In Conversation

Alumni insights: On growing a business and growing New Haven

Miles Lasater ’01, one of three alumni who founded the financial services firm Higher One while still at Yale, discusses the company’s role in the New Haven.

The corner of Winchester and Munson was a key location in New Haven’s economic history – and it may be a key site for the city’s economic future, too. In the 19th and 20th centuries, it was home to a thriving Winchester Repeating Arms Company factory. Now, it is the headquarters for Higher One, a company at the fore of the Elm City’s information technology and knowledge economy in the 21st century.

Founded in 2000 by three Yale College students – Miles Lasater ’01, Mark Volcehck ’00, and Sean Glass ’02 – Higher One occupies 150,000 square feet of renovated space in the former gun factory. It currently has more than 500 employees, with more than 240 at the New Haven headquarters, where it plans to grow and add more staff.

Mark Volchek ’00 and Miles Lasater ’01 of New Haven’s Higher One with Dan Malloy and John Destefano
Mark Volchek ’00 and Miles Lasater ’01 of New Haven’s Higher One are joined for the dedication of the company’s new headquarters in Science Park by Governor Dannel Malloy and Mayor John DeStefano. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The company dedicated its new space on March 20, with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy on hand for the celebrations. DeStefano noted that Higher One proves that the New Haven community still makes things, but now it makes things with ideas.

The company has grown substantially since its founding in Miles Lasater’s living room 12 years ago, but it has kept its roots and headquarters in New Haven. YaleNews caught up with Lasater to discuss the ideas behind Higher One, its path to success, and what the future may hold for New Haven. 

Can you describe the initial process a dozen plus years ago when you came to the idea of starting a company? Was your interest generic — to start a business — or did you have the idea for a financial services firm for the collegiate market in mind at the beginning?

We came together as a strong team with a strong desire to solve real-world problems for our customers while building a quality company. There are so many challenges facing every industry. We did keep coming back to higher ed as we analyzed ideas because we had passion for it and personal experience.

Your business focuses on colleges and their students. Does it help to be headquartered in a college town? What about this community makes it an attractive place for you to stay and grow?

New Haven has worked well for us. It’s lower cost than New York City or Boston, yet we’re able to draw on those talent pools for employees. As we do much of our business through technology or visiting our client campuses, we could be located almost anywhere in the U.S.

You’ve each been in New Haven since you came to Yale as undergraduates in the mid-90s. How has the place changed and developed since then?

I came to New Haven for college and stayed for the food. Although I'm joking (mostly), the city has continued to increase in the quality of social and cultural life with a lot of resources for a city of this size.

Higher One went public just a few years ago and you’ve been growing even though the national and global economies have been sluggish after a deep recession. What factors drive the success you’ve seen?

Higher One enables colleges and universities to reduce waste and inefficiencies in administrative processes. Regardless of the economic cycle, education is an important industry that has been historically underserved in technology services to reduce costs. Doing more with less is always a good move.

What differentiates Higher One from other financial service companies?

We believe it’s our sole focus on higher ed. We only serve colleges, universities and students unlike other financial services companies that may cater to other sectors. With each interaction, we’re able to become more familiar with our customers’ unique needs and apply this thoughtfully moving forward.

New Haven now has a set of tech companies. What’s your view on the prospects for the future and what are the keys to grow the local tech sector?

We have many of the pieces necessary to have an explosion in high growth startups:  a top-tier university with lots of research dollars near a major city with a high quality of life. There are people with all the right kinds of expertise. As more of them get to know each other and see the possibility of success here, we are gaining more momentum … although it does take time.

You engage with Yale students who want to follow in your entrepreneurial footsteps. What are the top pieces of advice you give to current students who want to start new businesses in the future?

Talk to customers. It is never too early to get out of your dorm or office and away from the theoretical. Subject your ideas to the test of reality and you'll learn a whole lot. You'll be surprised how long it takes to sell something, so don't worry if you haven't built it yet. And besides, you'll get feedback that will help you decide what is important in your product/service.

You are very busy with work, and you are very active in civic endeavors to strengthen New Haven further. What tips do you have on how to maintain some balance in your busy schedule and the many demands on your time?

Balance for me is doing everything to the extreme. When it is time to work do that fully. When it is time for something else, do that.

A visitor comes to town and wants to get some pizza. What do you tell them?

You can call me a Modern man.

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