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From Uber driver to venture capitalist

TechCrunch TechCrunch 13/04/2016 Jason Shuman

How did you get into venture capital? And why did you decide on that versus another startup?

These are two questions aspiring VCs often ask. While I usually hop on 15-30 minute calls with those looking to learn more, just like my fellow VC colleagues did for me, I thought it might be more impactful to share my experience here.

A Forbes article noted that the U.S. has an equal amount of professional baseball players as it does venture capitalists. Thus, the process of getting a venture capital job usually isn’t an easy one, and it usually doesn’t have a traditional application process. Although there is no guaranteed way for you to get into it, I’ve learned a lot through the stories of my peers, as well as my personal experience, to come up with a rough guide for VC job seekers. Here’s my story and some general thoughts.

How do you get into venture capital?

Get diverse, startup experience…

All in all, my “startup experience” accounted for nearly eight years of my life prior (since I was 17) to joining Corigin Ventures. The diversity of that operating experience (marketing and partnerships at an identity theft protection company, real estate agent, founder of an e-commerce footwear company, biz dev at a marketplace startup and consulting for numerous startups) has aided me in looking at a wide array of startups at the seed level. Aside from helping you evaluate companies, I believe diverse startup experience will help you in relating to the founders and asking the “right” questions.

Former operators are able to get in the weeds with founders and test them on their knowledge and prior experience in a way that few others can. Being in an industry driven by people, you need to be able to dig deeper and put your finger on specific things that make a founder stand out (other than their ability to pitch or be an extrovert). One of those ways is by testing them and making sure they have the deep understanding of the space, strategy and execution they claim to have. Having prior operating experience gives you an ability to do this on a whole other level.

…or don’t

In reality, many of my friends in VC either have not worked at startups or had experiences at large corporations prior to joining one. With seven of the top 10 on the 2015 Midas list never even starting a company, I think it’s safe to say that being an entrepreneur or working at a startup isn’t a requirement for being a good VC (shout out to Bill Gurley).

Don’t let a lack of connections get in your way. Make them.

Diversity of backgrounds on a venture capital team is key. Whether it’s your childhood upbringing, your experience or a number of other things, it’s your job to define what your unique brand and positioning is. The ones who are able to execute on this are the ones who stand out the most.

Network, network, network

Two keys to getting into venture capital are networking your way in and building your brand. Before interviewing with any firms, I started networking my way around the Boston and New York City startup communities to meet as many great founders and VCs I could.

Between my hours Ubering (yes, I drove for Uber during and after my last startup) and consulting, I’d do 10-20 strategic meetings a week and attend events that provided an opportunity to acquire more knowledge and a stronger network. I used those meetings not only to learn, but to get connected, as well. Between Gary’s Guide, Meetup.com and Startup Digest, every aspiring VC should be able to find quality events to attend.

Diversity of backgrounds on a venture capital team is key.

To put things in perspective, here was my networking path into Corigin Ventures. Nichole Dickinson (founder of Locket Creative) introduced me to Mark Bouckley (COO at Easy Spirit, former CFO at Clarks and Karmaloop), which led to an intro to Dave Spandorfer (co-founder and president of Janji), which led to an introduction to Julian Moncada (associate at Lerer Hippeau Ventures), which led to an introduction to Sumeet Shah (senior associate at Brand Foundry), which finally led to my introduction to David Goldberg (principal at Corigin Ventures), the man who would eventually hire me.

The point is, six degrees of separation is real. Don’t let a lack of connections get in your way. Make them.

Add value

Prior to joining Corigin Ventures, Sumeet used to joke that I was the lowest-paid venture capitalist in the industry. That’s because I made it my job to work for free for these firms, whether they realized it or not. For about four months I was sending to a handful of firms the quality deals that I saw, creating competitive landscapes and making valuable introductions for their portfolio companies.

To get a job in VC, I figured I had to prove I was more valuable than the next candidate — many of whom had stronger work experience on paper or educational backgrounds. And this was the best way I could think to do it.

Another story similar is that of Deep Fork’sAdam Besvinick, who emailed Chris Sacca offering to do free work as many times as he could until he got a project to work on. And guess what? It worked.

Be strategic and maniacally focused

Once you’ve decided you want to get into venture capital, make it your only focus. Don’t waste your time applying for other jobs; give yourself a deadline to get into VC, and work your butt off to get the role you want.

I can’t imagine any other job that enables you to add value to so many other people every day.

For me, that meant making a list of the top 30 seed-stage firms I wanted to work for between Boston and New York. With each firm I made a spreadsheet that included every partner’s name, my mutual connections to them, the investments they were responsible for in the portfolio, my thoughts on each and my mutual connections within portfolio companies. I was laser-focused on learning as much as I could about the firm, the partners and the companies so I could use that knowledge in my interviews and other venture conversations.

Come prepared

Preparing for a venture capital interview is tough, but at the seed stage, I think it’s quite unique. Before my interview with Corigin, I made a folder of materials I could present, including pitch decks I made for my last company, a presentation on all the things I learned from that company and a spreadsheet of 100+ connections in the consumer space that I felt could add value to their portfolio companies.

Furthermore, I presented a variety of verticals that interested me and why. We discussed in great depth a variety of investments and how I’d approach the due diligence process.

With seed-stage venture jobs, I think it’s critical to bring a network and thesis around different verticals, so make this a point prior to your interview.

The why

With the glorification of startups occurring through the mainstream media, it has been interesting to see the rising interest college students have in venture capital. Every day we receive several emails from students about to graduate, or those looking for summer internships — and we’re not even one of the larger firms.

One important thing I’d like to note, however, is that every person I’ve met in the venture capital scene has joined a VC for what I consider to be the right reasons, and most of us were not thinking about it in school.

The process of getting a venture capital job usually isn’t an easy one.

Some of what I consider to be the best reasons happen to align with the common characteristics of the best VCs, according to a recent blog post by Spark Capital’sBijan Sabet. It’s here that he talks about endless curiosity, a passion for learning, a rigorous work ethic, an ability to connect and inspire, empathy, patience and a natural ability to believe in what others don’t. I’ve noticed many of these traits in my fellow VCs; here’s why I specifically hopped on the other side of the table:

Hyper-learning about different industries

Simply put, I’m a huge nerd. I used to write business plans for fun when I was growing up, and one of the most intriguing parts about that process was learning about the industry and the business models. Luckily, seed-stage investing gives me the opportunity to do this on a daily basis. Virtual reality, IoT, marketplaces, e-commerce, healthcare and education are among some of the verticals I’ve started to dive into — and the end isn’t in sight.

Add in the fact I’ve been learning about these industries from deeply passionate founders and seasoned executives, and you can appreciate why I wanted to get into this industry.

As Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” That’s how I believe people should look at VC.

Meeting interesting, new people

If you know me, you know I love meeting new people. A big fan of Tim Ferriss’ interview approach, I’m the type of person who wants to figure out what makes people tick and so good at what they do. Study abroad and my last startup gave me the fleeting outlet to meet new people; I figured venture capital would feed that appetite daily.

A couple of months prior to committing myself to VC, Chris Sacca said something on the StartUp podcast that really resonated with me. In essence, he mentioned that he loves to meet founders and CEOs that he wouldn’t consider to be normal people, because it’s these people who are changing the world. If you genuinely enjoy meeting these types of people, and want to help them change the world, VC may be the job for you.

Genuinely care about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship

Growing up, I was always told to pay it forward. As someone who appreciates connecting people, I aim to add value to someone else’s life or career far more than my own.

Throughout my interview process at Corigin, David Goldberg and I discussed how a huge piece of my job would be finding incredible entrepreneurs that Corigin and I could add value to (a requirement under our thesis). From making introductions for early-stage founders to executing projects for portfolio companies, I can’t imagine any other job that enables you to add value to so many other people every day.

Be connected for the future

Honestly. VCs are lucky enough to network with talented people across various industries and job titles. Thus, I thought it would help create a powerful network for the future. With the anticipation of starting a new company and my internal thoughts about my long-term goals, I came to the conclusion that VC would put me in the best position to achieve what I wanted to do, as fast as possible.

While my story of how and why I got into venture capital may seem unique, these are some common themes amongst almost all the VCs I’ve met, partners and junior level. Napoleon Hill once said, “What the mind can conceive, it can achieve.”

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