By guest authors Irina Patterson and Candice Arnold
This is the thirty-seventh interview in our series on financing for entrepreneurs. I am talking to Mike Hirshland, General Partner at Polaris Ventures. The firm invests in seed, first round, and early stage technology and life science businesses. Headquartered in Boston, it has currently over $3 billion under management and investments in more than 100 companies, primarily in Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, and New York.
Irina: Hi, Mike. Let’s start briefly with your background. How did you come to this point?
Mike: I’ll start with the disclaimer in that my background, my past in venture capital is extraordinarily atypical. So, don’t try this at home.
Immediately before getting into venture capital, I was on Capitol Hill. I was committee counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. I had been trained as a lawyer and spent four or five years in D.C. in the public sector. I spent a year clerking at the Supreme Court and then about three years at the Senate Judiciary Committee, where I was committee counsel and did a whole bunch of crazy things.
The most interesting [thing] was that I was running the Microsoft investigation. This was back in the mid-1990s. It was the browser wars, Microsoft vs. Netscape, Internet Explorer vs. Navigator and the whole antitrust investigation. I ran that for about two and a half years, and in the context of that, spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley. I met a whole bunch of people in the industry, learned a little bit about the Internet, and really got a chance to see the Internet and the Web being created by the people who were doing it.
I became completely captivated by what was happening and decided that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was also spending some time with the venture capitalists behind the major players in the controversy of Microsoft and felt that it would be a really fun way to get involved with the Internet.
So, somehow, for some crazy reason, I got it into my head that I would be an Internet VC. I got out and started talking to people. This was 1998, I guess.
I met the founder of Polaris who, as it turns out, is the one other VC with as an unorthodox background as mine. He was also a former lawyer, he was in D.C. for a while; he worked on the Watergate investigation, and the IBM antitrust case.
Polaris was about two years old at the time. So, when I heard about him – his name is Jon Flint – I decided [he was] the one person who might take a flyer on me, so I cold-called him and went up and met him. I spent about a year bothering him and begging him and, finally, he gave in and hired me. That was in 1999.
Jon was one of the co-founders of Polaris, and they were really small and young at the time. They brought me on as an associate. Since then, the firm has grown and I’ve become partner and had the opportunity to do Internet investments.
Irina: Where did you go to law school?
Mike: University of Virginia Law School. I was a Harvard undergrad and then Virginia law school and then off to D.C.
Irina: Tell us about Polaris; what is it?
Mike: Polaris is a diversified venture capital firm. We have 12 partners and a handful of other folks helping us with investments. We diversified both by marketplace and by stage. Our investments span across technology, consumer, and life sciences, roughly a third each.
By stage, also about a third is seed stage, very, very, very early company formation. A third is classic, series A venture capital. And then a third is growth equity, profitable businesses, usually with $1 million to $10 million in profits where we’re providing growth capital and sometimes founder liquidity.
We’re headquartered in Boston and were founded in Boston, but over the past few years we’ve established a growing presence in the Bay Area. We have about 30 portfolio companies in California, and that’s become an increasing important part of our tech practice. Life sciences is still grounded mainly in the Boston area.
Irina: How many funds do you have?
Mike: We have five funds, a total of bit more than $3 billion under management across all of those funds. We don’t have a separate seed fund. We do it across all of our funds.