Lars Albright is a General Partner at Unusual Ventures and leads investments in fintech, vertical SaaS and application software. He loves to work with founders who have the unique blend of passion and persistence, coupled with humility and a desire to learn. Lars is a repeat entrepreneur and has spent his career building successful high growth companies as a founder, executive and investor. The last two venture-backed businesses Lars co-founded were acquired by Apple and Mastercard, respectively. Lars looks for entrepreneurs that confront challenges head on, take action and embrace the accountability that comes with starting a business and managing a team.
Prior to Unusual, Lars was global Executive Vice President, leading Merchant Loyalty & Engagement at Mastercard. Lars joined Mastercard via the acquisition of SessionM, where he was the CEO and Co-Founder. Prior to co-founding SessionM, Lars worked at Apple, Inc., where he was a member of the executive team at iAd, Apple’s mobile advertising business unit. Before Apple, Lars was a Co-Founder and Senior Vice President of Business Development at Quattro Wireless, a leading mobile advertising platform that was acquired by Apple. Lars started his career in investment banking and finance on the West Coast. Lars received an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and his AB with honors from Harvard University. Lars loves a great margarita (rocks, salt and not too sweet), Vermont IPAs, all things Boston sports teams, any sport with his kids and spending time in Maine and Alaska. He lives just outside the city with his wife and two children.
As a repeat founder I know how hard it is in the early days of building a startup. I was drawn to Unusual because, where many investors say they add value, Unusual does it. The organization is purpose-built to provide a depth of support like nothing I've ever seen. It is the firm I wish had existed when I started my companies, and I love how we are able to help founders from day 0.
There are several key roles I like to play with my portfolio companies. First, I am always accessible to be a sounding board for founders and to ask questions, challenge assumptions, make recommendations and offer candid feedback. Like most good investors, I want to be that first call a founder makes to share news, whether it is good or bad. Secondly, I try to take specific actions items around team recruiting and customer instructions and open my network to a founding team. I love to help a company land a critical new hire or customer. And lastly, it can be hard to pick your head up as a founder/CEO when you are so busy with the daily grind so I like to help teams think ahead about where they want to be 6-12 months from now and how they can be sure they have the best chance to get there.
I am a big believer that an early customer can be a game-changer in terms of building momentum, pushing the team and getting important real-world feedback. That said, particularly for larger enterprise deals, you need to be careful to not let your future roadmap become the wish list of the early customer. Product teams need to stay highly disciplined and take an important pause after working with an early customer to be sure they are thinking strategically about resource allocation and overall positioning in the market. It’s amazing how fast this can get out of control with just a few customers, and once it does it is very hard to get things back in balance.
Future founders often ask the question, “what if this fails…?” To me, the more important gut check question is, “what if this works…?” If a company fails it typically happens in the first few years, but if it works it can be up to a decade or more where you are closely tied to the business. Are you truly ready for the commitment and the grind over the years that it will take to build and scale a large successful business? Sometimes start-ups are quick wins, but often it is a long journey with lots of ups and downs even for the best businesses and you have to be personally ready for that climb. There is nothing better in my view, but just take the time to sit with this question.
At Apple, I was amazed by how much work they put in behind the scenes to make whatever they shared with consumers seem flawless. Whether it was product design, launch marketing plans, developer community communication there is a relentless focus on iterating and practicing repeatedly until things are just right. This is even more impressive to me given that Apple is already the dominant market player, but they never lose sight of what got them there and their commitment to delivering the best possible consumer experience.
At Mastercard, I learned a lot about building great culture from our former CEO, Ajay Banga. Ajay believed strongly in what he called DQ – “the decency quotient” and this serves as a north star for how the business operates both internally and externally today. Ajay used to like to say we want to be the place where you “put your hand on someone’s back to support them and not in their face” The essence of the message is basic, but profound for a company to care about it so deeply and it is something that Ajay drove home almost every time he spoke. When building culture, particularly at scale, clarity, repetition and authenticity matters, in this case Ajay had all three.