Former Zipcar CEO Griffith Joins General Catalyst

4/8/14Follow @curtwoodward

When Scott Griffith took over as CEO of Zipcar, the car-rental startup was considered more of a political movement than a company. Griffith’s job was to make it a grown-up business. 

Over the next decade, he would pilot Zipcar through market expansions, competitor acquisitions, an IPO, a rocky stock-market ride, and a buyout from one of the country’s largest rental-car companies. So you could say he’s got some stories to share about building a company.

Griffith is hoping to put that experience to good use at General Catalyst Partners. As of today, he’s officially the venture capital firm’s newest executive in residence, a job that combines investing with hands-on operational guidance for the firm’s portfolio companies.

General Catalyst is investing from a $675 million venture fund closed at the end of last year, the firm’s seventh. It’s based in Cambridge, MA, with offices in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Like most venture firms, General Catalyst backs early stage companies across several sectors—some of its notable investments in recent years include Airbnb, Snapchat, Stripe, and Circle. But General Catalyst also invests in growing private companies that are trying to reach another level of growth, which is where Griffith’s job comes into play.

As the firm explains on its website, those growth-equity investments are targeted at profitable founder-owned companies with at least $10 million in annual sales. General Catalyst says its executives-in-residence—others on that staff include former Unica CEO Yuchun Lee and ex-Akamai CEO Paul Sagan—help separate the firm from others that might just offer money and a board member.

Instead, General Catalyst executives-in-residence like Griffith can work with a founder on the often lonely, nitty-gritty work of building a business. They can tell those entrepreneurs, “I’ve sat in your chair. I know what you’re going through. I’ve built teams, just like you,” General Catalyst managing director David Fialkow says.

They have skin in the game, as Griffith notes, investing alongside General Catalyst in any deals they bring to the firm. They’re also expected to spend several months working on each company before worrying about the next deal, rather than becoming investment-generating machines for the firm’s partners, Fialkow says.

“It’s a wonderful place for someone like me to come in and do two or three things at once, versus taking a focused CEO job,”Griffith says.

Given his resume, it’s not surprising to hear that Griffith plans to focus on companies building digital marketplaces and connected car services. The rise of on-demand service and rental startups—from transportation companies like Uber to General Catalyst investments like Airbnb and Handybook—hints at a future where dozens of previously offline businesses are overhauled to take advantage of networks of connected device-carrying consumers and employees.

Griffith also thinks that automakers will get serious about building more useful consumer connectivity into their products, providing fertile ground for companies that want to improve parking, auto repair, and other businesses.

Griffith also plans to invest in companies that count small businesses as their customers—an always tantalizing, but frequently frustrating target for a couple of generations of digital entrepreneurs.

What’s different this time? Griffith says the small businesses themselves are becoming savvier about adopting new technologies, while the underlying cloud computing services and platforms that enable new kinds of commercial models are continually improving and falling in price.

General Catalyst portfolio companies Zen Payroll and Hubspot are capitalizing on this trend by “taking what you might think of as somewhat mundane infrastructure aspects of small business and giving them the kind of tools and efficient platforms that big companies are trying to use,” Griffith says.

“It’s infrastructure that they wouldn’t, on their own, be able to develop,” he says. “They don’t have millions of dollars to invest in technology.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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