Eric Hippeau has invested tens of millions of dollars into
80-plus startups, roughly two-thirds of which call New York City
home. And if the French-born, English-raised, Brazilian-trained,
Silicon Alley-bred media exec had his way, he'd probably still be
After CEO stints at Web 1.0 giant Ziff Davis and Web 2.0
exemplar The Huffington Post, Mr. Hippeau, 61 and a partner at
Lerer Ventures, has emerged as one of the most sought-after digital
consiglieri to entrepreneurs knocking down the analog walls of
media and marketing.
He has not approached the rock-star status of a Fred Wilson, the
now legendary venture capitalist at Union Square Ventures. Nor does
he carry himself with the swagger of David Tisch, whose term as
managing director of the startup incubator TechStars was a crucial
step in the evolution of the New York City's entrepreneurial
ecosystem. But if Mayor Michael Bloomberg's vision of the Big Apple
as a tech hub rivaling Silicon Valley is to become reality, it will
need more Eric Hippeaus: experienced investors who understand
finance and operations as well as they do tech and can build
startups focused on some of the city's key sectors -- media,
marketing, commerce and fashion -- into national, perhaps global,
While entrepreneurs seek him out in part because they know he
has the ability to infuse capital into their fledgling businesses,
young CEOs from BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti to Buddy Media's Mike
Lazerow have learned that Mr. Hippeau's value extends far beyond
"Very few people have had successful media careers, successful
internet careers, and successful venture careers," said Mr.
Lazerow. "Eric's someone who knows how startups work -- that it's
not just about the plan you put into spreadsheet, but that
day-to-day grind where things are not predictable and don't always
go your way."
Not 'just another blog'
The funny thing about Mr. Hippeau's position is that if he'd had
his way, he probably wouldn't be in it. He'd still be running The
Mr. Hippeau had volunteered himself for the CEO position there
in the spring of 2009 when he was a board member because, as he
says, "We were either going to blow up into something fantastic or
just be another blog." He ran the company for the year and a half
leading up to the AOL acquisition and pushed it to become a
business with $30 million in revenue in 2010.
By now, it's common knowledge in media circles that Mr. Hippeau
wasn't in favor of The Huffington Post's sale to AOL in 2011. He
saw the potential to build a giant, independent media company that
could one day go public.
"Eric was a big believer in the IPO plan," Arianna Huffington
said in an interview. "He had gone that route successfully before,
and we had a very clear plan on how we would get there. The only
argument in favor of the acquisition was something that both Eric
and Fred [Harman, a Huffington Post board member] agreed on: The
acquisition would dramatically accelerate the [IPO] plan."
With the acquisition, Mr. Hippeau's own vision for HuffPost was
extinguished. He immediately announced that he would join the
fledgling seed-stage investment firm that HuffPost Co-Founder Ken
Lerer had launched with his son, Ben. He went back to investing --
something he had spent nine years doing at Softbank Capital in
between his work at Ziff Davis and The Huffington Post -- and
sooner than he would have liked. But for the burgeoning New York
startup scene, it may have been a blessing in disguise.
Mr. Hippeau's entrepreneurial roots stretch back more than 30
years to Brazil. His father was a United Press International exec
whose career would take Eric on a country-hopping journey -- to
Switzerland at age 3, back to France at 7, and to England at 10,
where the young Mr. Hippeau learned English from watching TV
programs such as "Coronation Street ."
At 20, he dropped out of Paris' Sorbonne and purchased a one-way
ticket to Brazil, where his parents had moved. He never graduated
college. There, he landed a gig as a sports journalist at a small
English-language newspaper called the Brazil Herald. Following a
staff exodus, he became editor-in-chief while still in his early
20s and later launched Data News, a Portuguese-language publication
that he describes as Brazil's first computer magazine. When a
government-ordered ban of international computer sales wiped out
his advertising, he sold the publication for $50,000 to
International Data Group in a deal hashed out at the Copacabana
pool in Rio de Janiero. He went on to work for IDG for 15
In the early "90s, Bill Ziff poached Mr. Hippeau from IDG to
become publisher of PC Magazine. "Working for Ziff Davis was like
you had arrived," Mr. Hippeau said. "And I felt like if I failed,
it would be the end of my career."
Rules of Engagement
How Hippeau decides which startup to
invest in -- and when to invest
Eric Hippeau asks himself three questions when considering an
early-stage investment: Is it the right team? Is it the right idea?
And is the timing right?
The ability to evaluate an idea properly often comes with
gaining industry experience. But evaluating the timing is often a
gut feeling. Knowing whether to pull the trigger frequently comes
down to if the founders have the right personality and background
to cope with the turbulence of startup life. "We look for the type
of person that doesn't give up," he said. "Stuff is going to happen
that they never thought of , and mostly for the worse."
Mr. Hippeau advises only investing in areas where one has
knowledge: "We'd never do biotech. We try to stay in our comfort
He often encourages his investments to begin charging early. "A
lot of startups feel like they need to build a free product when
they start," he said. "But when they start charging ... they tend
to be a little timid."
"Pulse is now starting to monetize because it has a large
audience," he said. "Others, such as Percolate, probably need to
involve the brand sooner just to get the product right. You have to
take each case separately."
He did not, and it was not. At Ziff Davis, Mr. Hippeau rose to
CEO and oversaw or had a hand in several innovations, including
building one of the first online business extensions of a print
publisher in ZDNet and launching a tech cable news network in ZDTV.
He earned a reputation as a doer who did not let decisions linger.
He ranked tasks by importance, took on the most pressing matters
and delegated furiously. To this day, when a big decision is
needed, he gathers information quickly, analyzes it, forms an
opinion and makes the call. He always trusts it's the right
"Eric walks that fine line between being confident in a healthy
way but not being arrogant," said Rayna Brown, Ziff Davis' former
head of human resources. "That was a very specific model for execs
who were very successful at Ziff Davis."
Now, when he mentors others, he pushes his understudies as well
to focus, gather information and make decisions swiftly, while at
the same time letting them develop their own styles and leaving
room for their entrepreneurial intuition.
Before Buddy Media became a marketing-software company that
Salesforce would acquire for $745 million, Mr. Hippeau, a board
member through a Softbank Capital investment, supported Mr. Lazerow
through Buddy's several iterations -- from app developer to agency
and then software company -- until he found a business model that
When Ben Lerer was looking to hire a No. 2 to push his men's
lifestyle media company Thrillist to the next level, Mr. Hippeau
convinced him that the "unicorn" hire he was envisioning simply did
not exist and that he should hire two executives instead.
And when Jonah Peretti realized that his little project called
BuzzFeed was growing into more than a lab for digital
experimentation and that he would have to develop some real chief
executive skills, he called on his observations of Mr. Hippeau's
running of The Huffington Post. "Eric's style is few words, lots of
action, keep it simple, work hard," Mr. Peretti wrote in an
Now, the Hippeau Way is spreading to a newer class of company
founders who have taken on early-stage funding from Lerer Ventures.
The firm typically invests $200,000 to $300,000 in a startup for an
average 3%-to-5% equity stake. Akshay Kothari, CEO of Pulse, the
Flipboard news-aggregation rival, looks to Mr. Hippeau for guidance
as he begins to hire a business team to craft the right
go-to-market strategy for his app's advertising products.
"Anytime I have a question on monetization, there just isn't
anyone who's as familiar and as experienced as Eric is ," he
For Jonty Kelt, CEO of Group Commerce, which makes an e-commerce
platform used by media companies, Mr. Hippeau offers insight about
how to address the challenges of the modern-day media company one
day and then gets into the weeds of how to correctly structure a
software-as-a-service business on the next.
"He knows a lot about a lot," Mr. Kelt said simply.
When Mr. Hippeau's knowledge isn't needed, his contact list is
"Every time we meet with Eric, we come out with three new
introductions of people we should talk to," says Noah Brier,
co-founder of Percolate, a social-marketing-software startup.
Mr. Hippeau does certainly enjoy some luxuries. He owns an
82-foot Horizon yacht outfitted with a small crew on which he
frequents the Bahamas. But most days he is all business. He rises
at 5:30 a.m. and attends to his email in-box. At 6:30, he visits
the gym for a workout. He's in the office by 9 and often takes five
to six meetings a day.
In early meetings, he comes off a bit like the intimidating
figure that money-hungry startups typically first meet. There's a
dead stare straight through the end of any given question, without
a hint of a nod or other gesture. An analysis is going on, but
whether it's of the interviewer, the question or both is not
But after a few visits, his demeanor changes. His handshake,
which is tentative when one first meets him, strengthens. He is
quicker to smile and perhaps even cracks a joke. This is the Eric
Hippeau that entrepreneurs and fellow investors say emerges when
the formalities are stripped away.
"He's a real gentleman and very generous and courteous," says
David Lee, managing partner at SV Angel, the famed Silicon Valley
investment firm with which Lerer Ventures has an informal
partnership. "Not being a jerk is surprisingly a way to
differentiate as an investor."
Building from scratch
"Thinking about the CEO changes at the NYT's, it occurred to me
[that ] @erichippeau would be the best answer to fill that job!"
went a tweet in December from Greg Coleman, a friend of Mr. Hippeau
who previously ran advertising sales at The Huffington Post.
The New York Times did not speak to Mr. Hippeau about the
position, which was filled in August. But Mr. Coleman's
recommendation, however biased, raised a good question: After the
way things ended at The Huffington Post, could Mr. Hippeau envision
himself as a CEO one more time?
"Yeah, why not?" Mr. Hippeau shrugs off the question. "But that
's what we're doing here: We're building from scratch."
He is referencing Soho Tech Labs, a startup incubator and just
one more example of how he is trying to cultivate a Silicon Alley
farm system. Its home is in Lerer Ventures' SoHo office, and its
supervisor is former HuffPost Chief Technology Officer Paul Berry.
Soho Tech Labs has launched one company so far, a house-swapping
site called CasaHop, and has several others in the works. Mr.
Hippeau also has a hand in NowThis News, a new video news network
for the mobile age.
When pressed about his interest in running a big company once
again, Mr. Hippeau says he already has his hands full. And with
Lerer Ventures creating a third investment fund, totaling $30
million, there will only be more entrepreneurs to mentor.
"We believe this can be the largest infrastructure in New York
for entrepreneurs," he says.
Still, when you hear Mr. Hippeau talk about the sale of The
Huffington Post and watch his eyes widen as he discusses the
digital-media and digital-marketing innovations of our time, it's
hard not to think he may very well have one more CEO gig in him.
And if he wants to make it happen, he may not have too far to look.
As Buddy Media's Mr. Lazerow said, "Most companies he's involved
with he could be the CEO of ."