Breaking into Venture Capital: An Inside Look banner image

Breaking into Venture Capital: An Inside Look

As an insider in the world of venture capital, two typical questions include: what's a venture capitalist, and how do you break into the VC world? For those following or involved in the tech space, it's almost impossible not to have some level of curiosity about the mysterious world of VC, since so many emerging companies rely on VC dollars to get started. Sometimes this curiosity leads to an interest in becoming involved; this article will shed light on the seemingly black box that is hiring in the VC world.

As is true for many careers that are perceived as glamorous, making headway in the venture capitalist world can prove arcane. Consider this: according to the 2016 NVCA Yearbook, there are 798 VC firms and approximately 13,000 investment professionals.

Of these 13,000 or so, approximately 8,000 are partners. That leaves 5,000 non-partner, or junior investment professional roles. These include analysts, associates, senior associates, principals, and vice presidents. For perspective, Apple has 115,000 employees and it’s only the eleventh largest tech company based on employee count. There are actually around the same number of open U.S. professional athlete positions as there are available VC positions nationwide.

It's not just a matter of securing one of the scarce open VC positions, the fierce competition on the supply side is considerable. Recently, Ascent conducted a search for a senior associate that surfaced 605 applicants. Other VC firms report similar numbers. For example, Lightbank received over 700 applications during its search for a new associate. Recently, Ascent had a conversation with a VC recruiter who claimed to evaluate more than 1,500 resumes for any given junior investment position. That translates to less than a 0.1 percent chance of landing the role. More perspective: Harvard's acceptance rate is 5.2 percent. Talk about tough odds!

There are other factors to take into consideration as a VC candidate. Do you have an MBA? Approximately 50 to 80 percent of VCs do. What about gender bias? Women only account for about six percent of senior VCs.

So, how can you increase your chances of breaking into this world? First, don’t let these statistics discourage you. Below are a few proactive ways to gain a competitive edge in the VC recruiting process and become an ideal prospective candidate.

1) Build a network - get a warm intro to a partner.

This is no secret and it is key to landing any competitive job. In venture capital, leveraging your network for a direct line to a partner puts you in a much better position to secure that first conversation. In fact, some firms consider an applicant's ability to network as a pre-qualifier to participating in the hiring process. According to a Work-Bench blog post, “VC is a relationship driven business.” Companies require associate candidates to find a warm intro to the firm as a first step. At Ascent, 83 percent of candidates who had friendly intros were offered a first interview, versus only one percent of the applicants who applied via LinkedIn. 

2) How to reach that partner when you don't have a connection.

Networking is a valuable long-term play no matter what career path you’re aspiring to. However, it would be unrealistic to expect to have a connection into every company - or VC firm on your list. So how do you reach those “untouchables”? Again, it's a numbers game. Manage your recruiting process like a sales funnel. Create an excel spreadsheet of VC firms and include investment team members for each firm complete with whatever professional (and even personal) details you can find.

Before emailing, it's important to realize that VC partners are busy people. It’s more than likely your inquiry will not be high on their priority list, and it’s probable that it’ll get lost in an overflowing inbox. Keep cold emails short, but substantial. Track which firms have responded and which have not, and determine a cadence of follow-up for those who haven't responded. The goal is simply to get a reply.

3) Be(come) an expert.

The best VC recruiting advice is to become an expert within an industry. Becoming an expert means forming an investment thesis, picking winners in the industry, understanding the competitive landscape and differentiators, making contacts, and writing relevant blogs or tweets. Even the most well-known VCs have an industry focus, such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, payments, or infrastructure software.

4) Focus on your strengths and tell a story.

Among the hundreds or thousands of applicants for any given job, there will always be candidates with more relevant experience, more education, or closer connections with decision makers. Those are aspects you can't control. What you can control, however, is how you tell your story. Become a marketer of your product. What are your customers’ needs and how does your product address those needs in a way that others don't? Candidates don't realize that interview questions such as "tell me about yourself" or "walk me through your resume" are often the most important and advantageous questions asked. It's an opportunity to tell your story and steer the conversation in whatever direction you choose. These questions are not an invitation to list every role and responsibility you've ever had but rather convey your knowledge and differentiator.

The VC recruiting process can often be grueling. Multiple interviews with the same people, taken in forms of coffees, drinks, conversations and even dinners. It's important to remember that although the odds are lean, the job search is a two-way street. Just as the firm is getting to know you from various angles, take the same opportunity to learn about the person sitting across the table from you and the firm they represent. Do you share similar values? What are their aspirations for the firm? What are their expectations of you? What is their leadership style? How do they react to negative situations? Start reaching out to your network to gain outside perspective on the firm and its team.

Ask yourself: in this game of beating the odds, are you even choosing the right sport? Think of yourself as an interviewer of your prospective employer, too. After all, you spend more time at your job than anywhere else, so you want to make sure you are choosing your employer as much as they are choosing you.

Baiyin Zhou is a Senior Associate at Ascent Venture Partners.  Follow her on Twitter: @BaiyinVC