Interning in Venture Capital (2/2)
This past June, I interned for three months at OpenOcean in London, a European venture capital firm focused on software companies raising their Series A.
(This post was originally published on VCDium, read it here)
In the first part of this blogpost, I answered questions about the application process, my first impressions of interning in venture capital and the work I was doing.
In this second part, I answer questions on how my internship unfolded over 3 months and reflect on my takeaways from it, from the most important skill I developed to my thoughts on the future of artificial intelligence after having researched it.
Daily Life (Pt. 2)
I take the subway every morning to get to work, 5 stops and 2 changes. I’d usually arrive around the same time as Rahul at WeWork Soho, usually by 10am. Before getting started, I say hi to everyone already there and most importantly grab chocolate biscuits and a cappuccino from the WeWork open area.
I then sit at my desk and start my day by reading daily newsletters like StrictlyVC and Dan Primack’s Pro Rata before alternating between different projects to stay productive. For example, I’d continue my research of the machine learning space for 1.5 hours and then switch to running a competitive analysis (due diligence) on an online bank.
On work getting boring: It didn’t. What I was working on was interesting to me and I couldn’t get enough of it.
On struggling to keep up and dealing with uncertainty: Working in early-stage investing puts you right in the middle of progress but also right in the middle of the nonsense around it. Early-stage investors have to filter through a wide range of companies, from the most promising and crazy to the straight up buzzwordy scams. It’s not always easy to discern which is why as there can be a fine line between them.
To make matters worse, things move really fast in this sector. You have to deal with uncertainty, changing truths and conflicting sources of information on a daily basis. It can be hard to catch your breath sometimes. OpenOcean taught me how to deal with uncertainty, and even better: thrive in it. (more below)
On ‘working’ for a second VC fund in my free time: Firestartr is a seed fund co-founded by Richard Muirhead, also General Partner of OpenOcean in the London office. Even though the two funds invest in different parts of the investment chain, they are linked together by shared employees and many common interests such as decentralization.
I interacted daily with members of the Firestartr team and ended up doing some work for the fund in my free time! That was a pleasant surprise as I got to learn more about seed-investing and developed an interest for blockchain technology through the organisation of a debate on crypto-economics.
When I’m not at the office on a week day, I’m either taking a day off or more likely at a meet-up or a conference.
On attending tech events: I didn’t go to many events as I found that, although enjoyable, they are usually less productive than being at the office working. Nevertheless, here’s a list of some of the ones I did go to:
- CogX AI conference (a 2-day conference with about 300 speakers on AI’s impact on Industry, Government and Society, see videos here)
- Entrepreneur First’s #8 Demo Day (an investor-only event where EF’s 8th cohort pitched their companies for seed funding, see videos here)
- VEECEE London #2 (a social event that gathers young VCs)
- London Machine Learning Meetup (‘Drug Discovery and Safe Reinforcement Learning’ with A. Saffari of BenevolentAI and T. Krause of ETH Zurich, slides of Amir’s talk here)
- Firestartr’s Debate on Crypto-Economics (Panel composed of major actors and/or thinkers of the space debating whether ‘Cryptoeconomics is the paramount concept of the century’, recorded debate here)
Takeaways from the internship
Writing this four months after my internship ended allowed me to take a step back and reflect on what I took away from it. I’ll spare you the finance and investing skills I gained and jump straight to the interesting bits.
On the most important skill I developed: With 100 tabs opened, folders full of bookmarked articles I HAVE to read, I was pretty much flooded with information all the time. I ended up having to constantly decide where my time was best spent, which developed my information filtering skills but also taught me a few tricks to be able to discover where good content is and who to follow:
- Use meetup.com and don’t go to a meet-up without solid activity and few thousand meet-up group members.
- Follow the right people on Twitter and Medium. Don’t try to build your high-quality follow base from scratch and instead start with a few people you know for a fact are good, look at who they follow and then follow these people too. Chances are the people you look up to look up to others themselves. Before you know it you’ll have tailored a newsfeed of live continuous high-quality content.
- Subscribe to newsletters and develop a habit of reading them. Tech newsletters are content aggregators and will do the bulk of the work for you by sifting through the most interesting and important pieces to read. A few quality newsletters are all you need to keep up with the tech world. I mention many of them in part 1.
- Cut down on all the nonsense, focus on fact-based, consistent, fresh content. Anything less doesn’t deserve your attention. You should actively steer your attention away from nonsense by unfollowing, blocking and deleting whatever is a waste of time, be it an app, a person, a blog, a media outlet. Here’s Paul Graham’s essay (Life is Short) on the same subject.
- Use a multi-platform bookmark tool like Google Keep to save articles for later. Whenever you have some free time, instead of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, open Google Keep and read that article you saved for later. A lot of information is missed not because you can’t find it but because you forget about reading it.
Working in Series A and (a little) in Seed funds put me right on the edge of progress. These two investment stages are the first two before bigger institutional ones, where a lot of start-ups are filtered.
I was exposed to an incredible breadth of companies, ideas and individuals behind them. Some already had multiple revenue-streams, others only a proof of concept, and sometimes only an idea. I peeked at what the future might look like and as cheesy at it may sound, I can’t get it out of my head.
On jumping on the decentralization rollercoaster: Rahul and I both started developing an interest for blockchain-based technologies and got amazing support from the OpenOcean team to pursue it. They’ve been investing in the space since 2013, for example by investing in Pantera Capital via Firestartr or more recently by participating in Orchid Protocol’s or Status’s ICO pre-sales.
With their support, we expanded our knowledge of the space and got in touch with major contributors of it for interviews and for Firestartr’s debate on crypto-economics we helped organize. Even better: that summer, some of the OpenOcean team was preparing the launch of a ‘crypto’ fund, now officially Fabric Ventures. We were lucky to witness and participate in its launch.
The team included us in investments meetings, let us join in on their calls with founders and explained to us the issues they were dealing with launching the fund. Some interesting things we did in our free time includes helping with the due diligence of prospective investments and debating on crypto-portfolio theory … By the end of the summer, we were swept away by decentralization and the opportunities it brings about.
On the future of artificial intelligence: As I researched the machine learning space this summer, I stayed up to date with its latest developments and gained enough understanding of it to develop an opinion on where future areas of growth might be. This deserves an entire blogpost to itself and so here it is: My top 5 AI trends to focus on
A lot of the takeaways from this experience take the form of realisations that changed my perception of the world or of myself.
On the importance of your work environment: The quality of your co-workers is understated as a factor for choosing where to work. I was lucky to be surrounded by people who had conversations interesting enough for me to write them down on a doc that I updated throughout the internship. Here are some snippets of it:
📈 About investing 📉
- ‘If you keep checking how your investment is doing all the time, then your sizing is too big and your due diligence unsuccessful’ — Ani on crypto investments
- ‘As a seed investor, you can’t really get lost in all the possible scenarios the investment could go wrong but instead, have to think “what if all the stars aligned”’ — Ani
🔮 About VC 🔮
- ‘ As a newcomer in the VC world, find a vertical you like and specialize in it early instead of choosing the generalist path. That way you will craft a reputation much faster and be the go-to guy for that particular vertical. ’ — Harry to Max
- ‘ We make our money on the deals that worked, make our reputation on the deals that don’t ’ — Someone quoting Marc Andreessen
🌎 Other topics 🌍
- (In a brainstorming session) ‘No objections, only suggestions’ — Richard
- ‘From my experience, hiring is one of the areas where you should make as less compromise as possible and hire exactly who you’re looking for because if you don’t, it’ll come back to haunt you later on one way or another.’ — Richard (led several successful enterprise software businesses, hired hundreds of people)
On how fast things happen: Exhibit A: I recommended John Gannon’s newsletter in the first part of this post and reached out to him sharing the post I wrote. Next thing you know I’m part of his Medium publication VCDium and mentioned twice in his newsletter! Exhibit B: Rahul’s first blogpost for OpenOcean was an interview of Aragon’s founder, Luis Cuende. No more than a week later, he was offered to be a contributor for Forbes’ cryptocurrency division! Things happen fast. (His first Forbes contribution).
** Bonus ** Exhibit C: In a previous internship at Global Silicon Valley, Rahul helped write The Global Silicon Valley Handbook (which you can buy here). The book maps out an insider’s guide to Silicon Valley and the hottest emerging markets from around the world. Rahul’s boss happened to run into T.J.Miller aka Erlich Bachman from American comedy TV series Silicon Valley, next thing you know this happens:
On trusting myself more: I was encouraged to make decisions on my own at OpenOcean. Asking others too frequently didn’t push me to improve as I had a ‘safety net’ in other’s opinion. In a way, before developing my own decision process I would outsource the decision to theirs and trust it to be right.
Linking to that, while researching the machine learning space, I noticed that many breakthroughs came from individuals who followed ideas that made sense to them even when the whole world was telling them otherwise.
Take Geoffrey Hinton and his belief in non-symbolic AI : Hinton trusted himself, and by extension his process, and when most thought he was wasting his time, like his PhD supervisor, he kept going. In 1986, he co-published the seminal paper on back-propagation. Today, deep learning, with back-prop as its backbone, is at the core of most breakthroughs in AI and Hinton is revered as one of the godfathers of deep learning, and therefore by extension of modern AI.
My advice for people who want to break into AI: don’t be too worried if everybody else says what you think is nonsense. Especially if you think it’s a really good idea, and others say its complete nonsense, then you know you’re onto something. — Geoffrey Hinton’s interview in Heroes of Deep Learning
Instead of accepting the truths given to him, Hinton thought for himself. He saw the world as malleable as opposed to the many who see it as a static unchangeable one, reflected on what could be changed and then acted on his beliefs. This is key to dealing with uncertainty; develop your own process to navigate through it, but also thrive in it by letting yourself theorize and reflecting on what your personal take is on an issue.
The last takeaway I’ll write about is the most obvious: my knowledge of venture capital as an industry.
I consider myself lucky to have been able to intern in VC at a relatively young age (19). Internships and entry-level positions in this industry are usually reserved for MBA students, or more generally older individuals, especially in Europe. Props to OpenOcean, and especially Richard, for being open-minded and not being afraid of hiring young people.
On the difference between VC in Silicon Valley and VC in London: I got that question a lot and to be completely honest, I have no idea what the difference is. The consensus seems to be that European VC is slowly catching up to its US counterpart, yet still behind¹. This is a rather boring answer so here is Rahul who experienced first-hand both places:
“ European VC is interesting in that an individual country market is small, so companies need to think about how to scale over multiple countries and languages from the get go. It’s a smaller and tighter knit community in each city (Berlin, London, etc.) and a lot more navigable. Silicon Valley is huge — so many people, so many VCs, so many companies.
It was interesting for me being born and raised in Silicon Valley because European tech often complained about Silicon Valley arrogance, and I think in Europe there’s a belief and conviction that the European tech scene is on the rise. On the other hand, Silicon Valley just doesn’t think about Europe at all really. While it is true Silicon Valley can be arrogant, and that Europe is on the rise, Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley for a reason, and it will be the leader in tech for some time (but not forever).
One of the best, balanced viewpoints I got was from venture capitalist Hussein Kanji, who described Silicon Valley as a much bigger pie, so you can have a smaller slice of the pie and be successful. In Europe, the pie is much smaller, the unicorns all known, so to reach the same level of success, you need a much bigger slice. But outside of tech is where Europe shines. Its not all tech all the time — London, Berlin, Amsterdam are all thriving cities outside of tech and are well known for things besides that, which I honestly think makes people happier. This liveability and diversity of thought is what drew me there. ”
¹See Atomico’s excellent State of European Tech 2017 report
On getting a (contractual) job offer for the following year: OpenOcean is a small company and needs to stay flexible. They cannot commit a year in advance to a full-time employment offer as it would depend on their needs then. These are hard to predict given the fast pace at which areas they invest in evolve.
The same applies to most small companies, keep that in mind when applying for jobs/internships 8 months in advance! Here’s some extra advice from Max: “VCs usually hire every 2 years. You have to be at the right place, at the right time, for the right fund. So my advice is to time properly, look for VCs that just closed a new fund and accept it might take 2 or 3 internships before getting a full-time offer.”
On whether I would recommend you pursue a career/internship in VC: I hope these 2 blog posts make it pretty clear I enjoyed my time in VC and that they give you enough information for you to ascertain better whether you would too. If you’re still unsure, feel free to send me a message and we can chat about it more 👍
What’s next for me?
I’ll be heading to San Francisco in April to visit Rahul and experience Stanford and Silicon Valley. I am still on the decentralisation rollercoaster and am hodling tight to my seat. In six months, I’ll be graduating from my Mathematics bachelor’s degree at Warwick University. I’m not sure what’s next but I know I have growing interests for decentralization, artificial intelligence and quantum computers. My future is filled with uncertainty but I’m not too worried, OpenOcean taught me how to deal with it 😉
Thank you for reading this all the way to the end! Also big thanks to the people who read the drafts of this post and helped me get to this final version, Rahul Singireddy, Max Mersch, Anthony Bellafiore, Cesare De Michelis and Carlotta Calta. As in my first post, I’ll make sure to reply to any comments below and emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org .