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20 Questions with John Habbert, MBA ’76

John Habbert in front of a tree, alongside the 20Qs logo

John Habbert, MBA ’76, has built a career around finding start-up gold.

Habbert discovered his passion for growing businesses early in his career when he left his role at Procter & Gamble to join a bankrupt start-up company. His experience building the company into a profitable business inspired him, and after he left that company, he decided to do it all again at an internet start-up.

This work eventually led Habbert to join a new investor group called Queen City Angels. The group’s mission is to support entrepreneurs and new businesses, something Habbert had been doing independently for the past decade. Since joining Queen City Angels 23 years ago, Habbert has helped launch six funds and supported more than 115 companies, to a total of over $100 million invested.

To learn more about Habbert’s background, his work with Queen City Angels, and what drives him, we asked him to answer our 20 questions.  

What, in your opinion, makes a start-up successful?

While we evaluate many different aspects of an early-stage business, I think the most important one is the management team. We prefer a team of two to four people because one person just can’t do it all. We like to say that a company’s business plan seldom survives contact with customers. The management team has to be experienced, adapt quickly, and persevere through setbacks. Other factors like intellectual property, large market size, scalable business model, technical skills, and the ability to raise capital are all important, but the management team makes it all happen.  

What’s your favorite part of your job?

At this point, I get the most satisfaction from mentoring and coaching the next generation of investors. I’ve been fortunate to learn so many of the details of term sheets, cap tables, deal documents, funding strategies, due diligence, and fund administration, and I am anxious to help others become more effective and experienced in handling those kinds of things.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career so far?

I’m very proud of the Queen City Angels organization and the role I’ve played in forming and transforming it. We started with a handful of people who wanted to make a difference and now have an organization of about 200 individuals who are passionate about investing in and working with start-ups. We’ve invested over $100 million in 115 different companies and are recognized as one of the top angel groups in the country.  

We are located in Cincinnati, Ohio, but have members from 19 different states. Some years ago, we wanted to increase our membership and diversity and made that part of a strategic initiative. We’ve pushed our percentage of female members from 6% to 23% and worked to bring in more diverse perspectives by doubling the number of people from underrepresented minority backgrounds on our team. Compared to our peer groups, we have outstanding member engagement in what is essentially a volunteer endeavor.

Who inspires you?

Entrepreneurs who risk everything to build a company from nothing, persevere through tough times, never give up, and ultimately find a way to succeed. What was your dream job when you were young? As a kid, I always enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked (but not always getting them back together successfully) and thought engineering would be a great job.

What was your best business decision?

Taking the risk of leaving a well-paying job at a big corporation and joining the start-up world.

What advice would you give new start-up founders trying to get their ideas off the ground?

In a start-up company that is, almost by definition, losing money, always watch your cash. Raise more money than you think you’ll need (because stuff happens). Think very strategically about how you’re spending because when you run out of cash, you’re done.

What was your favorite experience at the Ross School of Business?

When I was at Michigan Ross, my wife was getting a master’s degree at what is now the Ford School of Public Policy. We took one course together, which involved role-playing to resolve a number of general management/organizational issues. It was fun to have that one point of overlap (even though she did better than I did in the course).

What’s one thing you learned in business school that you’ll never forget?

Basic accounting principles. I disliked the coursework, but I still use the knowledge all the time.

What do you miss about Michigan Ross/Ann Arbor?

The concentration of smart, energetic, focused people is unique and irreplaceable.

How has your degree helped you in your career?

The foundation in general business principles has been very helpful in all of my endeavors. Accounting, finance, human resources, marketing, and statistics make it all happen.

Do you have any advice for current or incoming Ross students?

Develop your network — students, faculty, and advisors. I failed to do a good job of that and regret it.

What’s your favorite quote?

Guy Kawasaki once said, "Angel investing is not about making money. It's about making a difference." That really captures the spirit of the endeavor. He also said, "The best deal is the one you're not in," which reflects how seemingly random success is.

Favorite TV show to binge?

I’ve really enjoyed Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but rather than binge, I’ve watched one episode at a time and savored the experience.

Favorite comfort food?

Any kind of cake.

First album/CD you ever bought?

Wow, that was a long time ago. Probably Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence — still a favorite today.

First website you access in the morning?

New York Times to do Wordle and Spelling Bee.

What’s your pet peeve?

People who think that rules are for everyone else but don’t apply to them.

Who is today’s most influential business leader?

When I was working on an internet start-up in the late 90s, a guy named Jeff Bezos was working on his own start-up selling books online. His company became a little more successful than mine. He has had a huge influence on the way the world works — in e-commerce, cloud computing, and even space travel. 

If you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, who would they be?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Colbert, and Charlie Munger.