Update; These days I am working as an independent founder coach. Think of me as an executive coach before the founders have grown their companies big enough to really warrant the ‘executive’ coaching. See haje.me for more information — I’m always happy to chat!
About six months ago I started a new job as Director of Portfolio at Bolt. I’m not gonna lie — it’s the most challenging, most interesting, and most fun job I’ve ever had. I’ve been pretty vocal about my happiness on various social media, and I was surprised about quite how many people reached out to ask me how I got a job in VC, and how they, too, could go down the same path.
It turns out a warm introduction and a weirder-than-hell resume was my way in.
A bit of background.
Bolt is an unusual VC firm: We invest at the intersection of hardware and software, and we have a 7-man strong engineering team. Which makes sense. If you think about it, investing, in general, is a high-risk activity, and investing in hardware is especially risky. There are even more things that can go wrong than in ‘regular’ Venture Capital.
At Bolt, we de-risk our hardware-focused investments in three ways:
- Only make the best investments possible. That one’s probably true for every VC firm, but we have an edge: We’re one of only a handful of firms willing to touch pre-seed hardware-related startups.
- Invite our portfolio companies into our workspace (free rent to help extend the companies’ runway). We also give our startups access to a fully specced prototyping/machine shop: 3D printers, machine shop, wood shop, electronics shop, and workspace optimized for building products. Spoiler alert: being able to use the workshop is my favorite perk about working at Bolt.
- Give our startups access to a top-shelf engineering team to help them build the prototypes they need to go on to test with early customers and raise additional funding to go into production.
Suffice to say that engineering and prototyping is comprehensively covered. What about everything else? That’s where I come in. My role as Director of Portfolio is to help with anything that isn’t engineering related. Which, as you might imagine, is an extraordinarily varied job. I work on branding, marketing, hiring, operations strategy, fundraising, logistics, systems design, PR, messaging, communications, and as a sounding board for the startups in the Bolt portfolio.
My role is unusual; it’s not what people immediately envision when they think of venture capital. I’m not on the investment team, I’m only tangentially involved with dealflow. Instead, what I’m doing falls under the ‘platform’ category of venture capital jobs, or ‘portfolio support,’ if you will: helping companies that have already raised money from us be more successful.
Know your strengths.
My resume is weird to the point of making me nearly unemployable. To wit: Before the internet existed, I started my first company aged 10 or so, repairing computers around the town where I lived. I sold my next company — one of the first the first Norwegian-language website about digital photography, back in 1998 or so. I did a journalism degree in the UK (which felt utterly pointless at the time, but, as I’ll discuss in just a bit, helped me get some crucial skills). I taught myself to code and then proceeded to never use that skill professionally (although I did use it to do some research that secured conversations about a role at Twitter). I worked in PR briefly, worked for a number of magazines and websites (in gadgets and automotive — which, in retrospect, turned out to be important career stepping stones). I worked as a television producer, wrote a stack of books about photography and started a photography hardware startup kind of by accident. That hardware company went through two accelerator programs, went on to ship hundreds of thousands of units to 90+ countries, before crashing and burning. I moved to the US, was the CEO for a SaaS marketing company, then founded a chatbot company that tried to encourage people to talk about death. I also wrote for Techcrunch a bit. In between all of that, I was a police officer in London, started several other, smaller ventures, and ran one of the top 10 most popular blogs about photography for a while. Photocritic was acquired, ran into the ground by the acquirers, then I bought it back, and it later evolved into a free photography school.
If that sounds like a huge, weird mix of things, you’re not wrong. The jumble of skills and experience means that I’m pretty good at helping startups. If you’re familiar with the concept of T-shaped skillsets, I guess the most generous thing you could say about me is that the horizontal bar on my T is thicker than most people’s. I’ve experienced a lot of the challenges early-stage founders run into, and can advise with experience and empathy.
The question in the context of this article, of course, is what you take away from all of that. My advice for how to get a job in VC isn’t to teleport back to 1991 and start a company where you’re essentially telling people to turn their computers off and on again. (Although if you are working on promising teleportation technology, drop me an email. I want to invest.)
Step one is to analyze your strengths. Your story is probably unique in some way or other, which hopefully makes you a more attractive candidate for one firm or another. Lean on that. Amplify it. Make it your guiding star and your loudest advantage.
In my case, I got the job after my previous company was looking like it wasn’t working out. As we started winding down operations, I began thinking about how the next chapter in my life might pan out. In the course of those conversations, I had coffee with someone I’d only met once or twice before. We talked about death. We talked about life. We talked about interesting challenges and professional development. And at some point, she said “I think I know something you would be great for. You should talk to Ben.” Long story short; I did, and that’s the job I now have. It turns out a warm introduction and a weirder-than-hell resume was my way in.
Breaking into VC is like breaking into Fort Knox
Having spoken to many people in venture capital, both while at Techcrunch, while looking for my next challenge, and after I started working in the industry, I eventually realized that getting your first job in VC is a lot like breaking into Fort Knox. It isn’t impossible, but it’s hard… And whenever someone has found a new way to break into Fort Knox, they change up the security, so it’s impossible to break in that way a second time.
I jest, I jest.
The key takeaway from all those conversations is that there’s no ‘typical’ way into venture capital — everyone’s journey is pretty different, and for every piece of advice you can find, there is a counter-example of someone who didn’t do those things.
So, what can you do to increase your odds?
Venture capital is like any other job; ultimately, to get hired you need to:
- Get noticed.
- Stand out as someone who might add value to the organization.
- Add something to the team that wasn’t there before.
The standard advice you can find out there is excellent; there are many things you can do to make yourself better qualified for a job in VC. The problem is, you can’t do all of them — but you can use them as a general mindset to figure out how to improve your skillset.
Those things include — but are not limited to:
- Get an MBA
- (For specialist firms) — Have a PhD in a relevant topic. Want to be at a crypto firm? It helps to have deep computer science or math knowledge.
- Have banking experience. (Most relevant for later-stage VC firms; not at all helpful in early-stage venture)
- Have legal expertise. (Not helpful on its own, but you’ll be doing much work on legal documents. Being able to decipher legalese is a helpful superpower)
- Have finance experience/training
- Have consulting experience.
- Study economics.
- Be a successful entrepreneur.
- Be an unsuccessful entrepreneur who learned a lot from the journey and was vocal about the lessons learned (ahem, x2).
- Be an Entrepreneur in Residence at a VC firm. (Most relevant if you also tick the ‘be a successful entrepreneur’ box, above)
- Do an internship with a VC firm. (Although, fair warning: These positions are rare)
- Start finding and sending deals to the VC firm you want to work at.
- Get an intro from another VC, particularly if you previously founded a VC-backed startup, and the VC that introduced you returned the fund because of the bet they placed on you. Let’s be honest though: If that’s you, you’re probably not reading this blog post.
- Get an intro from an entrepreneur the VC firm has invested in.
- Work with a specialist venture capital headhunting firm. (Or so say several articles. I can’t say I’ve seen any of these firms appear on my radar)
- Start angel investing. (This is a particularly good idea, even if you only place tiny investments into equity crowdfunding campaigns. I’ve invested a small amount of money this way. While it’s not going to make me a dime, thinking about how I would invest my own money has helped shape my thinking about venture capital too)
- Become a tech journalist (it’s surprisingly common)
Personality traits worth working on
Ultimately, there are no ‘rules’ for what makes a good VC, but there are a few patterns I’ve spotted. The best people on a VC team are extremely quick at ingesting vast amounts of information, prioritizing, forming opinions about that information, before making decisions on what is not always a full set of info. The best VCs I know are fantastically good at reading people, and most are magnificent conversationalists; asking the right questions, absorbing the correct information, and asking smart, sharp follow-up questions.
There are a few jobs that help prepare you for the above. Finance, entrepreneurship, and journalism are, in many ways, very similar. Like in VC, you have a firehose of information coming your way. Like in VC, you don’t always have perfect information, but you still need to make decisions based on that information. Like in VC, you need to be clever about where to fact-check, how to get more information, and how to build up good pattern-recognition skills. Being an extraordinary networker ranges somewhere from ‘can’t hurt’ to ‘absolutely crucial,’ depending on how the rest of your personality and skill set shakes out.
If you are very early in your career, and you’re hoping to break through in VC, I would try to design your career to build up those skills: Being good with people, being confident with huge amounts of information, and being good at arguing your case efficiently. “Strong opinions, held weakly” runs deep in this profession.
Read some stuff.
There is no shortage of great resources on how venture capital operates. That’s a great place to start. It’s crucial to understand how the financial dynamics of venture capital work. There is a ton information out there, but you can’t go wrong by starting by reading Brad Feld’s Venture Deals and Mahendra Ramsinghani’s The Business of Venture Capital.
Venture capital operates in an ecosystem, and you need to understand the companies you invest in and their business models. Read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and Ash Maurya’s Running Lean to get the operators’ perspective. While you’re at it, treat yourself to Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur’s Business Model Generation as well, as it offers a great way of observing startups through a series of different lenses.
Even if you never hire anyone yourself, recruiting well continues to be the most important things for startups to get right, so read Who to get a firm grasp on how to hire. (Pro-tip: Knowing how to hire well also helps you interview better when you are looking to get hired.)
If you’re entirely new to the world of startups, Vitaly M. Golomb ✈’s Accelerated Startup is a comprehensive introduction to the ecosystem and the entrepreneur’s mindset. (I helped Vitaly create the book, so I’m biased — but it’s genuinely a great read, in that it’s one of the very few books that covers the full entrepreneurial lifecycle from pre-idea to exit).
Who do you need to know?
It is instrumental to start building up a network sooner rather than later. Find someone you know and look up to, and if they will mentor you on your journey. Interact with entrepreneurs and VCs on Twitter. Go to networking events. Offer help and advice. Ask for help and advice. Read voraciously — and take note of who has the most insightful, er, insights into venture capital and startups.
If you don’t know anyone in startups or venture capital — work on that, because honestly, I think you’re going to have a rough time to get hired. Not because it’s about who you know, but because the networking mindset is such an important part of the job, that it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you don’t know anyone in the startup ecosystem, it probably means you wouldn’t make a very practical addition to a VC team.
How long is this going to take?
Extremely hard to say, and your mileage will vary. I believe that ‘getting a job in VC’ isn’t a goal in itself. It’s an intermediary milestone. Consider this: Once you land that job, the nature of venture capital is such that you won’t know how good you are at it for a long time. Don’t think of ‘a job in VC’ as the goal any more than you would think of ‘buying a house’ as a goal. The fact is that buying a house is a huge accomplishment, but it’s a rare person that remains in their first house their whole life.
Try this… Imagine you’re 75 years old. You’re sitting in [hammock/rocking chair/sail boat] in [your favorite place], and telling [your favorite person] about your career. It’s unlikely that any of the career steps was so overwhelmingly defining that it is worth a whole story — it’s the things you did in that job that will have mattered.
All of which is to say; Design your life. Think about what you ultimately want to accomplish, and how to get there. If your want to get into VC, that’s awesome, but think about why. What does working in VC accomplish in the grand scheme of your career and ambitions, and how does that have an effect on your overall path?
Does that answer the ‘how long does it take’ question? Hell no. But it really shouldn’t matter — try to carve out a career that fulfills your personal goals. Me, I’m pathologically curious. And venture (like journalism, being an author, and being a police officer before that) happens to be one of the things that serves my curiosity beautifully. If I had one piece of advice, it would be this: Find out what your itch is, and scratch it. If your path takes you through venture, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t matter if it takes you a week or ten years. Enjoy the journey — that’s what really matters.
Haje is a pitch coach based in Silicon Valley, working with a founders all over the world to create the right starting point for productive conversations with investors — from a compelling narrative to a perfect pitch. You can find out more at Haje.me. You can also find Haje on Twitter and LinkedIn.