This week, we get to know Ash Egan, Principal at Converge. A Philadelphia native and graduate of Princeton, Egan was captain of the varsity squash team and graduated with a bachelor’s in Politics. He’s been nominated for “Rising Star VC” at this year’s NEVYs alongside Juan Luis Leung-Li of General Catalyst, Sarah Downey of Accomplice, and Payal Agrawal Divakaran of .406 Ventures.
Coming off of a recent promotion from Analyst to Principal, Egan is particularly interested in the topics of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and blockchain. In this interview, he gives advice on getting into VC and great insight on what he looks for in a founder, with examples for those willing to do the research.
Nina Stepanov: Tell me about your background - where did you grow up?
Ash Egan: I grew up right outside Philadelphia with two brothers and two amazing parents. My dad is an entrepreneur in the financial services world, and he instilled in us that we are capable of anything if we set our mind to it.
Growing up, we were banned from contact sports, but we played everything else. I played waterpolo, ran track, and rowed but primarily focused on squash.
NS: How and why did you end up attending Princeton?
AE: After attending Princeton’s summer squash camp as a 9 year old, it was my dream to play for Coach Callahan at Princeton. Things ended up panning out, and I feel lucky to have studied and competed there.
NS: You studied Politics in your undergrad but your career doesn't seem to be related to the field. Why is that?
AE: I knew I was going to pursue a career in business, so I chose my major based on my favorite professors and classes. I focused specifically on American Politics, and found the process of voter acquisition fascinating – voter activation, swing voter persuasion, and I ultimately decided to write my thesis on the politics surrounding ridesharing expansion.
Although politics sounds very different from venture capital, I keep finding new areas of overlap. Politics provided a framework to understand and persuade various constituencies, ability to market legislation (or a product), and opened my eyes to working around unanticipated factors, something startups constantly face.
NS: You were the co-founder of beertending, a platform that helped beer lovers bring new beer to their local bars. Can you share more background on the company and what you were trying to solve?
AE: I teamed up with 3 classmates, and explored models in line with craft beer’s growing market share vs. beer conglomerates. Initially, we wanted to do craft beer discovery (think StumbleUpon for beer), but regulations made this approach a nightmare. Eventually, we landed on craft beer tasting events – charged $20 for entrance, and convinced bars to sell craft beers for $2-$3 compared to typical $8-$12.
It was a fun company to run in college, but my squash coaches were not ecstatic.
NS: Tell me more about your early career after graduating.
AE: I focused on things I was good at- selling, marketing products, and cranking on Excel, and sought opportunities that valued the “hustle”, ones where I wasn’t simply a cog in the wheel. Venture Capital seemed to be a good fit, and close to graduation I met Lior Prosor (Elevator Fund).
NS: You’ve been at Converge for over 2 years now. What led you to the firm?
AE: I knew of the firm after conducting diligence on a company that was competitive to a Converge portfolio company. When I saw that Converge was hiring, I reached out, met Maia while she was in NYC, and clicked immediately with her. I’m at the beginning of an exciting journey here at Converge, and get to be entrepreneurial in building and growing the firm. Maia is great to work with, and we have some exciting announcements happening in the near future.
NS: You didn’t get your MBA although many, if not most, VCs do. Do you feel that was the right decision?
AE: Everyone gets an MBA for a different reason. In my current role, I get to analyze businesses every day, and help entrepreneurs build their companies faster.
From what I’ve seen, the best VC’s have unique insights on industries, combined with rockstar networks- these VC’s tend to put themselves in a position to “get lucky” more often than others. For now, I’d rather analyze thousands of businesses and build relationships in high-potential markets – that’s just me.
NS: What’s your advice to others looking to get into VC?
AE: My advice for aspiring venture capitalists would be: figure out the startups and markets that are most exciting to you, and give yourself an unfair advantage to partner with the best companies in those spaces. Build relationships by helping founders however you can – do that in 3-5 different areas, and you’ll get the first VC meeting. After that, it becomes a personality/cultural fit. If the market doesn’t bite, go run your own AngelList syndicate and prove everyone wrong.
NS: You’ve been nominated for “Rising Star VC” at this year’s NEVY Awards, what would it mean for you to win it?
AE: I’m honored to be nominated, it’s a great group. It would be nice validation to win, but I’m not one who likes to “future trip.” I’m more focused on working hard on what I can control and partnering with entrepreneurs who are creating categories and moving society forward.
NS: What stage of investments does Converge primarily target?
AE: We target early stage: anywhere from pre-product to Series A with our first check in. The timing of partnering depends on the market, entrepreneur and technical differentiation.
NS: What are the top traits you look for in terms of investing into a company or founder?
AE: For founders, I look to partner with entrepreneurs that have a combination of deep domain expertise and a specific skill or trait that far exceeds their peers.
A couple of examples from our portfolio:
Alex Taub (SocialRank) might be the most connected guy I know; Mike Yaroshefsky (RocketVisor) is the most productive person on the planet; Nick Francis (Help Scout) and Josh Kanner (Smartvid.io) are maniacally driven on product; Michael Gronager and Jonathan Levin (Chainalysis) and Guy Zyskind (Enigma) understand blockchain’s technology and its landscape better than anyone; Drew Austin (Wade & Wendy) and Rob May (Talla) are phenomenal recruiters.
NS: What sectors of technology, industries, or trends are of interest to you?
AE: I’m a sucker for the machine intelligence wave – it will be transformative for enterprise players, SMB’s, and consumers. The future of work be driven by augmented intelligence, and machine intelligence will optimize, and increase profits on everything from customer service to data centers.
Currently, I’m excited about companies that are taking a vertical AI approach – these companies are building (or already own) unique datasets, and are using image recognition, conversational AI, and voice recognition to leapfrog slow-moving incumbents.
I’m also interested in products and platforms that are leveraging distributed systems – this is a pretty broad category, but I’m referring to what the market is calling blockchain solutions, open source platforms, and even stuff happening in the developer community (ie microservices).
I think AR, quantum computing, autonomous vehicle software will be massive industries over time –but we’re very early in those cycles. Would love to see AR become the next platform, but think we’re still in the “oh, that seems cool” phase.
NS: What is the current fund that you are investing from?
AE: Converge Venture Partners, just around $30M.
NS: What excites you about the current market in Boston?
AE: The research, talent, and international feel of the city – largely driven by universities, but we’re seeing larger companies set up shop here. We’re 6 hours from Europe and Israel, compared to 12 hrs (and time difference) in SF.
NS: What companies in Boston, outside of your portfolio, do you find interesting?
AE: Desktop Metal, Quantopian, Kensho, Nutonomy
NS: Who do you admire or who has been the greatest mentor for you?
AE: I’m lucky to have a wide range of mentors, both operators, investors, and folks far from the startup ecosystem. I give most of the credit to my family and friends - having a supporting cast is so important, regardless of what you do.
NS: Outside of your day to day work, what are your personal interests or activities?
AE: I love getting exercise – playing sports, and hitting the outdoors with friends. I’m going backpacking in Iceland in June, and hope to make it to Australia in the fall.
I enjoy spending time with my family, and have two brothers and two uncles in Boston. I also love to read – and when I have time, paint.
NS: What was the last concert that you went to?
AE: It must have been BORNS at the Sinclair.
NS: Are you involved in any charitable organizations?
AE: I’m involved with the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper, and have done some mentoring with BUILD this past year. Through both of these organizations, I’m working on something to provide more resources to inner city youth who are interesting in entrepreneurship.
Photos courtesy of Ash Egan and Converge.