Paul Lee knows how to sell a product.
During his time at Northwestern, Lee (Weinberg ’97) worked over thirty hours a week selling everything from sporting goods to knives to advertising, while at the same time balancing a heavy Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences (MMSS) and Economics course load and membership in the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. “Looking back, I wish I tried to have more fun,” Lee said, laughing as he recalled his busy undergraduate years.
There is no doubt Lee’s sales talent and experience shaped his career. Today, Lee sits on the other side of “the pitch” as a venture capital partner at Lightbank, listening to bright-eyed start-up founders and CEOs explain how their product or company will change the world. Lightbank, a venture fund that seeks out early-stage technology companies with a focus on social media, is known famously for being the main backer of Groupon. The fund’s co-founder Eric Lefkofsky was recently named to the Forbes 400 list with an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion.
At a time when hot, new start-ups seem almost ubiquitous, Lee actively searches for the next big thing. But identifying the next disruptor is far from an easy. Explaining his investment philosophy, Lee said he focuses most on the entrepreneur and whether they are uniquely qualified to run a successful technology company. He also looks for an entrepreneur with the right mix of “limitless energy and passion.” While Lee said he did not dislike anything about being a venture capitalist, he mentioned that his one regret was entering the entrepreneurial arena later in his career rather than sooner.
Lee started, like so many other MMSS or Economics majors at Northwestern, in financial services as a strategic consultant for Accenture.
“I was working until 3 A.M. in Edina, Minnesota and had no idea what I was doing,” Lee said. “I ended up resigning in two weeks.”
Still possessing the talent to sell a distinctive product, Lee entered the start-up space and became a co-founding employee of Click2Asia, a venture-backed online media company specializing in online dating for Asians. It was a move Lee said he hoped was his first out of college.
“I spent so much of my time senior year interviewing with this firm and that firm,” Lee said. “If I could do it again, I would not interview anywhere and would start a bunch of different things coming out of college; there is no attachment during that time period.”
After four years at Click2Asia, Lee jumped over to GE Capital, where he learned venture strategies and skills. He eventually served as a founding member and Senior Vice President at the Peocock Equity Fund, a joint venture between NBC Universal and GE Capital. He then went on to become Head of Digital Ventures at Playboy, where he sought out different digital businesses for the enterprise. Lee remained at Playboy until it went private, at which point, he was asked to join the team at Lightbank. Somewhere between all that, he also found time to earn his MBA degree at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, with honors.
Lee serves Lightbank at perhaps the most critical time for Chicago in terms of technology and innovation. Led by Groupon, a spate of successful technology companies have emerged in the Windy City, leading to bold headlines such as “Is Chicago the Silicon Cornfield?” in The Huffington Post to “Chicago To Silicon Valley: It’s Our Time Now, Pal” in Business Insider. A recent announcement for a 50,000 square ft. center for Chicagoland start-ups and young companies, backed by billionaire J.B. Pritzker, only livened the discussion of Chicago’s recent tech boom.
But Lee insists that building Chicago into the next innovation hub is not a central goal of his at Lightbank. That will come on its own. “The way we think about that issue is that we are looking for great opportunities regardless of location,” Lee said. “We don’t say let’s do this for the Chicago tech ecosystem.”
Busy as he is searching for early stage technology companies with a large potential for success, Lee said he has not lost sight of what is most important to him: his family. He said he is most proud of raising his family – he has two young children – during a hectic time at start-ups and venture firms. Being back in Chicago, what does Lee enjoy doing in the city? Lee said he is a “big foodie” and “loves going to undiscovered hole-in-the-wall restaurants and taking lots of pictures of great food.” One can keep up with his food adventures on his Twitter account.
Lee also offered some food for thought for Northwestern students trying to enter the venture capital world. “If you want to get into venture capital, first start a business,” he said. “You can’t learn how to invest until you learn first-hand how to access capital running a company.” He also emphasized the importance of seeking out mentors but also people who were interesting in their own right.
“Seek out people not just with a specific intent like getting a job or internship but for the sake of getting to know interesting people,” Lee said. “Also, don’t be afraid to make a ton of mistakes, a lot of people don’t realize how cheap it is to start a company, or how easy it is to learn code.”
In many ways, Lee is a venture optimist, excited of the possibilities for young ideas and the people who turn them into successful businesses.
“I don’t mean to be preachy but go out and make the most of your time. There is very little risk to branch out and start something.”
Photo Credits: Vator.tv, LightBank