9 Tips to Network Your Way into a VC Job

[Editor's Note: This is a guest post by Jared Gordon . Jared is an Investment Manager at IAF and is a lawyer by training (though we don't hold that against him). The post summarizes Jared's experience in both finding a gig at a Canadian VC fund and his conversations with others about these elusive positions. ]

CC-BY-20 Some Rights Reserved Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

It is that time of year again, when my inbox fills with requests for coffee from graduating students asking for two things: “How do I get a job in venture capital?” and “How do I get a “biz dev” job at a startup?” I always appreciate the initiative of people reaching out to me, but I thought I would share some tips to maximize everyone’s time.

Getting a job in venture capital is hard.

It is not impossible. But it is very hard. If you are the kind of person who is interested in venture capital, you will probably ignore anyone who says the problem you are trying to solve is hard. If you are the kind who is committed you will also realize it is not about the money. We do it because we love working with startups.

There are not many funds out there, but at least that narrows the focus of your search. To give you a better idea, there are maybe 10 non partner venture capital roles in all of Canada. Everyone I know in venture capital has worked many years to get here. It requires drive, energy, time and a lot of networking. In truth, the only way to get a job in venture capital is networking.

The Difference between PE, IB and VC

The journey prepares you for the job once you get here. People I met with along the way are people I now do business with on a daily basis. Also, the job hunt is a chance to demonstrate to the community what kind of person you are and what kind of value you add.

Before we jump into the tips, there is a difference between PE (Private Equity) and VC (Venture Capital). Beyond the huge difference in compensation, VCs spend a lot more time understanding the dynamics of specific markets and verticals than they do on financial analysis. In PE you spend your time building and reviewing financial models. When working with startups, you spend some your time crafting financial models, however, the calculations and models are very different.

There is no template for working in VC

Some basic tips on how to network your way into venture capital are listed below. These tips are about how to get in front of the people you need to get in front of and how to make the most out of that meeting. There is no template for working in venture capital. Some of us have advanced degrees some don’t. Increasingly, having spent time at a startup is becoming more common. Having strong technical talent is a rare but desired commodity. If you can identify how technically hard a problem is, that will set you apart.

9 Tips to Getting a VC Job

  1. Don’t send a message over LinkedIn – This one is my primary pet peeve. A lot of the job of being a VC is being able to find information. Every investor’s email is available somewhere.
  2. Warm intros work best – Did I come to speak to your class? Did I come speak to your friend’s class? Do we know anyone in common? Anything you can do to create a connection between us will make me want to spend more time helping you.
  3. Don’t be scared to cold email – Cold emailing is a great skill to learn and have. You never know whose interest you might catch unless you try. Why not reach out to Fred Wilson? A partner at Kleiner who went to the same school/has the same interests as you? I find the cold emails that work best have great subject lines and can bring attention to something I, and the person I am emailing, have in common.
  4. NO FORM LETTERS – These are just insulting. You should be spending at least twenty minutes crafting each email. The person you are trying to get in front of has a linked-in profile/about.me page/bio somewhere. Use that information to show them that you value their time and advice enough to put some work into getting the meeting.
  5. Be persistent but not annoying – When I do not get a response from a warm intro, I follow up after a couple days. Some people have poor inbox management skills and stuff falls to the bottom. It is nothing personal. The person definitely saw your email and it shows persistence and that you value someone’s time when you follow up. With cold emails, if I do not hear back I will wait a couple days and send a quick second try. If I hear nothing, I leave it be.
  6. Be clear in your ask – The clearer and more direct you are about your ask, the easier it is for someone to know if they can help. Nothing is less appealing than a note asking to “learn more about venture capital.” The internet has cast the profession wide open, with more information available online now than was available to VC associates five years ago. You can learn about everything from VC funnel management, what the average day for a VC is like to the difference between European and American style waterfalls. Examples of good asks would be: “You are an early stage VC. While doing my MBA, I mentored startups and participated in Startup Weekend. Can I get half an hour of your time to talk about how I can transfer what I learned in school to a job or what else I can do to make myself a competitive candidate?” or “I want your job because I like working with early stage startups. Are you hiring? Can we make some time to chat so when you are, or when you know someone who is, you think of me?”
  7. Once you get the meeting, don’t blow it – You have only one chance to make a first impression.I spent the first months of my networking journey wasting a ton of important people’s time. I would sit across from them in boardrooms, coffee shops, and their offices and talk about myself for an hour.It took a meeting with Jeff Rosenthal of Imperial Capital to set me straight. He would not remember if you ask him, because the meeting was so bland. Jeff ended our meeting with some advice. He told me that everyone who got a second meeting walked into his office with a list of companies they would look to invest in. They proved they were capable of doing the job they were seeking. You can do that too.Look at the person you are meeting with and what spaces interest them. Use Crunchbase and Angelist to identify some promising startups and why you like them. Be prepared to defend your thoughts. This discussion is more interesting (and fun) then hearing about your involvement in the investment club or student government. One person I met with had a presentation he had put together on three trends in technology that he found interesting and why. They showed they were capable of hitting the ground running on day one.
  8. Follow up is key – Always make sure to send a thank you and take care of any action items you might have left the meeting with. If the person you are meeting with did not follow up on theirs, no harm in waiting a couple of days and sending a polite reminder.Following up does not end with the thank you note. It is always great to hear from people you have helped along the way about where they landed or how their search is going. This becomes especially important when it comes to the last tip…
  9. Coming close to something? BRING IN THE BIG GUNS!! – When you know there is a position and you have met with someone at the firm or submitted an application, now is when the networking pays off. You can make up for a lot of flaws in your resume by having someone you trust recommend you for a gig. If you treat your network right and maintain good relationships, they will have no problem making a call to get your application moved to the top of the pile.

This is where hard work pays off

Mark Suster summed it up in a comment on a blog post by Chris Dixon:

“The people who “sneaked into” the process were:

  1. great networkers
  2. great networkers and
  3. had other people contact me on their behalf (great networkers).

But if you don’t have GREAT street cred already don’t hassle the VCs. Just accept that it isn’t likely you’ll get in without doing great things at a start-up first.”

Chris Dixon agreed “Yeah, when I got my job in VC it was like a political campaign. I had one partner tell me ‘I’ve heard you[’re] a great guy from 6 people’ – which wasn’t an accident. I had done so many free projects, favors etc for VCs and startup and then I asked them to make calls on my behalf. It’s brutal.”

The venture capital community is a very small tight knit community. And the number of potential gigs is very small. It is a lot of effort to build the relationships and connections to get a job working at a venture fund. (Before you even consider this, you might want to brush up on Venture Math 101 and figure out why you really want to do this).

Additional Reading

Here are some great posts from people with more experience and authority on the same topic:

Still want some of my time? I am not going to tell you how to find me, but if you can figure it out, I look forward to chatting.

Photo Credit: Photo by Robert Couse-Baker  – CC-BY-20 Some Rights Reserved

Mission Accomplished – StartupVisa Canada

CC-BY-SA-20  Some rights reserved by Marion Doss
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Remember back in 2011 when I was xenophobic and wasn’t supporting Startup Visa? To the credit fo the incredible StartupVisa Canada Initiativea team, which I was lucky enough to join and support, the Federal Government is launching a new class of immigration visa with the participation of CVCA and NACO. Check out Christine Dobby’s summary from the press conference (it’s where all my statistics and data are from). Go read Boris Wertz’s story about Summify founders and the impetus for Startup Visa Canada.

“We believe startups to be the driving force behind job creation and prosperity,” says executive director Richard Rémillard. “We need to be pro-active in attracting foreign entrepreneurs.”

The new visa is replacing the old “entrepreneur class” visa, which required the applicant/immigrant to hire one person for one year. In 2011, the federal government issued approximately 700 of the old entrepreneur class visa. The government is making 2,750 visas, issued to immigrants based on selection and funding by venture capital investors. Immigrants receive immediate permanent resident status. Looks like a pilot program with a 5 year lifespan, with the opportunity to make permanent depending on uptake.

Thinking by Zach Aysan (zachaysan)) on 500px.com
Thinking by Zach Aysan

My issues back in 2011 and previously, were not with the intent of the program. But in the proposed implementation details. One of the biggest assets, in my not so humble opinion, is the population diversity, with 46% of Toronto’s pouplation being foreign born. It is the creative tension between differing viewpoints that makes Canada an amazing place. The implementation of startup visa makes Canada an even more attractive place to recruit foreign born scientists, engineers and now entrepreneurs. I love it!

Firing People

I hate firing people. It’s the worst part of my job. Even after all these years I still spend days or even weeks agonizing over a decision to let someone go. I feel absurd complaining about this, given that of course it’s a hundred times worse for the person being fired than it is for me. Still, I hate firing people.

My first firing at Top Hat was our VP Sales. He was employee number two, he joined right after we raised our angel round. In retrospect it was doomed from the start, and it was entirely my fault. I had no idea what I was doing when it came to building a sales organization and brought him into a role that didn’t make sense (read about the lessons learned in building a sales team). It took me 6 months before I finally pulled the trigger. In the end, it was undoubtedly the right decision and set the company back on track. But at the time it was an extremely tough call. It was admitting failure – to myself and to our investors – that this first major hire was a mistake. I felt  ashamed about it for months and kept convincing and re-convincing myself that we could still make it work.

As a general rule once you’ve lost faith in an employee, things rarely get better. You can sometimes fix a skill-level problem by giving someone time to grow, but you can never fix a personality problem. If you’ve identified that someone isn’t a fit you need to move on it quickly and decisively. The longer you wait the worse it will be for both parties.

Firing is an essential part of running a successful company.

In a narrow way, it’s actually more important than hiring. You could, in theory, use a shit-against-the-wall style hiring strategy and as long as you filter out the bad apples quickly enough you’ll be able to build up a functional team over time. Of course that’s probably not the best approach.

The reality is that even the most effective interviewers are rarely more than 70% or 80% accurate. The average interviewer is quite a bit worse than that and isn’t much better than chance – often even worse, because the naive approach just selects people who are great in interviews, which disproportionately selects for bullshitters. However, even if you’re some kind of super-human talent screening machine with a 95% success rate, that 5% will accumulate and degrade the culture until you’re surrounded by bozos.

The Best Firing Process is a Better Hiring Process

Of course the best “firing process” is not to have to fire people, which can only be done through effective hiring. That being said, not having an effective firing process is like not having an immune system – the first cold will eventually kill you.

It’s fairly common knowledge these days that A players only like to work with other A players. A slightly more subtle observation is that someone’s status as an A player isn’t fixed. Bringing a weak player onto a team has a tendency to poison the culture and downgrade the rest of the team (especially if that weak player has a shitty attitude.) This bad apple syndrome has been observed to happen fairly reliably in studies on organizational dynamics.

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The Bad Apple Syndrome

We’ve experience this at Top Hat a couple of times. One of the most instructive was with our inside sales team. Early on when we were in a pinch to fill the team we lowered our standards and brought on a few people that we should have passed on. The results were disastrous. The quality of the team degraded and eventually hurt not only the inside team but also other parts of the company that came into contact with it. It took nearly a year of solid effort to rebuild the team. For a time it seemed hopeless. No matter what changes we put in place, no matter how much talent we threw at the team, the cancer of negativity and poor morale just wouldn’t go away. The most profound mistake we made in the process of trying to fix the team was to keep those who were performing well but had a negative attitude.

There was a pattern we observed a few times: we’d put a new person into the team, their performance would be great and they’d be super enthusiastic. Then like clockwork after a week or two their numbers would slowly drop, and they’d become engrossed in the culture of negativity and gossip. It was only after the cleared out the ringleaders who were perpetuating the negativity (who happened to have decent performance numbers!) and put in strong positive management that things finally began to change. The most amazing thing is that many of the people who were B or even C players when the team was dominated by negativity shot up to solid A player status. The overall output of the team per person went up by nearly 300%. In addition it seems as though life was trying to setup a lab experiment for us to prove just how much things had improved – we had a person who had left the company a few months prior re-join the team. His feedback was that he was blow away, he couldn’t believe it was the same team.

Lessons Learned

The first lesson we learned was that no matter how strapped for manpower you are, no matter how much it seems like the world will end if you don’t fill a position, compromising on the quality of talent will surely be more damaging. Second, we learned that in fixing a damaged team the key is to identify the cultural sources of the underlying problem and focus on those. Finally, we learned to use a divide and conquer approach – we would pull all the top talent into a separate team while rehabilitating the broken remaining team separately – it really helped prevent the “negativity cancer” from spreading while we were fixing things. These are simple things in retrospect, but it took a while to pull it off.

One of the most revealing questions I tend to ask when interviewing potential managers is whether they’ve ever had to make the decision to fire someone. The answer and subsequent discussion usually tells you two things: first, it tells you if the person has ever had to deal with the most difficult problems in management, second it tells you if they know how to handle those problems through the process they followed. Assuming the person has ever had to hire and manage a team of a decent size for any length of time, it’s almost certain they’ve made hiring mistakes, and their answer tells you that they know how to detect and correct these mistakes. If the person simply walked into a mature team, or has had HR handle all the hiring/firing decisions for them, then they’ve been living on easy street.

The process of firing someone is always somewhat unique to each situation. That being said there are some basic principles that you should always follow:

  1. Give people plenty of notice and regular feedback. Give people several chances to improve. The actual firing should never be a surprise – if it is then you almost certainly did something wrong in setting expectations. Depending on the role the whole process should take 1-2 months (longer for senior roles.)
  2. Try to be generous with severance and leave the person in a good spot to find their next employment. I know it’s not always possible in a startup, but do what you can. It’s the decent thing to do.
  3. Take time to reassure the rest of the team and explain (with discretion) the process that was followed and why the decision was made. Letting someone go is always a huge morale hit (even if the person wasn’t well liked, it still scares people.) You need to make people understand that their job is not in danger.

Firing someone is always a brutal experience. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or is a psychopath. That being said, it’s unfortunately a necessary evil and understanding when and why it needs to be done is essential to the success of any business.