So you’ve been thinking of applying for a job as an Associate VC. It seems like a fun gig, and you think you’d be good at it. But it’s a little opaque as an industry, and tough to figure out how to get in. And what you don’t see, but is working against you, is that there’s 100 other people, many armed with degrees from MIT and stints at Facebook, who also want to get in.
Finding a job in venture capital is a little like looking for an apartment in San Francisco: it takes longer than you’d expect, feels discouraging as you try, and often happens through personal networks. But you know what? With effort, a strategy, and a little luck, most people find an apartment they like.
For those who really want it, getting a job in VC is similar: it takes a little longer, requires a bit of a strategy, and happens through serendipity. But it can happen. I’ve seen dozens of friends join and work as VCs, and at least that many try and fail to land a job. When my friends ask how to get a job in VC, here’s what I tell them (1).
Who this is for
This is for folks coming from outside industries, other functional areas, consulting or banking, grad school, etc, who are looking for junior investment roles like Analyst, Associate, or Principal.
It is not for…
People who want to be GPs: This is a different ballgame, of which I know nothing.
Ex-Entrepreneurs: These hires happen through relationships forged in the process of building a company. This is the best way to get a job with a good firm, but entrepreneurs don’t need career advice like this.
How to think about yourself
Let’s get a little Buddhist for a minute, and start with the self. What type of VC-in-waiting are you? I’ve seen three types of prospective VCs, best illustrated by how they see their role in the world.
“I want to be in the VC space”
To these people it’s an interchangeable sector, like consulting, banking, hedge funds, or real estate. They ask questions like “how do you sell companies to rebalance your portfolio?” They have little empathy for entrepreneurs, because they’re not builders themselves. They think it’s a financial game of punching buttons. They should choose another career.
“I want to be a VC”
These people want to sit at a table in a position of relative power, and meet interesting entrepreneurs every day. They want a VC identity. I still don’t think these people should try to get jobs in VC, but they can be salvaged. To be good though, they’ll have to become a little like the third group…
“I want to find good companies and help them be great.”
For these people, it’s not as much an identity thing as a purpose for finding and supporting entrepreneurs. They can make great junior VCs, and should try to get there. (They add a bonus in that they’re usually the least douchey version of junior VCs.)
If you’re in the second group, think carefully about whether it’s the right fit. If you’re in the third group, read on…
How to think about the job
OK, so you’re in the third group, but you’ve never been on the other side, so find it hard to understand what firms look for. Here’s what most VCs actually do (2):
- Find great companies
- Make the right decisions about investments
- Close those investments over other firms
- Help their companies grow
- Help their companies exit when appropriate
As a junior person, you’ll probably be focused on the first 3 , and have a modified version:
- Find great companies by being out in the community building strong relationships.
- Have good judgment and strong insights about opportunities, and be able to communicate this and push through the inertia of a firm.
- Represent the culture and brand of the firm, and leave a good impression.
- Offer help to portfolio companies when you can be useful, but respect that the entrepreneur-firm relationship is owned by the Partner.
- Stay the hell out of the way with potential exits, unless asked.
So that’s what you’ll need to be good at. Most of your work will be split between being out in the community and building relationships, and supporting thinking and diligence on opportunities. I bring this up to trigger two questions:
- How can you build these skills long before you get to an interview?
- How can you demonstrate them when you get into hiring conversations?
How to be useful before the door opens
Most VC hires are serendipitous. Ask 10 people, and you’ll hear 10 different paths into the industry. You’ll listen and think “damn, that’s pretty hard to replicate!” Don’t even try.
Venture is probabilistic. Because it’s not a linear, predictable path into the industry, you’ll need to take a longer-term systems view. Give yourself a couple years to do this, and be intentional about it.
Most opportunities seem to connect in second degree networks. The goal is knowing of these as they come up, and being top of mind when they do. How can you build up the expertise, show value to entrepreneurs, investors, and the ecosystem, and bump into them often along the way? Increase the density of relevant people around you? Become known for something? Practice being helpful to entrepreneurs and investors?
For me, I was fortunate to land with AngelList. I got to work with hundreds of entrepreneurs on their pitches, and choose the best to connect them with investors. I was able to be helpful for entrepreneurs and investors, and build examples of where I’d made good calls on companies.
Not everyone finds themselves in a role like that, but there are a lot of ways to become a central node in the ecosystem, be helpful, and begin to connect:
- Find your niche of expertise, own it, write on it, and reach out to help people with it.
- Host events or conferences.
- Begin advising companies.
- Help accelerators with sourcing or advising.
- Build a following on ProductHunt.
- Start a syndicate on AngelList.
There are so many ways to start to become helpful, build a track record, and bump into founders and investors. None of these are likely to directly lead to a job on their own, but as a portfolio of activities it’s a good strategy.
The point is that people can begin thinking like an investor long before they get the chance. And in a recruiting situation, guess who’s going to get hired? The person who’s begun to build the mindset and network of an investor long before they get to an interview.
Take a look at the first 5 paragraphs from Bill Gurley’s announcement of Scott Belsky as Benchmark’s newest Partner. They’re all talking about the groundwork Scott was doing in the community, long before he started chatting with Benchmark. Just one quote:
We learned from Periscope’s founder, Kayvon Beykpour, about Scott’s role as a trusted advisor and confidant in the company’s earliest stages, culminating in Periscope’s acquisition by Twitter and subsequent integration.
Scott’s exceptional, but anyone can find their niche and begin being useful. More on that later.
How to talk to VC firms
I like things in threes. So I also see three types of active candidates in hiring conversations.
The Passionate Candidate: She’s is super interested in tech and startups, and intrigued by Venture Capital. She’s keen. To her, it seems like VC would be a great place to work and learn. Spoiler: everybody thinks that. This candidate believes that her passion and interest will get her over the bar, but it won’t. And as conversations get deeper, she’ll only be able to stay at the subject surfaces. There are so many candidates, and VCs are so disinterested in training junior members of the team, that these candidates rarely get hired.
The Credible Candidate: He’s not only engaged, like the Passionate Candidate, but also already thinks like an investor, in a way that is relevant to the firm. He has started building authentic relationships with great people in the entrepreneurial community, by being helpful, humble, and hungry to find and support great people.
He thinks about what makes great companies great, and how new companies can get there. What’s their fundamental unit of value, and to whom? How do they reach customers? How do they create and capture value? Where do they sit in the stack? What do they do differently? The Credible Candidate can hold his own in these conversations, and his thinking maps well to the firm. As conversations get deeper, he can keep up, and move from general claims to specific examples. These candidates have a good chance of finding a role over time.
And while becoming the Credible Candidate is a great strategy, there’s a higher risk/reward path…
The Notable Candidate: She can hold her own in conversations like the Credible Candidate, but steps out in different ways as well. She’s not afraid to have intelligent opinions that people might disagree with, and is comfortable respectfully challenging people on the other side of the table. In the best cases, people having conversations with her not only test her thinking, but learn something new about how the world works. And to be clear, this doesn’t mean getting into a bunch of arguments with VCs. It means being comfortable nudging a conversation to new territory, and being confident to have your own intelligent opinions.
As I joined Greylock (1), I was closest to that last type. After being at AngelList researching how startups and investors match, I had strong opinions about how the industry was changing. People agreed and people disagreed, but most wanted to spend an hour talking about it. It led to some great conversations. Some firms wanted more of a Credible Candidate, and I didn’t fit. But a few wanted someone with a different voice, and those worked conversations worked well.
That’s all I’ve got. Give yourself a few years to get there. Take a systems approach, and build relationships in productive, helpful ways. Be humble, helpful, and hungry, in that order. Understand the basic things you’ll have to be good at, and find ways to build and show those skills.
Good luck. It’s not a job for everybody, but for the right people, it’s a great round in your career.
(1) I’ve never actually been an investor, though I’ve been offered roles. At AngelList I kind of did it, in managing the dealflow through 8K pitches. At Greylock, I spent my time building stuff internally, but supported investment side closely when it made sense. I’ve watched dozens of friends do it, and many more fail to.
(2) Although I suspect it’s common industry knowledge, I first heard this from Tom Frangione. It’s a nice, clean way to understand the job.
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