Angel Investor Joanne Wilson Talks about Have to Have and the NY scene

10/16/12Follow @jpruth

It is hard to find a more New York savvy angel investor than Joanne Wilson. She has backed local startups such as DailyWorth, Nestio, and Lover.ly. Wilson also co-chairs the annual ITP Women Entrepreneurial Festival at New York University and blogs about women in technology and her other interests as Gotham Gal.

One-year-old Have to Have, one of her latest investments, is a registry for online shopping that lets users bookmark items they want to purchase later—or hope their friends buy for them. Comparable players in this space include newcomer Hukkster. Have to Have raised an undisclosed amount of funding in June from Wilson and other angels. The company has built widgets to drive consumer interaction on websites for Condé Nast Interactive, Marie Claire, and The Daily Front Row.

Wilson also happens to be the better half of famed venture capitalist Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures. She spoke to Xconomy about what she found appealing in Have to Have and what she is watching in the New York startup community.

Xconomy: What gets you interested in a company?

Joanne Wilson: When I see something that grabs my attention, and Have to Have is a perfect example, it’s businesses that are trying to do something different from everyone else in the space. When a business comes to me and you have really good entrepreneurs who are trying to change an industry—to think differently and are taking a completely different approach than any of their competitors in the space—it makes me take pause.

X: Some once-hot areas such as daily deals have cooled dramatically. What spaces are you watching?

JW: I hate daily deals. I see tons of discount programs they say they are going to build. I’m not a fan of the discount program because it’s a short-term fix. It’s not building a business in a long-term way. I’m pretty much a generalist; I’ll look at deals in multiple spaces.

X: In the New York landscape, we see a lot of fashion and media startups. Do any of them standout?

JW: I have deals that I’ve done in media. Have to Have is the only deal that I’ve done in the fashion space because they’re taking it from a completely different angle. That’s an area that I’m seeing change in. You can’t [overlook] the large companies. Many of the large companies are looking at what’s happening in the startup industry and saying to themselves, “We can’t build this internally. We’d love to but we can’t. It makes more sense to hire or partner with a small company that is nimble, agile, and gets what we’re doing and can build products that are going to benefit us.”

X: Are more women entrepreneurs making their mark in New York?

JW: We’re definitely seeing more women entrepreneurs. I hear this from women who make the journey back and forth across the country that they see more women in New York and it seems to be a much more friendly place for women to do business. New York is a very special place. We are the epicenter of many different industries: fashion, media, and publishing. Manufacturing is coming back to New York.

Startups [in New York] who might be interested in disrupting an industry through technology become part of that industry [they are disrupting], but also the tech industry. They sit on a very interesting fence. On one side you might be involved in the media world, but on the other side you’re involved in the tech industry. It’s not one dimensional here, which is one of the reasons the startup community is bourgeoning right now.

X: What other the factors shaping the local startup scene?

JW: It’s a combination of a lot of things that have been percolating for a long time. My husband and I are involved in the Academy for Software Engineering, which is a New York public high school that opened this year. They understand the need to teach and keep engineers in our own town. Cornell is building the school on Roosevelt Island, which is going to be a master’s program in computers and engineering. As startup companies grow, we need more tech people to be here and live in our city. The city is involved in trying to create programs for kids in high school so they know how to develop. I don’t think we’re going to have a shortage of engineers who put down roots in the city in the not-too-distant future.

X: The current renaissance of startups is sometimes described as a bubble. Any concerns that the overall momentum will slow?

JW: Post-2008, when everything fell apart, desire grew among young people to own their own lives and become entrepreneurs. It’s exciting, they understand technology. That’s across every spectrum—new media, fashion, and publishing—they’re all looking to change the way we live our lives. In regards to a bubble, I don’t think we’re going to see a cease and desist among startups and entrepreneurs and new ideas. If anything, we’ll see the price points fall. There’s been a bit of a feeding frenzy among startups. You can’t have 500 startups and then have 500 venture capitalists give them Series A money. There’s a disconnect between the two, but the hope is that maybe out of those 500 startups there will be companies that are sustainable, lifestyle businesses.

X: What drew you to Have to Have?

JW: I’m a huge fan. What’s interesting about that company is they started a business and then realized after two weeks [their original affiliate-based commerce idea] was not a business that would fly anywhere. They rolled up their sleeves, rethought their entire program with no money, bootstrapped, and then they finally launched a new product. In 10 seconds, I got it, and this was brilliant. I hope to see more businesses like that, spend time talking to them, and watch them figure out how they can grow a company that’s going to create traction and be scalable. Those are the kind of entrepreneurs I invest in.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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