Microsoft b-to-b expert enters VC

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Earlier this yea, Laura Jennings sat opposite Bill Gates as a member of Microsoft Corp.'s Business Leadership Team, the company's elite, eight-person decision-making squad. Now, the former VP of worldwide strategic planning-who oversaw Microsoft's b-to-b investment strategy-has left the familiar confines of the Redmond, Wash., campus for Boston-based Atlas Venture, whose West Coast expansion she is leading as senior principal.

In a recent interview with BtoB, Jennings spoke of her transition from a software and Internet company to a venture capital firm, the relevance of her experience to start-ups, and her desire to continue doing business with Microsoft. [Jennings did not guarantee Atlas would work with Microsoft on joint ventures. But Microsoft has a long history of funding and getting involved with the current projects of former executives.]

BtoB: You're charged with opening a Seattle office for Atlas Venture. Isn't there enough venture capital competition in that city already?

Jennings: No, actually. Seattle is still a great opportunity. There's a large engineering talent pool coming from Microsoft, Inc. and even The Boeing Co. and the University of Washington. What you have now in Seattle are some local VC firms, and you have a lot of investment coming in from the Bay Area, like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. But you haven't seen the likes of a major firm like Atlas Venture, with both international contacts and a local presence. [Atlas has more than $1.6 billion in committed capital, and has offices in Boston; Menlo Park, Calif.; Munich; Amsterdam; Paris; and London. Its investments are split evenly between the U.S. and Europe.] I looked at a lot of venture capital firms before I did this. We can leverage our contacts internationally to help firms locally. And I think that my having that global perspective, and bringing it to portfolio companies' board meetings, is a big help.

BtoB: Can you leverage your Microsoft experience for Atlas?

Jennings: I worked directly for [Microsoft President-CEO] Steve Ballmer, and handled a lot of our b-to-b business development investments-for example, VerticalNet Inc. My background there is 12 years, going back to my Exchange days. [Among Jennings' positions at Microsoft was general manager of Exchange product lines, VP-Microsoft Network, and senior director-marketing and business development for advanced consumer technology.] I have an entrepreneurial background in all these positions. I'm a start-up person. When Microsoft looked at b-to-b, the rules were entirely different. Microsoft's investments were not just about returns, but for other strategic reasons. Now, I'm in VC, and looking at investments from a pure return sense.

BtoB: What is your impression of Microsoft now that you've left?

Jennings: Microsoft is a terrific company. Ballmer will be an incredible leader there for the next couple of years, which will be very interesting years for Microsoft. But for me it was time to go. Twelve years is a long time to be at the same company.

At Microsoft I was taking start-up ideas, taking an idea and watching it grow from the inside. Now, I felt that I could have more of an effect on the outside. But I intend to keep a good relationship with Microsoft.

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