“How to Get a VC Job?”

I get this question a great deal.  So, both to leverage my own time and to be helpful, I thought I’d write about how I got into the VC industry, and also, try to offer some lessons learned.

First up, my job is my hobby and it is my passion.  I’ve always loved VC, and now, with a new firm, it’s even more fun.  The stress has gone up, but it is “good stress.”  We will get a lot of credit if we produce, and we have no one to blame if we do not.

My story about VC is that I’m an accidental entrant into the industry.  Here’s what I mean.  Before and after B-School, I worked at Bain & Company.  I was lucky enough to be offered a promotion, but it required a two-year commitment.  I didn’t want to stay two more years, nor did I want to lie.

I was in between projects, and so, leaving then would not leave my teams and clients in a lurch.  It was a good time to go.  So, I quit.  (I’ve left all three jobs in my life the same way: quitting without having something else lined up, and I write below about why that approach made sense to me).

A great thing the Bain folks did was they sent me to a job counselor, as they wanted me to re-consider my decision.  This person was phenomenal.  She gave me a battery of personality tests, which confirmed what I like doing and what I’m good at doing.  She basically said that my gut about consulting was right.  I would be happier elsewhere.

It was 1998.  The Internet was new, and the economy was stable.  I wanted to find a business development job at a start-up.  The Good Wife and I were ready to cut back our lifestyle to make it happen.  So, I started to network.  In fact, I met or had calls with 100 people in 30 days.

I wrote a distant acquaintance who happened to be the CFO of Amazon.com.  They had just gone public and were only selling books at that point.  Long story short, I was recruited by her and the VC, John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins, to a new position.  I was going to report to Jeff Bezos, the CEO, be his chief-of-staff for a year, and also, help think about what other verticals Amazon.com should sell into.  Jeff had some great perspectives (more here).

After two trips to Seattle and much thinking, I decided to turn down the offer.

I kept networking, received offers from a few start-ups and was about to take one.  At the last minute, I had a meeting with a particular VC.  I almost cancelled the meeting.  I had been meeting with VCs all along, and the folks at Charles River Ventures and Greylock were immensely helpful in connecting me with their portfolio companies.  So professional and so helpful.

On a lark, I kept the meeting with this VC.  We hit it off, and he asked me to consider joining the firm in some capacity.  I said no.  We kept in touch.  I met more people at that firm and really liked them.  It was a small firm, with about 15 people (including administrative staff) and a fund size of $125 million.

They gave me an offer.  The idea was that if I didn’t like being in VC, I could start a new company with them or interview throughout the portfolio.  So, I joined.  What I thought would be a two-year commitment ended up being nine years and being promoted to General Partner after 18 months (in those go-go days, everybody in the industry was promoted in a few years).

So, looking back, how did I ever for the life of me land a VC job?  Here’s my thinking:

  • Good timing.  The economy was solid.  The Internet was just emerging.  VCs were feeling flush and raising larger pools of capital.  This in turn gave them the management fees to hire more people to deploy the larger funds.
  • Past kindness paid off.  The Amazon.com CFO was Joy Covey.  I think she’s awesome.  Well, I met Joy in 1990, at an investment bank.  She was a new Associate from Harvard Business School and I was a new Analyst from college.  One night, at 11 pm, she came by my cubicle, distressed.  She had an assignment due the next day, and she wasn’t sure how to work Lotus 1-2-3 (I know, I know, I’m old).  I was dead tired and about to go home.  Instead, I decided to help her.  I didn’t know her well, but she looked so distraught. Eight years later, I saw her mentioned in the HBS Alumni Bulletin and that she was at Amazon.com.  I wrote her an email, telling her I hoped she remembered me.  Thankfully, she did, and that kicked off the dialogue.
  • Co-branding.  Joy has a great reputation.  She was CFO of a successful Boston start-up called Digidesign, before she was lured to Seattle.  Her “stamp of approval” led to an association with the world-famous John Doerr.  His “stamp of approval” in turn elevated my personal brand.  I think without those two, I would not have appeared very interesting to VCs.
  • The day-to-day tasks of VC fits me.  The Bain-sponsored job counselor was great.  The tests she gave showed that I value autonomy the most in any job.  If I have it, I am happy.  If not, I am miserable.  The tests also showed me that the job attribute I valued the least was money.  Don’t get me wrong.  I like making money, but in a series of “forced tradeoffs” among other job elements, it was dead last. Both things mattered because VC involves a lot of freedom. It fit me.  This also mattered because if The Good Wife and I were not willing to cut our personal burn rates, I would not have looked for a start-up job, which ultimately led me to VC.  I would have had to find a Big Company Job.
  • The more you want something, the less likely you are to get it.  People laugh when I tell them how I turned down a VC job when it was originally proposed.  But, back then, I didn’t understand what VCs did.  I had images of suits, accountants and spreadsheets.  I was wrong.  But, I have observed that the job seeking game is a bit like dating.  The more desperate you are, the less likely you’ll get a date to the prom.
  • You must network like crazy.  As mentioned above, finding a job was a full-time job.  I had calls or met with 100 people in a month.  Quitting my Bain job before I had a new gig lined up was financially scary.  But, it let me be a free agent.  I could meet with anyone and not worry about someone at Bain finding out.  It also let me list Bain folks as references.  So, those are the reasons why I’m comfortable with quitting a job without having something else lined up. You sacrifice a bit of short-term cash, but you can see the world openly and freely when you declare free agency.
  • Know what you are good at and what you enjoy.  A very helpful book for any job seeker is “What Color Is Your Parachute?”  I followed the book’s prescriptions to the letter, and it was phenomenal.  One key thing the book teaches is that most people are good at many, many things.  But, most people like to do only a few things.  The key to a happy job is to find the intersection of the two.  I know many people who are great at their jobs, but because they don’t enjoy the day-to-day tasks in their jobs, they’re miserable.  I love meeting people and learning about new things.  I’m an extrovert by nature.  I like helping people.  I like solving problems and dealing with issues of strategy and tactics.  I am OK with not being the star of the show (in VC, the entrepreneur is the star).  I love the autonomy and creativity that VC requires.  I really fit with the VC job.
  • I followed my gut.  It was so tempting to say “yes” to John Doerr, Jeff Bezos and Joy Covey.  I mean, speaking with John and hearing his baritone voice was a very overwhelming opportunity for a 30 year-old.  But the gig didn’t feel right to us as a married couple.  We had one child already and The Good Wife is from Boston.  I told her that going west would be for 10+ years, because if I did well, it would lead me to other Kleiner Perkins companies.  The Good Wife said she would be willing to do it.  I knew, though, that she didn’t want to move away from her family.  When we married, we became 50/50 partners.  So, if it didn’t work for her, it didn’t work for me.  So, I turned down the job.  If I were single, I definitely would have taken the gig.  But, that’s how life goes.  You make commitments, and you try to stick to them.  I think it was an important moment in our marriage.  The Good Wife definitely got the message that I loved her.

So, in retrospect, those are my “lessons learned” from my job search.

I know some of those lessons learned may not apply to you today, but I would challenge you up front to first ask yourself: “Why do I want a VC job?”  When I ask B-school students this, some are very honest: they say it’s a job with a lot of prestige and that “everybody” wants.

But, if you’re looking for a VC job, I’d encourage to better understand what the job entails. After all, why spend so much time looking for a job that may not fit you?  You’ll just have to find another job in a few years.

6 thoughts on ““How to Get a VC Job?”

  1. Awesome post, Jo. This is especially valuable for me as a college student, not necessarily because I may be interested in VC one day but because I think a lot the points you made apply to jobs across the board. Shocked at how many times you said no to opportunities but clearly it was the right answer.

    I’d love to see a post about what VCs do on a day to day basis. From the outside looking in, there are a lot of obvious roles a VC plays, but what do you spend the most time doing / what’s some of the dirty work you have to get done regularly (VC is always glorified, especially to youth).

    JB

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