If it weren’t for changes in the real estate market, Bennat Berger might never have decided to go through with it.
At just 32 years old, Berger had already established himself as a savvy entrepreneur within New York’s real estate sector. He stood as the CEO and co-founder of the management firm Novel Property Ventures, where he was tasked with overseeing the acquisition, development, and sale of commercial and residential buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s most desirable neighborhoods.
Real estate was Bennat Berger’s life, and he was comfortable living it. While he sometimes thought about what it might be like to follow a different entrepreneurial path, he had few opportunities to pursue his curiosity — until the market began to change.
Four years ago, increasing uncertainty and ever-constricting rent laws made it unexpectedly difficult for sector leaders like Berger to operate. The pace of Novel Property Ventures’ acquisitions slowed from tumult to a trickle, and Berger suddenly found himself facing empty gaps in his schedule. The inaction was startling, especially given that he typically spent his days moving from broker meetings to investor conversations.
When Bennat Berger looks back on his career, he points to the uncomfortable lull as the impetus behind his decision to break into a new entrepreneurial path.
“If the real estate market hadn’t changed, I don’t know if I would have ever had the time for these opportunities,” he admits.
In 2016, Berger founded his second business — Novel Private Equity, an investment firm dedicated to supporting small tech startups in the retail market.
The retail-centric tech space has long been of interest to Berger, mainly because smaller retailers often don’t have the resources to explore innovation the way that larger companies do.
“A massive company can acquire or create technology as needed,” he explains. “Take Walmart as an example — in the last few years, the company has not only integrated e-commerce services by buying Jet but also established Walmart Labs which houses 7,500 engineers. Smaller brands don’t have the ability to do that.”
Given this, Bennat Berger firmly believes that there is a space for investment in retail tech — and intends to use Novel Private Equity to pursue the potential he sees.
Carrying out that plan, however, took a great deal of work. When Berger first began to consider investing, he faced the not-inconsiderable challenge of breaking into a new industry. Determined to follow his ambitions, he set about leveraging what he did have — a robust network — to gain his foothold as an investor. He consulted with a connection on the board at Whole Foods and spoke with lenders who he knew from his real estate days. He reconnected with retailers and entrepreneurs in buildings he had bought and sold over the years, and applied those relationships to make more connections, find startups within his chosen niche, and begin investing — selectively.
When asked about his investing approach, Bennat Berger describes himself as the inverse of a venture capitalist. Rather than investing in many companies and being minimally involved in each, Berger chooses to invest in a few and give as much advice and support as he can.
“I’ve done a lot of deals and communicated with countless capital partners, banks, and government entities in New York City,” Bennat Berger explains. “Because of that, I have a wealth of experience, history, and connections that most startup businesses just don’t. When I invest in a company, I not only provide financial support but also add value from an operations and growth perspective.”
His approach has already seen some success. Consider Novel Private Equity’s work with Swiftly, a grocery store app, as an example. Swiftly’s app enables shoppers to create lists, engage with loyalty programs, scan items in-store, skip the checkout line, and even file subscription orders for at-home delivery.
It’s a promising product; according to a recent press release, customers who use Swiftly tend to spend 1.5 times more and visit the store more often than non-Swiftly shoppers. By the end of its first seed funding round, Swiftly managed to raise $15.6 million from leaders in the consumer packaged goods and grocery industries — including Berger’s Novel Private Equity.
Companies like Swiftly are just the beginning for Berger. In the future, he hopes to forge even further into the retail tech sector.
“I think it’s going to become even more important to prioritize retail tech as digital solutions integrate more and more into our lives and shopping habits,” he comments.
That said, he stresses that the move into tech investing — or even expanding one’s focus beyond one entrepreneurial focus — isn’t for everyone.
“I had to understand business structures in an entirely new way when I made the jump,” Berger shares. “The process of investing in business has more nuance than, say, buying a building. People will take advantage of inexperience if you approach with naivete. I don’t begrudge them that; after all, we all need to look out for our own interests. But it does show that making that kind of professional leap isn’t for everyone.”
But for those who do decide to expand their focus, Bennat Berger has one suggestion: Make honesty, integrity, and reliability a priority.
“People need to know that they can depend on you,” Berger explains. “When I tell a founder that I’m going to connect them with somebody, I deliver that introduction. I won’t say that I can do something if I’m not sure I will be able to do so. If you’re a founder planning for business growth, you need to have certainty for the factors you can control because the business environment is unpredictable. People need to be able to count on their investors to deliver.”
If Bennat Berger’s story demonstrates anything, it would be that redefining or adding to your identity as an entrepreneur isn’t difficult, per se — but it does take a lot of work, dedication, and vision. Berger certainly has plenty of all three.
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