, managed to secure a spot on a late-stage financing round giving Irena and me and Sam and Tony the opportunity to work together in a board context. We had our training wheels on. Later, just after the launch of Fund I, Tony expressed interest in joining and off course we pounced. He may have a different version of the story but for once, I cut to the chase and described the result, not so much the journey. I’ll leave that to him.
I have blurred time-lines in describing all that has happened so far but it is important to jump back to 2008 when I reached out to Laurence again having first met him in 2006 at a conference in Edinburgh. I always had the idea of a dedicated Europe Growth-Stage Fund and wanted to forge a team to execute on that strategy in the not-too-distant future. Above all, I wanted to work with like-minded, founder oriented, positively inclined partners of the highest integrity. All roads led to Laurence, no matter where I started. While not so easy to convince, I told him I would persist. That persistence paid off when Laurence joined in 2010.
We now had the core of a founding team for a new fund and the three musketeers, Irena, Laurence and Fergal, set off to raise Fund I. It was during that period that Sam expressed interest in joining. So then we were four, and eventually five with Tony coming on board. That was the shape of the partnership for Fund I and late into Fund II when Stan joined. Laurence brought the idea of wrapping our arms around Gaj and Jean, our close friends at a market leading tech investment bank called Qatalyst. Both were recently announced as Partners of Highland Europe. Our CFO, Ronan Shally who kept us on the rails since 2014 when he joined the team, was also prompted to Partner at the same time.
I’m not shy about expressing pride in what we have built here at Highland Europe. We have forged an equal-partnership that is ridiculously positive and collaborative in working with founders. Our ethos will always remain focused on helping founders achieve their full potential. Our firm culture is equitable and inclusive and promotes and cherishes diversity in all its forms. Highland Europe’s core values are: team orientation, equality, integrity, reliability, humility, respect, optimism, enthusiasm, focus and commitment. If you are a company founder or an aspiring young investor and you instinctively appreciate and relate to these values, then please come chat with us.
Our strategy is laser-focused on backing high-growth software and internet enabled companies that have achieved sufficient scale to confirm the validity of their business model and unit economics. We cherish capital efficiency and applaud founders who are disciplined in their stewardship of that capital. We remain growth obsessed as a value driver and therefore focus on scaling team and organization to meet growth challenges as they arise. We always support founders through the inevitable ups and downs of company building. Our approach is mentorship oriented and we strive to lead by example at board level. For this reason, founders look to us first as trusted advisors, second as shareholders, and often as friends. In evaluating a team, our scorecard prioritizes excellent interpersonal relationships because we know that constructive, positive, collaborative partnership always delivers a better outcome.
This is who we are and what we are all about at Highland Europe. If you like our story, come join us on this journey whether you are a technology company founder or an aspiring investor. We want to hear your story.