One of the most common questions I get is how I got my start in venture, so I thought I’d put it all out there in this article.
Put simply, the answer is persistent networking without losing faith through all the ignored messages, experience starting a small tech startup myself, and a lot of luck.
You see a lot of people go into investment banking, consulting, or PE then making the jump to venture, or possibly getting an MBA then interning with a firm or getting a job out of school. Another common road to venture is starting your own company and selling it for millions of dollars — I highly recommend this path (you can swing it, I believe in you). But like most will tell you, there isn’t really one great way to “break into VC”. On a side note, I really hate the phrase “break into VC” so that’s the last time I’ll use it.
I like to get to the point, so here it is: I sent a LinkedIn invite. I contacted Lindsay who is a Partner and Chief Legal Officer at NCT (now my boss) with a cold message asking if we could connect. She got a JD/MBA at Ohio State, and I was about to start my 1L year at OSU. To my surprise, she answered and told me to email her.
I was actually able to dig up the exact message:
First, why did I used the word “upon” ?? I was definitely trying to sound too formal. Probably don’t do that.
I really do believe networking is the most important piece of getting any job, especially one in venture. This message led to an email, which led to coffee at Starbucks, which led to a few follow up coffees throughout the school year, to a job offer in April 2018.
It wasn’t nearly as easy as I made that seem. I actually had no intention of asking Lindsay for a job. I went into the first meeting just trying to build my network and figured she could recommend me to another firm if things went well. That piece was important in my mind — don’t go into it trying to ask for a job, just try to build your network and provide value to that person if you can.
Also, don’t annoy the sh*t out of the person. Being consistent is important but there is certainly a limit to how often you should follow up. I think I touched base with Lindsay about once every three months.
Something else that helped me was experience starting HSAD Network, a small, bootstrapped internet company with a few friends. It’s a communication platform for high school athletic directors, coaches, and officials, and we managed to grow it to almost 1,800 users in 35 states, 4 Canadian provinces, and a few users in Western Europe. This venture gave me some operating experience and insight into what it takes to start a tech company. I’m not ignorant enough to think this is the same thing as starting an AI/ML, blockchain, IoT, etc. company with millions in funding and numerous employees. Way too many people sound arrogant trying to show off how great they are and why they should be in venture, so try not to do that. I knew my venture wasn’t anything crazy. Nonetheless, it was still a great experience starting a tech business and still helped give me some credibility.
Finally, I have to say I was just in the right place at the right time. I was lucky to work for great mentors who trusted me and gave me a lot of opportunities to prove myself. I was originally just going to work at NCT for the summer, but they had an opening and offered to keep me on the team. Without hesitation, I accepted and kept the position.
It seems like everyone has an MBA or a business background. I had a finance degree which was helpful, but if you’re willing to go through hell for 3 years, consider getting a JD instead. It’s immensely helpful on the deal structuring and negotiating side of things. Although I don’t have data to back it up, I’m still going to say far fewer people have a JD than MBA in venture. Maybe I’m just saying this to convince myself I didn’t waste a lot of time and money on a law degree, but it’s a great way to differentiate yourself and a value add if you can assist on the legal side too.
So this is it. How I got my start in venture. All it takes is some solid networking, experience, and a little luck. Or you can build your own startup and lead it to a massive exit; either way works. If you reach out to me like I did to Lindsay, I’ll probably help because I want to pay it forward… as long as you promise not to use the phrase I mentioned above.