STORY BY EVE LINSKY
PHOTOS BY DAN BIGELOW
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It began with a simple question: What does it take to make a business succeed? The answer, John Chatzky would discover, was much closer to home than he imagined.
Having spent more than 30 years as a real-estate developer in New York City, Chatzky, known throughout the rowing world simply as “Chatz”, was no stranger to business success. The traits he came up with—leadership, grace under pressure, endurance, courage, commitment—weren’t revolutionary by themselves, but in listing them, he was struck by a sense of familiarity. These were the very same things he’d come to expect from rowers in his crews.
Thus was planted the seed of what would become Swing Ventures, the investment fund Chatz founded in 2014 and now runs with Hal Ebbott, the firm’s managing director. Named for the sensation one feels when a boat is moving beyond the sum of its parts, Swing invests in companies whose founding teams include at least one rower.
Though the thesis may seem unorthodox, Chatz is quick to point out that all investors seek to identify leaders capable of expending tremendous effort over a long, often painful period of time. All Swing has done is segment the population into a group comprised of those who already possess such traits.
“Rowing demands an obsessive focus,” Chatz said, “and an ability to fixate on goals that may be months, if not years, away.”
“Rowing demands an obsessive focus,” Chatz said, “and an ability to fixate on goals that may be months, if not years, away.”
From that initial thesis, Swing has grown by leaps and bounds. Having made approximately 15 investments to date, it now has holdings in industries ranging from computer vision and financial services to machine-learning and high-end cycling wheels. It’s a broad array, to be sure, but look closely and you begin to see the through line.
“All of our founders are immensely talented,” Chatz said. “And they’re quintessential rowers in that they simply won’t quit; it’s just not in their DNA.”
He would know. After steering the University of Pennsylvania heavyweights during some of their strongest years, Chatz was graduated with a keen sense that he still had more to give. “More,” it would turn out, meant making the 1980 Olympic team and winning the Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta.
Asked about the impact of his experience on the water, Chatz is emphatic: “Without rowing, I simply would not be who I am today. I owe my self-confidence to rowing, as well as my discipline and desire to excel, not to mention dozens of close friends. That’s why I knew I had to give back to the sport, no matter what path my life took. And no amount will ever be enough.”
Ebbott is equally emphatic. “Rowing is just a teaching tool. The question that really matters is what you do afterwards. It’s about how you carry that work ethic and sense of community forward into your life.”
As evidence, he pointed to the fact that their founders include an Olympic gold medalist, IRA champions, and those who never rose above the 3V. Their ability with an oar may have varied widely, but their abiding similarity is that they were all rowers. What matters is that they had the experience and understood what it means.
The two met in 2015 when Ebbott was fundraising for his company, Foray. Swing invested, and after Foray’s intellectual property was acquired, Ebbott reached out.
“After giving a lot of thought to what I’d do next, I was confident I didn’t want to run a company again,” he said. “At least not right away. But I wanted to stay close to the energy and talent that often surround startups, ideally in a capacity that allowed me to leverage the experiences I’d had for the benefit of others.
“John and I had fostered an extremely close, communicative relationship during my time at Foray, and I thought that by taking a more intentional, systematized approach to Swing’s sourcing, diligence, and portfolio support, there was a huge possibility to improve the quality of its opportunities and the level of assistance it could provide.”
Chatz remembers being struck instantly by how much sense it made.
“It was obvious to me right away—both for pre- and post-investment work. Someone who’s been there himself has a unique perspective on what to look for, and once we’re invested, it makes a big difference that founders know our advice is coming from operational experience rather than business-school case studies.”
So far, it seems to be working. The first deal Ebbott brought to Chatz was Triplemint, a tech-enabled real-estate platform founded by Yale rowers David Walker and Phil Lang. Triplemint merged recently with The Agency, a global brokerage, forming an entity valued at $350 million.
“Of course, I’m loath to say it was all luck,” Ebbott laughed, “but it’s definitely proven to be a good confirmation of the overall hypothesis.”
Swing companies have raised more than $40 million in venture-capital funding last year alone, listed products on the London Stock Exchange, and been used by clients such as Microsoft, Dell, Xerox, and AT&T.
Despite these successes, Chatz is circumspect in his outlook.
“You have to be very patient and calm. These things take time, and founders have enough to worry about without investors breathing down their necks. We see our role as support system more than anything else. We want to be the people you call, good news or bad.”
This personal approach was there from the very start. Chatz remembers vividly his first meeting with a would-be founder. The woman was Michelle Darby, a University of Washington alum and three-time IRA champion. “Within two minutes,” he said, “you could feel it—a kinship, a sense of seeing the world the same way.”
Her company, Roomzilla, now services hundreds of clients around the world, but what stuck most with Chatz was the need for a personal connection.
“There was a drive, a focus, and a commitment that I’d been longing to make part of my professional life. I knew not only that I could help her but also that she could help me.”
This holistic people-first approach is clearly being felt. Said Matt Doran, CEO of Advntr: “We’d met plenty of folks promising to help who never did. Not only did Swing perform, [they] did so with the same urgency as the founders. We’d never witnessed such passionate support.”
Melissa Pancoast of The Beans was similarly effusive. “When things get tough, they’re usually my first call. Without them, we simply would not have made it through the pandemic with our team intact.”
And Paul Lippe, formerly the general counsel at Synopsys and now CEO of xMentium, put it succinctly: “I’ve dealt with probably 100 VCs in my career. Swing is the best partner.”
It’s easy to get along when things are going well, which is why it’s a truism of investing that you should be judged first by your failures. By that measure, Swing may be even more impressive.
Brad Werntz, a two-time Swing founder, described a particularly stressful period during which it was clear that Skedaddle, his first company, would need to be wound down.
“I was not getting enough sleep and had atrial fibrillation. Even though the investment was going to fail, John checked on my health and progress more regularly than even close friends and family.”
Asked whether that relationship has changed in the years since, Werntz replied, “The main change has been an ongoing growth in my respect for John and Hal.”
It’s those stories, Chatz says, that make the work so satisfying.
“At the end of the day, these are marriages. You’re in it for the long haul and you have to care about the people behind the business if you’re really going to help. Plus, we trust our founders. In that way, it’s just like a crew. You can’t always see what people are doing, but you trust that they’re giving it their all.”
In addition to the level of support they provide, founders mentioned again and again the pair’s dynamic. Despite the 30-year age gap, Chatz describes his relationship with Ebbott as a partnership and emphasizes the benefits of differing perspectives.
“I tend to be more optimistic, whereas he defaults to a cautious, guarded position. In meetings I often play a more congenial role, whereas Hal’s focus is on due diligence and an investigation of the underlying fundamentals. But it works. The balance is what matters.”
Ebbott echoes this sentiment. “The point in collaborating is to catch each other’s blind spots. Plus, echo chambers aren’t just bad for business, they’re boring, too.”
This philosophy tends to inform other areas of their thinking as well. Both Chatz and Ebbott were quick to realize the risks of such a targeted investment approach. The thesis at the heart of Swing Ventures is deliberately expansive, and neither wanted their enterprise to become self-contained and nepotistic.
“Rowing is an expensive sport,” Chatz said, “which means that you’re more likely to come across a certain type of person from a certain type of background. Not always, but certainly more so than in the population at large.”
In a sector that has been criticized, rightly, for its lack of diversity, Swing’s portfolio is replete with women- and minority-led companies. Its interest in impact extends well beyond founder makeup, however.
“You can have as diverse a C-suite as you want,” Ebbott said, “but if the companies they’re building are all designed to serve the one percent, then what’s the point?
“Of course, we’re looking at an investment’s return profile. But we aren’t interested in an app that solves nonexistent problems or makes the lives of the already-comfortable marginally more pleasant. There’s clearly money in that, but at some point you’re going to start asking yourself questions about what you’re doing and what it means, and it’s a lot easier to work hard when the answers feel good.”
So far they do. Though hardly a comprehensive list, Swing’s portfolio includes The Beans, an app that helps those in the middle class overcome their anxiety about money; SparkChange, a provider of specialized carbon data that allows investors to reduce their carbon footprint while driving up the cost of pollution; and Turazo, a platform that offers tools to improve diversity in hiring and retention among the Fortune 500.
The ethos of giving back pervades all aspects of the fund. Each summer, Swing hires a class of associates—also rowers—and the internship program has become so successful and widely known that it attracts a wave of referral candidates each year who must surmount an acceptance rate in the single digits. Alums have gone on to work at such firms as McKinsey, Barclays, Salesforce and Bank of America and pursued business degrees at Harvard, Duke, and Cambridge.
The formula, Chatz says, is simple: “Pay people to do meaningful work and treat them well while they do it.”
That hires would be paid was something on which Chatz and Ebbott agreed from the start.
“Even if people were willing to work for free, we didn’t want that,” Ebbott said. “Not only would it limit our talent pool but also it would imply something about the kind of work being done. We pay because what they do has value; it’s a practical position as much as a principled one.”
Past hires are quick to confirm this. Arushi Guddanti, now a financial analyst at Walmart, said of her experience, “It’s very rare to come across a culture that inspires you to be better and challenges you to give it your best.”
Lily Fauver, who works at Spot & Tango, described work after Swing as something of a shock when she realized that one-on-one training and personalized feedback aren’t always the norm.
Brihu Sundararaman, a Swing alum and founder of Shuttle Labs, said his experience at the fund was instrumental in fostering his love of startups.
In March 2020, the program took on a new life.
“Everyone’s summer jobs were falling through as a result of the pandemic,” Chatz remembered. “It struck me as a great chance to make sure kids still had a worthwhile experience.”
In addition to the three full-time hires, Swing formed what came to be known as the Task Force, a group of nearly 20 additional interns who worked with various portfolio companies conducting research, building go-to-market sales strategies, and generally assisting as needed. In a notable case, one was responsible for securing a $250,000 line of credit that helped a company weather an especially perilous stretch. So impressed were some of the founders that some associates were hired to work directly for the companies after the summer.
Direct investment is only way Swing endeavors to benefit the sport. The fund maintains a charitable arm that has supported over 70 current and aspiring National Team athletes as well as more than 20 university programs, regattas, and organizations.
However remarkable the list, it fails to do justice to Swing’s actual impact. Asked to describe Chatz, founders, interns, athletes, and colleagues all used the same word: mentor.
“He’s someone you can always call,” one said.
“He’ll do whatever he can to help—and not just financially,” said another. “Sometimes his advice is the most helpful thing of all.”
As for the future, Swing remains on the hunt for new ideas.
“We love meeting with founders,” Chatz said. “It’s one of the best parts of the job. As our current portfolio matures, we want to make sure we’re investing in the next wave of game-changing companies. Momentum might be on our side right now, but we have no intention of letting up.”
The result, when you zoom out, looks a lot like a great crew. There are individual components, yes, but thanks to a steady hand on the rudder, the pieces work together, supporting one another, creating a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.