Don't work in venture capital
Separate the “job to be done” from the the job you think you want
|Jul 31, 2019||39|
I get a lot of people asking me how to get into venture capital. How did I get my job? What’s my story? Who’s hiring? What are funds looking for? Is Tusk hiring? Most weeks, I speak to one or two people looking to work in VC, usually for analyst/associate roles.
Most or all of them seem well intentioned, smart, and eager to contribute. I want to help them but we’re not hiring so the best I can do is offer whatever insight I have.
I tend to give them all some version of the same advice/feedback and thought it might be good to write this down for anyone else looking to work in venture capital.
The short answer is that, under generic terms, you shouldn’t. It’s not a good goal, won’t make you happy, and isn’t the thing you think you’re applying for. Here’s why.
1) It’s very hard to get a job in VC.
Capital scales very efficiently against labor. The number of people it takes to invest $100 million is not meaningfully different than the number of people it takes to invest $500 million. Consequently, venture capital funds don’t need to hire at the same pace as the startups they invest in and they don’t generally hire on any particular cycle (at least not one that will be familiar to bankers and consultants).
The VC hiring process is opaque and takes a long time. The job openings are rarely publicized and the competition is intense. Hiring is usually fairly ad hoc and opportunistic. There might not be a job opening at all until someone meets the right person and decides to hire them without a process.
Even when a process seems more accessible and has an open listing, VC is, for better and for worse, a connections-driven industry and the recruiting is no exception. As an applicant you need to maximize your surface area: constantly scouring the earth to get meetings and intel and contacts until you manage to be in the right place at the right time to even find someone hiring.
Taken together, it can often take 6+ months of work for even the most credentialed/qualified-seeming people to land a job in VC.
But even if you can wait that long and do land a job…
2) Most of the jobs are not good.
From the outside, people tend to think that being an associate at a venture fund is mostly about running up an expense account, tweeting, and going to parties. You get to play real life Shark Tank and build companies hand in hand with founders! But all of that is fairly incidental to actually doing the job. In many if not most firms, associates and analysts are glorified assistants. Their primary job is volume sourcing to get meetings on partners’ calendars and then doing diligence on partners’ deals (read: papering those investment decisions ex post facto). This is especially true of some of the larger growth-equity style funds that might have hiring processes that look more similar to a bank’s (cyclical, multiple openings at once, etc.).
Because of the aforementioned scaling relationship between capital and labor, venture capitals firms don’t need to add new partners very often. Most junior roles tend to be 2-3 year appointments with limited room for upward mobility. Given that you’re not going to be sticking around, what incentive does anyone have to mentor/invest in you? That’s compounded by the economic structure of venture firms, where carried interest (keeping a portion of the profits from investments) is a finite, rivalrous good. The more carry you have, the less I can have.
But even if you can wait a long time, do land a job, that job gives you room to grow, and you manage to wring some carry out of the partners…
3) You won’t make as much money as you think you will.
I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: almost no one makes money in venture capital, at least not off of performance (getting fat on management fees doesn’t count). Benchmark returns are really pretty shit. The generic venture fund is worse than public markets but with no liquidity.
Venture capital is famous for following power laws whereby a very small fraction of investments (and by extension a small fraction of funds) produce most of the profits for the whole asset class. So if you’re getting carry in a generic/random fund, the returns just aren’t very good.
If it’s the salary you care about, you can make the same or more in banking or consulting, or in a business role at a later stage/pre-IPO company.
“But, Yoni,” you say, “you work in venture. Is your job terrible?”
I am very lucky.
I have a great job that does not conform to most of what I’ve described above. I came into a very unique situation, mostly through sheer luck. My experience has been so predicated on being in the right place at the right time that it’s really not repeatable/replicable. It’s almost not worth going into. Most of my analyst/associate friends in good situations at other firms also got their jobs through similarly non-replicable paths.
And if/when I leave Tusk, it won’t be to go work at another venture fund.
So don’t fall victim to survivorship bias. It’s only the people who are lucky enough to have figured out/landed in a really good situation that are left around to be asked advice.
So what should you do?
Look, if you’ve made it this far, you must have a pretty high tolerance for my sage wisdom. Why should I tone it down now?
Take a step back and ask yourself why you want to work in VC. Then think seriously about where/how else you might be able to scratch that same itch in another job.
Maybe you want to do strategic thinking and problem solving in biz ops, growth, or strategy at a late stage company. Maybe you should spend time as a really analytical thinker in private equity. Maybe you want broad experience juggling many balls in an ops role or as a chief of staff at an early stage company. Maybe you should go to business school for the network/community you’re trying to build (or maybe you should just start tweeting more - seriously). Maybe you love jet-setting around and doing meetings and making DEALS and sales could be the right place for you.
The list goes on and on. And maybe you’re ok with doing VC for a couple years and don’t want/need to have a shot at a partner-track position. That’s fine too, so long as you can be clear-eyed going into it.
No matter what the answer is, you have to separate out the “job to be done” from the the job you think you want.
IF you are going to work in venture, try to optimize for partner/fund rather than generic “venture capital.” As I’ve said, most jobs and funds are bad. The biggest brand name funds are functionally impossible to get hired at and working there is unlikely to be any better than what I’ve described above. I’d suggest going to a new fund where you stand a better shot at having upward mobility, economic upside (carry), and the ability to drive outcomes.
Now I know that this is somewhat of a controversial stance. Smart people that I respect have said it’s better go for a brand name and use that to pivot elsewhere where you can have that better job eventually; it’s easier to move downstream that upstream. My preference/bias is to bet on myself and new funds are extremely high risk/reward. Knowing that most venture funds, like most startups, won’t succeed/produce great outcomes, I’d at least rather have the potential for upside. So you need to have a clear sense of where you stand on these questions and accept the tradeoffs that come either way.
I don’t say any of this to discourage you or make you feel shitty. I’m saying this because I’ve seen enough people go through really long, painful process before they come to see what I’m saying here and I love you.
And if you take my advice and I’m completely wrong about everything, at least you’ll be more sure of what you already knew. A little bit of introspection and self-knowledge never hurt anyone.