A fresh take on early-stage VC: Harvard Business School publishes a case study on Antler
Harvard Business School (HBS) recently published a case study about Antler’s fresh approach to early-stage venture capital. Antler Co-Founder Fridtjof Berge shares thoughts on how the case sparks discussion about the best ways to identify and support great people anywhere on earth.
When HBS Professor Dennis Campbell, who has been following Antler’s journey, reached out to see if we could extract learnings for the classroom, we were excited to help. The case took over a year to develop, with Professor Campbell and Research Associate Iuliana Mogosanu conducting interviews with Antler team members and portfolio companies, going deep to understand our model and what we’re trying to achieve.
The case focuses on how Antler is shaking up the traditional early-stage venture capital (VC) model—which is typically local and not very scalable—by using a global approach to support people from the very beginning to build their startup. That means we can gain scale benefits and learnings to better support founders from the outset.
In a nod to how founder-first we are as an organization, the case looks at the Antler experience through the lens of two different founder teams that formed during an Antler residency.
Really getting to know founders is where the magic happens
These companies prove that great founder teams can come together from anywhere and have very different backgrounds. They are also a reminder that the way people come across on paper is not always an indication of their potential. Many who do not have showstopping CVs can and will build some of the most impactful companies of tomorrow.
In the two-to-three months that we work with founders in our residencies, we really get to know them. We sit with them every day, learn from them, give them input, help develop their pitches, and introduce them to our networks. The learning process is always a two-way street.
When you are investing in the early stages, it's hard to get a good understanding of the people unless you spend quality time with them. That’s where a lot of the magic happens. Because spotless integrity, big ambition, and solid work ethic really shine through over a period of several months versus in a couple of pitch meetings. At Antler, we get to know all our founders as people, colleagues, and friends—which makes us very comfortable backing them.
This matters in the pre-seed stage because the vast majority of ideas founders have will go through considerable pivots. But people change much less than ideas do. If you believe in people but aren’t certain about the idea, you see their potential that could be applied to another idea—an even better idea—than what they are pitching.
50 years on, rethinking how early-stage investing is done
We hope the case inspires people to rethink how early-stage investing happens and how leading companies are backed from the beginning. Over the last 50 years, the VC model hasn't changed much. If anything, it has moved towards waiting and investing later, and having people without any support needing to prove more before they get an initial investment. In many ways, this is contrary to the original thinking behind VC, and it creates significant barriers to entry.
The case also challenges how people think about successful founders. Everyday people might be too influenced by the Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates stories, thinking great founders need to be Harvard dropouts in their early twenties. Most founders are not like that. Many successful ones are in their thirties or forties, have built smaller companies before, and didn’t become breakouts immediately. There are of course exceptions, but founders can really come from anywhere.
Another theme the case highlights is the value of assessing people and founder teams in a quantitative and qualitative way. Here at Antler, we meet so many people and companies around the world that we are gathering a lot of learnings. We can see trends in what type of people are working well together and in how we can best support them. We bring data analytics into early-stage investing. You need sufficient scale to do this, which is one of the unique things we're doing at Antler.
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