Facebook Co-Founder Settles in at General Catalyst: Out to Learn and Help Young Entrepreneurs

5/4/09Follow @bbuderi

This article is a prototype for a new, still-unnamed weekly column featuring conversations with local innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors.

Picture the prospects for innovation if entrepreneurial college students brimming with energy and ideas—as they always are—learned to better vet and shape those ideas into concepts with real business potential, gaining the self-confidence and sense of purpose that dramatically raise the odds of making their visions reality. That’s the world Chris Hughes wants to help cultivate, and the 25-year-old entrepreneur and Web guru, who could pass as an underclassman on any college campus himself (“Most people think I’m, like, 19,” he jokes), has begun to make that happen in his new role as entrepreneur-in-residence at Cambridge, MA-based General Catalyst Partners. “I’m getting the chance to support a lot of young people,” is the way Hughes puts it.

It was big news on the Boston innovation scene this March when former Harvard student Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook and the driving force behind my.BarackObama.com, returned to Cambridge to work part-time at “GC.” General Catalyst didn’t provide much detail on his activities at the time, other than to say he was helping the firm create the next generation of Web media and social networking startups. But last Friday, now that Hughes is some six weeks into his new role and has more to say, he and GC managing director Neil Sequeira sat down with me to share his plans first hand.

Our conversation focused mainly on his ideas for helping college students, and the lessons he tries to impart, as well as about his own plans for the future (Hughes is taking it slow on that front). But he also spoke about how he came to General Catalyst in the first place and shared some thoughts about the evolution of social media—and how he thinks Facebook is ultimately complementary to a service like Twitter, despite all the talk in the media about how they are rivals.

First, some background. Hughes grew up in North Carolina, but came to New England to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, and then went on to Harvard, where he roomed with Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz. The three started Facebook in 2004, failed to find venture funding here in Boston, and moved it to Palo Alto, CA, that June, after they finished the semester—and, where, yeah, they found more investor success. Despite his West Coast stint, and the fact his current home base is New York, where he now has an apartment, Hughes says, “I probably feel as at home, if not more, up here.”

Hughes left Facebook in early 2007 to serve on Triple O—Obama’s online operation—as the campaign’s Director of Online Organizing. He oversaw my.BarackObama.com, where volunteers coordinated coffees, fund-raisers, and the like—helping organize some 200,000 campaign events and bringing in more than $500 million through some 6.5 million separate donations, though Hughes says, “I didn’t focus on fundraising as much as building the grassroots organization on the ground.”

After the campaign, Hughes had the option to work in the new administration, but says that life wasn’t for him. “I decided relatively early on that I did not want to work in big government,” he says. “The patience that is required to work in DC…that’s not what I want to be doing every day.”

In consulting with friends and others about what to do next, the idea of being an entrepreneur in residence (EIR) came up. “I talked to a lot of different people at a lot of different places,” he says. But all the feedback “kept pointing me to General Catalyst.”

That led to a lunch this February in midtown Manhattan with GC co-founder and managing director Joel Cutler. Hughes says the two had “a lot of fun” and seemed to “sort of have the same world view.” He also got the strong message that “GC’s wide open for business.”

In his role at General Catalyst, Hughes comes to Cambridge for one week a month. The rest of the time, he lives in New York. In his entrepreneur-in-residence role, he says, “I’m really focusing my time on two things.” One is pretty typical EIR stuff, talking to a lot of smart people, asking questions, assimilating their ideas, learning, and so forth. Hughes says he is speaking to people from a variety of fields—including energy—but that really he is focusing on the Web, “just because that’s my background.”

“The other half of the time I’m getting the chance to support a lot of young people,” he says. So far, his forays include meetings at Columbia, Yale, and MIT. Hughes says he has done both classroom meetings and larger get-togethers, but likes going out on a lawn and chatting—seeking what he describes as “personal interactions with smart students who have good ideas.”

I asked him if he had a main message for students—and he pointed to three things. First was to develop a strong sense of confidence. Not, he was quick to add, “You can do it, and a big pat on the back” type of confidence. Rather, the confidence that comes from really thinking through an idea, the technology, the market, the business model, and so on. And that relates to the other two things he tells students: work on something that’s realistic, and build solutions for basic human problems—so that “they can build something that’s realistic, significant, and can eventually be profitable.”

Hughes also is seeking to connect student entrepreneurs with other people with similar ideas, as well as with mentors and funding sources. He says he plans to be one of those funding sources himself—by helping GC make investments in Web startups. Investing is something completely new to him—he’s always been on the entrepreneurial side of deals. So he’s also learning from the partners. “I get to learn how these guys think about things and see [things] from the other side of the table.”

Lastly, Hughes is also looking for the next thing to light his own entrepreneurial fire—whether it’s his idea or someone else’s. But he’s in no hurry to take this step. “If I find…a great idea that I want to work on full time, I can do that,” he says. However, he adds, “I’m also not in a rush.”

As we spoke about social media, I couldn’t help but ask how Hughes thinks New England and the East Coast stack up against the West Coast in that regard. No surprise that he says the center of gravity is still out West, but that he thinks the East Coast is also strong—especially New York. Hughes pointed to a General Catalyst funded, New York-based startup called Hunch—a social decision engine Wade has written about, as one example. (By the way, to my knowledge General Catalyst has never before confirmed it is an investor in Hunch, which was founded by a group of former MIT students and Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, though that has been widely speculated.)

In one sense, Hughes says, social applications and tools are merely new ways for enabling people to do things people have always done. “People share information with their friends–that’s what people do,” he says. That’s what Facebook helps enable. And that’s all they did with my.BarackObama.com, as well. People have organized politically, raised money, and held campaign coffees and events forever, he says. “We just made it easy for people to do all this stuff.”

At the same time, Hughes says there is a real transformation underway that does have “pretty large” economic and business implications. “More people are sharing more information,” he says. “[And] people for the first time are understanding that there are a lot of different ways to share.”

That’s why he thinks Facebook and Twitter are not so much rivals as contemporaries—because they both enable people to share information and interact in different ways. “Twitter will easily coexist with Facebook,” Hughes says. And both, he adds, will look wildly different in five years than they do today.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • http://www.lotusjump.com Andrew

    Great write up Bob — looking forward to see this column evolve. It’s interesting how someone like Hughes can be considered such an expert at the ripe old age of 25 and two ventures he’s worked on. It shows that the nature of the experiences can create a compressed learning curve for some specialized skills and vision.

  • http://www.teachstreet.com Dave Schappell

    Hey Bob,

    First — it was great meeting you in person at the Seattle xConomy event — I’ve been a big fan of Greg Huang and xConomy over the last 1+ year, so congratulations on your continued progress.

    Also, I got to meet Chris Hughes at a Union Square Ventures ‘Hacking Education’ event in early March, and was really impressed with his background (obviously); I think his considered approach is going to take him far (i.e. he didn’t do a lot of talking; rather, he was listening and thinking — that suprised me, in a 25-year-old :-) )

    Onward,

    Dave