Photo: Dave Clark on Flickr
It’s that time of year again. MBAs who hope to break into the the VC business are ramping up their efforts, either for a summer internship or full-time employment.It can be a frustrating experience. The first thing you realise is how few positions are actually open (yes, you have 75 firms in your Excel sheet, but many don’t hire junior staff, those that do don’t seem to have any vacancies, and there’s a good chance a lot of them won’t raise new funds anytime soon). But you push onward anyway and begin talking to VCs, starting with alums from your school.
That’s when they start discouraging you directly: “Well we’re not hiring but I’ll let you know if I hear of anyone that is” … “Go join a start-up first and get some experience” … “Get a job in corporate development, that way you’ll meet a lot of VCs!” And when you ask about the path they took, you hear long-winded tales that aren’t particularly helpful or instructive. You begin to lose hope and assume that unless you are a Harvard computer science drop-out who started a company at age 21 and sold it to Google for $500M before deciding to “take a break” by going to business school, your chances of working in VC are roughly equivalent to competing in the 2012 Olympic Games.
This is when most people stop trying. Which means it is exactly when you should be doubling-down your efforts. But only if you are willing to do three things:
1. Become fluent.
This is an absolute must. Just as you can’t work in a foreign country without speaking the local business language, you cannot land a job in VC unless it’s clear from the outset that you are current on what is happening in the marketplace.
This means that if you want to get a job investing in web companies, you’d better know of and have an opinion about new companies like Tumblr, Kickstarter, Flipboard, and Kik. You should know who the most active VCs in the sector are, what sort of valuations the deals are getting done at, and which big companies are doing the most M&A.
Do you think AOL paid too much for The Huffington Post? What is the future of the online advertising stack? Was it a good idea for Yuri Milner to blindly invest in every Y Combinator company? Will Facebook’s valuation soar or plummet after an IPO? Picplz or Instagram? Will the Groupon business model survive as we climb out of the recession? Will New York become the new hub of consumer internet companies or is it overheated? Should startups invest in Android or iOS first?
How do you become fluent? Use Twitter actively and start following lots of entrepreneurs, techies, and VCs (@adamludwin is a decent start =)). Read what they recommend. Set up an RSS reader and browse the big tech blogs every day. But most importantly, surround yourself with actual people who are fluent themselves. It’s a smaller community than you might think. Go to the events in the city you want to work in (check out www.garysguide.org and www.meetup.com). Take as many coffee shop meetings as you can with people who can help you learn The best way to become fluent in a foreign language is immersion. This process is no different.
2. Build a positive reputation.
Many people assume they will be good at venture because they think they have good instincts about which start-ups will work and which will fail (“I knew Facebook was going to be huge the moment I saw it and I totally called the demise of ChatRoulette!”) The truth is that differentiating between promising and dull opportunities is only half the battle (and you’re often wrong). What is just as difficult is getting the most promising and talented entrepreneurs to want to work with you.
Think of it like the competition between business schools. If you started a new business school tomorrow, and you were only willing to admit Ivy League grads with GMAT scores above 750, how could you possibly compete with HBS and Stanford? It’s not hard to see who the best students are; it’s hard to convince them to come to your school.
Ditto in startup land. In today’s market, entrepreneurs hold the power. The only way to be a top performing fund is to invest in the best opportunities without overpaying, which requires that the top entrepreneurs consistently decide to take your money.
What does this have to do with you? Well, if you want to market yourself as an asset to a VC, there’s nothing more valuable than being at the centre of a large network of entrepreneurs and technologists who respect, admire and trust your judgment and experience.
How do you build such a network? Start at your school. Then expand into your wider professional network. Help every aspiring entrepreneur you can find in any way you can: offer your best feedback on what they’re doing, make introductions, keep an eye out for competitors. If you have money, invest in the ones you think are promising. organise and participate in events. And go for quality over quantity: spend more time with fewer people and give them your best. We’ve all met superficial networkers and you don’t want to be one of them.
The startup world is a brutally Darwinian place where what you did before B-school matters far less than if you are perceived as someone who can accelerate the trajectory of a start-up through your energy, intelligence, and network. In other words, your reputation is your resume, so start building it now.
3. Commit and be patient.
Finally, if you are serious about working in VC, you have to fully commit to the search and prepare for a longer journey than your classmates. You have to be willing to put in many hours a week and do detailed homework to figure out which firms are raising a new fund, which associates are about to be promoted or are leaving (thereby opening up a slot), and which firms have the right cultural, sector, and geographic fit for you.
You need to be willing to graduate without a job. You shouldn’t hesitate to pass on the offer to go back to your consulting firm or investment bank. You need to find creative ways to get your foot in the door at a VC and start working for them by sourcing interesting deals, suggesting new investment themes, and helping their portfolio companies in any way you can. And you need to talk to as many VCs as you possibly can as often as possible. The best way to do this is to be helpful in some capacity every time you speak to them.
The truth is that it typically takes years – not months – to find your way into a venture firm. So start now and don’t give up.
Ultimately, if VC is the right career for you, none of what I said will sound arduous or unnatural. To the contrary, it’s probably what you’re already doing. And in fact, the qualities required to land a job in VC – hard work, ingenuity, and equanimity in the face of uncertainty – are the same ones that will help you succeed once you finally land a spot. Good luck!
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