From VC to Warwick and Back Again…
How WarwickTECH Brought Venture Capital to Campus
This blog post is the story of my journey through the Venture Capital industry so far, and the efforts I’ve made along with the rest of the WarwickTECH team to democratise an incredibly exciting but often insular and non-inclusive community. Last week, we finally completed one of our earliest goals — to bring a VC up to university campus (Thanks to TheFamily for making the trip, and Ingu for organising the event!). This was one of the first targets that we set soon after we kicked off back in October 2014, and was one of our achievements that I felt very strongly about as a result of my passion for the industry and previous experience in it.
During my first few days in the university’s computer science department, I quickly found that many other students did not have similar experiences as me and certainly did not share the same career goals if they had any at all at that point. I found this quite difficult because going in I knew that I did not want to be a software developer or a data scientist, but I understood the value in their work, and in working with them effectively.
Last week, we finally completed one of our earliest goals — to bring a VC up to university campus!
WarwickTECH was built on the premise that students today are typically forced either to not pursue their ideas or to only work with people in a siloed fashion — within their own year groups or departments. Alex and I wanted the organisation that we were about to build to act as a bridge between members of the university community with an interest in innovation and entrepreneurship, specifically focusing on the underrepresented group with technical talents and interests.
Building a Network
Through some whispers of an opportunity here and there, some fairly extensive networking and a lot of luck — the summer after finishing secondary school, I managed to land a month-long internship at venture capital firm Doughty Hanson, certainly not a household name for most students, but nonetheless the first major investor in Soundcloud co-led by a former head of Intel Capital Europe (the European-arm of Intel’s in-house venture fund).
Whilst there, I was fortunate enough to dive in as the sixth team member attending pitches made by entrepreneurs for funding, meeting with the company’s partners, receiving daily mentorship from that same co-head, and presenting to the board and management team of Secret Sales, one of the fund’s portfolio companies — the opportunity was pretty incredible!
This being my first formal internship, I was under the illusion that this really was how work worked — I came away from DH knowing that I needed to understand the entrepreneur’s perspective when building a company and raising funding and that I needed to build my communication skills to the extent that I could take an idea in a business and explain it to anyone in any department (still working on it!). But above all, I knew I wanted back into the industry as soon as possible.
Clearly, most people aren’t as fortunate as I was to end up there, and bearing in mind that I only had one A-Level at the time, the reason I was there was probably to do with the fact that I was passionate, driven, somewhat creative, and could work with numbers to find patterns more than anything else. Having said that, a fair number of people fit that mould, so really it’s only fair that they are given the same opportunity that I was.
From there on out, one of the team’s major goals was set even before I’d even met Alex and we built a charity together. Looking back, it is clear that we both believe that a diverse community allows entrepreneurs to drive the diversification of their own skill-set and network, so last Tuesday’s event will certainly not be the last that we run in the industry and we certainly hope that it is not the last one with TheFamily.
So, if you want to break into VC my first piece of advice is to meet with people in the industry at events like ours, and be sure to have some great questions for them!
Bridging Technical and Business Acumen
As I mentioned, I studied in the computer science department. Specifically, Discrete Mathematics, which may be loosely defined as the mathematical theory behind computer science. Studying any technical degree drives transferable skills, which I, as well as some prominent figures, argue are far more important than degree content because they are applicable to a wide range of sectors, important given the pervasiveness of technology.
Nonetheless, most people think this represents a pivot between tech and business, but in my world, the two overlap regularly. One day I might be working with an industry veteran, the next an expert in computer vision — it’s my job to bring the two together and represent each one’s interests as best as I can without compromising on any essential details.
I think that’s why starting WarwickTECH was such an appealing opportunity when Alex pitched it to me. Either way, the ability to act as a bridge between techies and the biz camp is always going to work in your favour, so I’d suggest that anyone who wants to work in the industry takes advantage of local hackathons to learn how technical development works through building things and sharing them with others.
Events like WarwickHACK 2017 constitute sessions where individuals who want to learn to code and develop come together to meet like-minded people with complimentary skill sets and build great products under mentorship from industry innovators from a wide range of sectors. This is one of the most justifiably entrepreneurial settings I have seen because diversity is at its core and innovative ideas turn to amazing solutions right in front of you.
I’d suggest that anyone who wants to work in the industry takes advantage of local hackathons to learn how technical development works through building things and sharing them with others.
What makes these events so exciting for us is that ideas are built between departments and companies that would not otherwise work together, meaning that many of the ideas themselves have not been thought of before, yet alone implemented. These have included the Facebook’s Video, Like button, Chat, and Timeline.
If you have a startup idea then tell people about it, build a team and get started right away because what is more important than just problem-solving is problem finding. The best problems for an aspiring innovator to bring to diverse groups are those that affect them because they are the person who is willing to solve them.
Otherwise, I’d also recommend learning more about your favourite tech companies large and small, what tech stacks they use, who they’ve been funded by, their exec teams, business models, competitors, market sizes, unit economics and the key problem that they are solving.
Building Domain Expertise
After Doughty Hanson, I knew that I had to go out and get experience working for a startup, founding my own, as well as some corporate experience to really get a feel for the specific type of VC that I’d want to be a part of. However, I had no real method to go about doing this and sort of just went with it.
Looking back, things fell into place quite nicely — I was drawn to DH in part because I was an avid user of SoundCloud and thought it would be pretty cool to learn more about how they pitched for funding from their investors. Whilst there, I began to realise that my edge over some investors was that I was a user of the products and companies that they would invest in, and although some suggestions that I made felt very obvious to me, they were quite insightful and useful for assessing investment opportunities.
Over time and various stints across the company spectrum, I would come to realise that I was actually interested in early-stage retail and digital lifestyle startups backed with a next-generation technology (think: Artificial Intelligence, Computer Vision, Blockchain), and so as a method, the best way learn what’s best for you is to test, fail, learn, and repeat through each opportunity that you make for yourself.
I have been fortunate enough to have worked for startups, scaleups, and corporates, and companies that support them — namely VCs, investment advisory firms, and business growth companies. Each has a different perspective on the concept of entrepreneurship based on how they interact with other entrepreneurs.
I believe that making yourself more rounded as an individual allows you to reduce ‘unconscious bias’ in decision-making and knowledge-sharing, increasing the value of your influence. I have found that it is often difficult for people my age to build credibility due to a lack of ‘experience’, but when you draw on the opinions of others and bring them together in a new way, you become a problem solver that can help overcome an innovator’s pain points.
I am now fortunate enough to be able to share my views and bring my perspective to aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs, whatever growth stage they are in — this carries weight when making investment recommendations because I can now contextualise, review, and refine my ideas even better (although I’ve still got plenty of learning to do!).
In my opinion, the best way to build domain expertise is to read, research, take opportunities well outside of your comfort zone, and to become an integral part of tech, innovation, and entrepreneurship communities. A key part of entrepreneurship is self-education and the education of others through community feedback, so if there isn’t one where you live — go and make your own!
If I didn’t mention already, VC is hard at any stage, but especially as a grad — the average analyst has 2–3 years experience which is one of the main reasons that you will rarely see VCs at your campus careers fair. The teams are also very small so they don’t have to drive major recruitment campaigns like the more familiar banks and consultancies. I’d say that’s also a big part of the reason why the industry is so insular and non-diverse — if you’re just one person, you’re very likely to hire someone that walks and talks like you do.
I have found that it is often difficult for people my age to build credibility due to a lack of ‘experience’, but when you draw on the opinions of others and bring them together in a new way, you become a problem solver that can help overcome an innovator’s pain points.
We’re looking to solve that problem by bringing the VCs to diverse undergraduate communities, and helping students to build and foster those relationships over time. After that relationship is made, I’d recommend developing and refining your own startup analysis framework so that you can more acutely deliver value to potential funds when you make applications. Also, a great way to test your investment theses is to participate in small crowdfunding rounds.
It was a long journey for me to get back in (now at Stockhorn Capital), but I found that a strong sense of tenacity and demonstrating that I’d made an improvement each time I’d reached out to a contact or past interviewer has been the main driver to achieving that — it also helped me build credibility and a strong industry network along the way.
This blog post was written by Harry McLaverty, C0-Founder and Trustee at WarwickTECH, Warwick University’s fast-growing technology social impact organisation founded in October 2014 to be the university’s campus tech hub.
To kickstart learning all about tech stacks and prototyping, head over to the dedicated WarwickHACK 2017 website here.
For the full-length talk from TheFamily on ‘Business Models for Startups’ by Younès Rharbaoui, Deal-Flow Manager, have a look here.
If you’re a VC that wants to speak to us about collaborative opportunities, feel free to drop me an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org!