From Wall Street to Start-up: Palmer Higgins ’06

Palmer Higgins
When Palmer Higgins ’06 graduated from Bowdoin College in 2010, he landed not only a job, but a start date that let him to defer the corporate world for a year.

So off he went to Spain, where he worked on a government initiative preparing teachers to implement a bilingual curriculum. At the time, he didn’t realize just how valuable the experience would be.

In Spain, he worked side by side with teachers of every discipline, from chemistry to physical education, from physics to art, using his native English to help them implement bilingual instruction. Far from the work he would return to on Wall Street, he was learning from the teachers as they prepared, delivered, and evaluated lessons.

Upon returning to New York City, he began what was intended as a three-year position doing equity research in JP Morgan’s Investment Management division. He worked for two analysts in the utility and energy infrastructure sectors, followed 60 companies, and created economic models that helped portfolio managers make investment decisions. The work was interesting, his evaluations were excellent, and he was learning at every turn. He seemed to be in the catbird seat.

Then he had dinner with his mentor, Spanish teacher John Conner P’11, ’14, ’16. Earlier the same day, Señor Conner had lunched with Tom Gardner ’86, co-founder of The Motley Fool; both Tom and Palmer were former advisees. Tom had been enthused at Señor’s emerging textbook project for the iPad, but asked him point blank: “Do you want a hobby or a company?” The ensuing discussion touched on whether the Breaking the Barrier textbook series would benefit from a full-time employee.

When Palmer and Señor Conner sat down to dinner, Palmer shared interesting aspects of his work at JP Morgan and the fact that things had quieted down since he took a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exam a few months earlier. Señor shared the steps he was taking to expand a small language textbook business by adapting the books for the iPad. He was clearly struggling with the potential scope of this venture, moving from selling textbooks to a limited number of schools and homeschoolers to working with Apple on a new technology. Palmer knew Breaking the Barrier well: he had interned with the company during the summer of 2006, after graduating from Groton.

Palmer, who was considering his long-term ambitions, made an offhand comment: “Now would be a really interesting and fun time to be working for Breaking the Barrier,” he told his former adviser.

The conversation prompted another dinner a few weeks later with Tom, who offered entrepreneurial insight. As Palmer and Señor began to discuss seriously what it would take to build a textbook company beyond a weekend hobby, they struck upon an audacious notion: Palmer would leave the world of finance and become his mentor’s first full-time employee. Though the job would come with housing, or at least a room, a salary, and access to a well-stocked kitchen—the real draw was the chance to help build a company.

The opportunity was exciting, but the timing was dreadful. Palmer was only halfway through the program at JP Morgan. He had a great life in New York City, enjoyed his work, and the pay was pretty good, too. Could he, should he, walk away from a “promising career” and move to rural Massachusetts to be the chief chef and bottle washer for this start-up? His parents were surprisingly supportive—one obstacle removed. Palmer and Señor Conner began discussing how the company would be organized, how duties would be split, and how they would move from a mentor-mentee relationship to one as peers and co-workers.
Despite all the reasons to say no, Palmer gave notice to JP Morgan, packed up, and headed to Groton to help his former adviser successfully launch the iPad version of his Spanish and French Breaking the Barrier textbooks and build their market.

Three months into his new career, Palmer is astounded at how many hats he must wear: IT, sales, office operations, and occasional squash coach. Each morning, he sets the day’s priorities—to call school systems around the country that are adopting the iPad? To move all the business’ operations to the Cloud? The best plans are quickly derailed when a mother who is homeschooling her children calls to discuss how the Breaking the Barrier homeschool package compares to competitors’.

No doubt there are moments when Palmer wants to order sushi at midnight and misses NYC, but little can match the thrill of his current pursuit, building a business from the ground floor up alongside his longtime coach, mentor, friend, and now partner.

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