How do you get a job in VC?
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
People ask me this question about seven times a week. You know what? I’m a VC, and I have no idea. I never set out to do this. My partners who have been doing this for 20+ years have no idea. All I have are a handful of patterns, gleaned from the small sample of other VCs I’m familiar with, that make up my tips below.
You asking me “How do I get a job in VC?” is a bad value proposition. I will get very little out of it. I say the same thing to everyone; I feel like a broken record. I’m not hiring you, not because you did anything wrong, but because VCs virtually never hire junior talent. And you will get very little out of it. I’ll recycle tips that you could have read here, and you won’t end up closer to a job. It’s time wasted for both of us.
Venture capitalists in general aren’t great developers of junior talent. It’s not like a normal job function where there’s an ascending ladder of neat titles and constructed programs where you move up, like with investment banks or private equity firms that siphon up MBA students. Venture doesn’t really have that. Although some of the big firms might have associate programs, most don’t.
The number of jobs that come up annually is just a handful. According to Baiyin Zhou (baiyin) of Ascent Venture Partners, there are roughly the same number of open U.S. professional athlete positions as there are available VC positions nationwide. And because of that scarcity, those jobs are always going to people who already have context around startups, their own deal flow, strong networks, unique talents, advisor or angel roles, or as many of the above as possible.
So how do you get a job in VC? It just kind of…happens. You don’t pick venture; venture picks you. But you can increase the odds.
Of course, my suggestions are influenced by my own experiences and the investors I work with most closely at Accomplice. Accomplice is unique in the way we hire and run the firm, so I can’t speak to others.
My path in brief: relevant hobbies throughout my life (video gaming, podcasting, blogging), plus psychology/English undergrad → law school → working at multiple venture-backed startups → non-investment job at VC firm → investment job at VC firm.
Work at a venture-backed startup
If you want to fund startups, you should work for them. Even if your role has nothing to do with the fundraising process, simply being there and immersing yourself in the organism of the company is priceless. No matter where in a startup you work — marketing, engineering, product, sales, operations, whatever — you’ll gain an appreciation for the effort it takes to build, launch, and sell products, all while dealing with myriad cultural questions.
Ideally, find or craft a role that lets you bridge the gap between different functions so you get a bigger picture of what’s going on. Be a marketer who knows enough about engineering to have helpful conversations about the engineers’ worries and needs. Be a salesperson who understands the product release cycle so you know why the features your clients demand may not be the product team’s priority. If you can help with board deck preparation or fundraising, that’s good but not essential. Your focus should be doing your job well and helping the startup that employs you.
If you become an asset to your startup, word about you may make its way to the investors. As investors we mainly interact with the co-founders and the board, but we know when an operator is exceptional. In my own case, I was the fourth person at my first startup, which had recently raised a small seed round. I stayed there for three years. About six months after I joined, we raised a $5.2M Series A (sounds so small compared to where round sizes are now, doesn’t it?) from Accomplice (then Atlas Venture) and General Catalyst. I never planned to work at a startup that would raise money from stellar venture capital firms, but if you can somehow reverse-engineer this outcome for yourself, try.
The Accomplice partner, Jeff Fagnan, knew about my performance and later offered me a job as Director of Community at Accomplice. That non-investment role lead to an investment role a year later. It never would have manifested if I hadn’t been completely heads-down on doing the absolute best job I could at that startup, and later at a second one, and later as Director of Community at Accomplice. I didn’t take those roles half-heartedly with secret aspirations of being a VC; I took them because I wanted to do them with all of my being. Only by throwing myself at those opportunities did I display the skills and traits that Accomplice found desirable: grittiness, curiosity around tech, community-building, and organic marketing.
Be an expert in something
Become an expert in something you love and get known for it. Building that kind of knowledge-base and recognition in the community is valuable, and it’s a skill that VCs need to have. Demonstrating that you can do it for your own brand speaks volumes about you. If you come with an audience, you come with a network of people who will bring you deal flow.
Are you a book lover? Start a meetup in your area for fellow readers and commit to making it meaningful to the attendees. Are you into cryptocurrency? You can start a small portfolio at very little cost and blog about the things you learn. Start a podcast. Launch, moderate, and grow a subreddit. Release an app. Create a highly-followed twitter account.
None of this has to do with “work.” It won’t work if you do it because you feel like you have to. Do it because you want to. If you’re learning by doing, you’re consistent, you’re prolific, and you’re authentic, the success will follow.
Look at M.G. Siegler, former TechCrunch writer turned VC. His expertise in quickly distilling complex tech ideas into stories translates well to evaluating new company pitches. Or Ryan Hoover, who first built ProductHunt as an email list to connect people who were frustrated that there wasn’t a place to share new launches. He turned ProductHunt into a company, AngelList acquired it, Ryan started angel investing, and AngelList later gave Ryan his own fund. He’s still CEO at ProductHunt, but he invests on the side. Ryan built a community to address a pain point, and it ended up becoming a great source of deal flow. Or Kent Bennett of Bessemer, who started in TV and entertainment. Or Mike Moritz of Sequoia, who was a history major and journalist at TIME. There’s a common thread of expertise in technology journalism and community-building leading to VC roles.
Found a venture-scale company
In terms of getting into VC, the only thing better than working at a venture-backed startup is founding one. Nothing will give you more empathy. Nothing will give you more credibility in the eyes of VCs who may wish to work with you, aside (possibly) from angel investing.
It takes guts to be a founder. VCs respect that. And the closer your own company’s story mirrors that of a venture success story, the more relevant your experience as a founder will be.
What does it mean to be “venture scale?” All VCs are trying to at least triple the return on their funds, and we look for companies that could be nearly big enough to do that by themselves. A good rule of thumb: your potential exit should be at least as big as the size of the fund you’re pitching. We’re a $200M fund, so you shouldn’t be pitching us unless you think you can build your company to be worth $200M at the very least. Eric Paley of Founder Collective has a great post on this concept.
You don’t have to be a founder who’s raised money — bootstrapping is admirable — but having gone through the fundraising process gives you added perspective that you can draw on when you’re on the other side of the table.
Get a mentor.
If a VC you admire takes you under his or her wing, excellent. It’s a gift and you will learn a lot. But don’t ask someone to mentor you. It has to happen naturally. Asking someone to mentor you is like asking someone to be your friend. They have to care about you enough to do it, and that’s not going to happen if you’re a stranger competing for their time.
Some say that training a new VC costs $20M in bad investment decisions. It requires such a broad and deep knowledge of industries, technology, company-building, and social psychology that whomever you’re learning it from is likely making enormous sacrifices to teach it to you. You will make enormous sacrifices to learn this craft and even more to be good at it. It’s a tough, multi-year journey merely to know that basics, and it will become your life.
Advise and/or make angel investments in companies
Other than founding a company, advising and angel investing are the best things you can do that signal that you’d make a good VC. VCs spend much of our days assisting companies with questions or issues, so if you already have that propensity, it’s a positive sign.
Angel investing often feels like a sport for wealthy, older types who can write gigantic checks. That’s the stereotype. But you can invest small amounts of money, too, even if you’re not accredited. Check size and time can be a sliding scale: if you write a small check, pay it forward with time giving advice and helping. If you can’t invest any capital, invest only time. Another avenue into angel investing is Spearhead, a program that gives founders up to $1M in funding to start angel investing, plus provides mentorship from top investors.
Advising doesn’t have to mean that you have a formal relationship with a company with advisor shares or a consulting agreement. More often it’s informal and you do it for free. It’s the phone calls, coffee meetings, and working sessions you spend with founders who need advice. Before he joined Accomplice, my partner TJ Mahony founded and exited Flipkey, then started making angel investments. But even before then, he got a reputation as the person you’d go to in Boston if you had a product question because his door was always open. Janet Comenos, CEO and co-founder of Spotted, worked her way up doing sales at startups and now spends 5–10 hours a week advising less experienced founders on the skill. She isn’t a formal advisor to any of them; she does it because she loves to help.
Know that most of the best never wanted this job
I think it’s a red flag any time someone asks me how to get this job. It’s not by asking, but by doing things peripheral to venture and building a name for yourself that you end up in VC.
None of the investors I know and admire walked around as little kids saying they wanted to be VCs when they grew up. How dull an answer, right? Most of them didn’t think about the job until it fell in their laps. They were busy excelling elsewhere.
Implicit in the question “How do I get a job in VC?” is the assumption that this job is easy. It’s been glorified through shows like Shark Tank. We aren’t sitting on our thrones entertaining pitches from incredible founders all day; we’re being inundated by requests, emails, event prep, flights, pitches, painful portfolio problems, our own operational issues, and new technologies that we have to stay on top of. We are wading through the mud to find the gold. And only very, very rarely do we find it. We are slaves to our calendars. Most of our days are spent in service to our portfolio companies and in fear of missing the next big thing.
Do it for the right reasons. That doesn’t not mean money or power, even if you may achieve those along the way. It’s the same for founders: if you’re doing it because you see dollar signs and your ego needs feeding, investors can see through that. A desire for money and power won’t keep you working when your startup feels like it’s failing. You need to care, deeply and legitimately, about what you’re building and the people with whom you’re in the trenches.
The first time Jeff asked me to work at Accomplice, I said no. I was a startup person; I didn’t want to work in “finance.” I wanted to do real work, not whatever it was that VCs did. I didn’t know what they did, but it seemed boring. Spreadsheets and PowerPoint decks were involved. I couldn’t work in a sea of blue blazers. I’m covered with tattoos and I swear and live in hoodies. But paradoxically, it was my lack of desire to work in what I thought venture was that made me good for the job. Venture is much more hands-on than I had thought, especially early-stage. We’re like a startup ourselves, just on a more macro level: instead of living and breathing the details of one company, we do it across a portfolio of many. But Accomplice itself has many of the same product, marketing, engineering, and sales challenges that I loved at startups.
So how do you get a job in VC? It will find you if it’s meant to be. That sounds like a cop-out, but I believe it.
What helps increase your chances? Having a genuine desire to help others without expecting anything in return. Staying close to the startup ecosystem. Cultivating your deal flow and network. Advising and investing as an angel. And maybe a little bit of good luck and timing.