Breaking into any new industry can be daunting—but particularly so when you are looking at one known for being as opaque and clubby as venture capital.
Even the idea of a “career path” for venture capitalists is a relatively new one.
“Twenty-five years ago, being an entrepreneur wasn’t a real career choice…No one in their right mind would do it, and there were maybe only 40 active venture firms,” says James Currier, one of the founding partners of early-stage venture firm NFX, who has cofounded companies like Tickle, Wonderhill, and IronPearl.
Since then, the tech industry has exploded. Billions of venture capital dollars have sloshed into startups, and there are too many funds to keep score, many of them with only a handful of people on staff. Venture capital has suddenly become a buzzy field—though it can feel intimidating to break into, particularly for women, people of color, or anyone who didn’t graduate from Stanford University.
Fortune wanted to shed light on how to get your foot in the industry. We interviewed or fielded insight from 11 insiders—ranging from general partners to people currently interviewing for entry-level roles in venture capital. Below, we’ve broken down how to break in.
Getting started: How to research VC firms
A good first step is to saturate yourself in all things venture capital to learn as much as possible. Insiders suggest following podcasts like 20VC and reading books like Peter Thiel’s Zero to One. Reading investor Substacks and blogs can be helpful, too. Industry newsletters like Term Sheet will keep you abreast on deal flow and the latest news in the private markets.
It may sound obvious, but it’s important to know that not all VC firms are created equal: If you’re looking at an emerging fund manager, a growth-stage firm, or an established early-stage firm, the job and experience (including the experience required beforehand) can deviate dramatically. Many funds are sector-specific, meaning that investors devote all their time to certain industries, like gaming, green technology, consumer, or A.I. Some funds will try to lead rounds and take a hands-on approach to their portfolio companies, while others won’t take board seats and prefer to take a back-seat role in a round.
Lionel Foster, who was hired as an investor at real estate technology firm Camber Creek in 2021, suggests asking for informational interviews to learn about different funds, how they categorize themselves, what their missions are, and their varying approaches to deploying capital.
Warm introductions can help get your foot in the door for an initial phone call, according to Lotti Siniscalco, partner at Emergence Capital, who says that every time a close friend or founder introduces her to someone who is interested in the industry, she will take the call.
“If you are looking to work at Fund X, but don’t know anybody that can introduce you to a partner there, work your relationship intelligence muscle to build a relationship with someone who can,” Siniscalco says. “This is very similar to what VCs do when they can’t get an introduction to a company they want to invest in.”
Those like Nicole DeTommaso, a senior associate at New York–based Harlem Capital, also advise would-be VCs to think about the security of their job when it comes to the firm they’re looking into. “Emerging funds are more like startups,” and therefore slightly more risky, she argues. “Growth-stage mature funds, who have been around a while, are just more secure.” Once you’re talking with these firms, asking questions about the LP base (institutional versus individuals) and the fund’s performance thus far can be useful in sussing out the firm’s position, says DeTommaso.
Along those lines, another important thing to research when you’re looking, according to Meera Clark, a principal at Redpoint Ventures, is the long-term viability of a fund. Getting a sense of what the firm’s returns look like, “because most of my money is going to be made through carry,” and how easy it is for the firm to fundraise are important—especially if you plan to park at one place for the next 10 years. Another key thing to learn? Whether the firm you’re interested in is an equal partnership, where all partners own the fund equally. “If given the choice, I would never work at a fund that was not an equal partnership, because I think it creates far healthier partnership dynamics and incentives to collaborate,” argues Clark.
She also notes thinking through your skill sets and what you’d like to do is important in picking what stage you’d like to work in: “A growth investor can be wildly unsuccessful at the earliest stages, and vice versa.” Growth-stage investors tend to focus much more on the financials (after all, the companies they’re investing in actually have those metrics) versus early stages that bet more on founders. In other words, how much do you like to use Excel?
Insiders note it’s important to try to understand the career path at the firm, and, as Clark points out, whether there’s the opportunity to carve out a niche to start building your track record.
Harlem Capital’s DeTommaso adds that doing your research should include some time spent on the socials. “In VC, you can look at someone’s Twitter, you can look at their LinkedIn, you can look at their blog posts, you can listen to podcasts, right? All of this is public information for you to get a better sense of what the firm is like—not only from a thesis perspective, and what they like to invest in, their portfolio companies—but also from the perspective of, what is the culture like in the firm? Do people like working there? What do they do for fun?” she says.
DeTommaso, who started out as an intern, and then a fellow, at Harlem Capital, also suggests wannabe VCs try an internship, fellowship, or a scout program at a VC firm before trying to get a full-time job so you can see if it’s the right fit.
Particularly for female applicants, Emergence Capital’s Siniscalco recommends going through back channels to get an unbiased perspective and guarantee you aren’t applying to a firm that is “hiring you to be the token woman.”
How to get the interview
Insiders say that getting that initial interview can be one of the hardest things when it comes to breaking into VC. But they have a few pointers for how to go from one of many applications to getting face time.
First, try developing your own track record. While angel investing is going to be out of reach for many applicants, crowdfunding might be a good way to prove you have some kind of skin in the game, even if it’s a few small bets, according to Eleanor Kaye, who runs a next-generation investor training center in London called Newton Venture Program. Another alternative could be sweat equity: A prospective investor can offer services like marketing or web development to an early-stage company in exchange for a small equity stake in the business.
Prospective investors need to find ways to make their applications memorable and stand out. Emergence Capital’s Siniscalco suggests sending leads to an investor, or developing a thesis on a space, preparing a couple of slides on it, and sending those slides as marketing materials to potential VCs.
Contemplate what you can bring to the table, then research the backgrounds of existing team members at a fund and see if they are missing any specific skills—such as more technical experience, Siniscalco says.
Harlem Capital’s DeTommaso also suggests a lot of prep about the broader space: “You should be talking to founders; you should be following trends; you should be reading blog posts, listening to podcasts about what’s happening; you should know recent unicorns, things like that. That will show you’re really interested in the role [and] you have a passion for it. You’re doing it before you even are getting paid to do it,” she argues. “To the extent that you can prove that in any application, that’s really important.”
She also suggests that if the application is just uploading a resume, following up to the VC firm’s general email with something extra—be it highlighting portfolio companies that you like that the firm recently invested in, sharing your own thesis, or commenting on something the firm has written or put out publicly—can be a big leg up. If “you can just follow up with one thing above what the application asks, you will get on a VC’s radar,” DeTommaso says.
In her own application process, DeTommaso created a presentation showing how she’d fit into the firm and what she’d bring to the role.
Meanwhile Clark, who started out in banking before making the move into VC, initially at Obvious Ventures, in 2019, says that when she was trying to learn more about venture and prepping for an interview, she started a list on her phone of interesting companies she heard about and a one-liner about what they did. That helped with two things: “One, I had names to go back to; two, I had some data to analyze in terms of, what are the trends? Where’s my nose taking me?” She suggests doing that “passive work” on a weekly basis to get up to speed.
And, while warm intros might have a higher success rate at many firms, if you want to work somewhere like Bain Capital Ventures, you can always try a cold reach-out. Leslie Crowe, a partner who heads up the people functions at Bain Capital Ventures, says that even if Bain isn’t hiring at that moment, the firm has a database of people it keeps “tabs” on who express interest. She also suggests tapping into your college alumni network if you don’t have a direct connection to the VC space.
Don’t forget the importance of founder referrals, as those relationships provide “a much more differentiated network” than simply knowing investors, says Kathryn Weinmann, a vice president at Norwest Venture Partners, who started as a summer intern in 2017.
How to nail the interview
Buckle up—because the interview process can take a while at a venture firm.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s for an analyst with an investment focus or for a platform or fund ops role. You pretty much have to talk to everyone at the firm, because all these firms are pretty small,” says Sri Varre, who has been interviewing for a venture job since May 2022. In her experience, you should expect to have at least four interviews—or more.
It should be obvious, but a big pointer insiders give is to do some research on the firm beforehand and know a few of its portfolio companies and what their thesis or approach is.
“You don’t need to know every portfolio company,” says DeTommaso, but at a high level, you “should know the fund size, the check size, what stage they invest in, any major industries that they invest in.” She also suggests being familiar with two portfolio companies that you like, and one that you have questions about why they invested. “Knowing those basic details can really help you,” she says.
There may be different parts of the interview process, such as being asked to write an investment memo, or perform some kind of data analysis assignment, where you are presented with a fictional company and its balance sheet as well as profit and loss statements, and asked to analyze it.
Varre says that questions may range from thesis-driven (What is your personal investment thesis? Do you have a founder network?) to more personal (What is the most underrated or overrated thing about you? What is an unpopular opinion?). She recommends approaching each interview as a conversation: “Your whole job is just network building—whether you’re on the investment front or whether you’re on the platform front or whether you’re [working in] fund ops—it’s all client-facing work. You’ve got to just be able to carry a conversation.”
To be sure, interviewing across the table from an experienced or venerable VC can be intimidating. But BCV’s Crowe says that applicants should stand their ground if they really believe in an idea during interviews, even if investors push back or question their perspective. “I see a lot of people fold, and I think this business is about being comfortable standing behind the things that you are passionate about,” she says. Crowe adds that can be of benefit not only to you but also to the firm: “It may not be an opinion that is widely held, but that really spirited discourse, I think, is what helps venture firms make better decisions.”
Claire Biernacki, a principal at BBG Ventures, who runs the firm’s hiring efforts, recommends that applicants come with a fundamental knowledge of how a venture capital fund makes money. “While we’re not looking for candidates to nail this, I expect a basic understanding of management fees, MOIC, and how carried interest is calculated. Being able to think through ‘can this investment return half our fund’ factors into the types of companies that are a good fit for VC funding and creates a filter for top of funnel sourcing.”
Redpoint’s Clark suggests interviewees come armed with several new ideas that would fit in with the firm’s thesis. “Having tangible, investable opportunities to offer to them or to speak to, I think, is incredibly important.”
Crowe adds that the best advice she can offer is to “start off figuring out what your niche is going to be.” For example, are you deeply networked into your college and might have early access to founders? Have you worked as an engineer with lots of technical expertise to offer?
And don’t be shy to let your personality shine. “How do you show all elements of who you are, [and] not just the fact that you read the same TechCrunch article as the 10 other people they interviewed before you?” Redpoint’s Clark notes.
At the end of an interview, you’ll often have the chance to ask your own questions, which can be an opportunity to stand out. DeTommaso suggests framing questions in a way that highlights your existing knowledge: “You could say something along the lines of, ‘I saw you just made an investment in [this startup]. I’ve noticed the trend in that space; there are great tailwinds; [and I] would love to hear your logic and how you thought about that investment.’” Plus, she advises, don’t forget those important questions like do you get carry, is the job partner track, how long does it take to get promoted, etc.
And always go back to the interview basics: Get a good night’s rest the night before an interview, says Emila Damjanovic, partner at Lead Edge Capital.
How to navigate the compensation conversation
Talking salary can be daunting, but it’s always helpful to be armed with information about what others in your role are making to give you leverage—and to ensure you’re not asking for wildly more than the going rate, nor getting lowballed.
“I have people applying to our programs from all over the world—and I think that has highlighted to me that actually entry level roles really vary,” says Kaye of the Newton Venture Program.
While it’s always better to ask people who work at the funds you are applying to, here are some industrywide resources and data points that can help:
- The Emerging Venture Capitalists Association, a community for early-career investors, publishes an annual compensation survey, which you can find here. For example, the median total compensation for an analyst at an institutional VC in 2022 was $119,000.
- John Gannon publishes an annual salary survey here. Based on the most recent edition, analysts make an average of $92,000 base salary a year, and associates make an average of $137,000.
The size of the fund may have a direct influence on the pay for any given position. Clark points out that “compensation varies dramatically based on AUM.” If you’re interviewing at a multibillion-dollar growth fund versus a seed fund, the pay is going to look different.
“It’s important to understand how VCs make money when you’re going in for the negotiation discussion,” because “VCs make 2% of the fund size as management fees, which is how they basically pay their employees,” DeTommaso adds.
Some firms don’t allow for negotiations at all. Crowe at BCV says Bain offers associates the same rate across the board. “We’re very sensitive to not wanting the best negotiator to win,” she says. If you’re curious, Bain Capital Ventures pays $175,000 base salary and $125,000 bonus for an associate, and it also allow employees to coinvest in their funds, Crowe says.
It may be a good idea to ask partners at a firm to lay out how their compensation structure works, why it’s set up that way, and how a fund employee can earn more, Camber Creek’s Foster says.
How to hit the ground running once you’ve gotten the job
Many insiders agree: The first few months on the job should be largely about networking. DeTommaso says to try to go to industry events—happy hours, dinners—once a week to build connections.
Crowe adds that Bain Capital Ventures tells hires that this is your “say yes to everything” time. “Go to all the calls, shadow all the things. A lot of this business is also just getting exposure.”
Redpoint’s Clark says one of her GPs gave her a key piece of advice: “If you invest in one thing, and one thing only, in your first six months, it should be your network.” For Clark, that meant getting to know people senior and junior to her, and also doing cold outreach to other investors in her space (consumer investing). She would “just email them, and like, 90% of the time, they would respond and say, ‘Hey, yeah, let’s get coffee.’” That kind of networking is also easier (or more common) for analysts and associates to do versus when you’re higher up in the ranks, she says.
Relationship management in those early days is key too: That could mean setting up a bimonthly call with an investor, passing along a restaurant recommendation, or sharing insights with the investors, suggests Clark.
DeTommaso advises spending the first month or two learning “the ropes of your firm,” she says, and understanding “how your firm operates, what they’re looking for, how they choose investments, learn…the way that each partner thinks and what their typical deal looks like.”
Be proactive and don’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up and create sourcing lists, tweak charts in LP decks, or compile financials for auditors, says BBG Ventures’ Biernacki. “Having this mentality translates to sourcing and winning deals and also giving everything for your founders,” she says.
But if you’re not sourcing loads of deals in your first month, “be easy on yourself,” DeTommaso says. “It’s hard, right? So you might not get a deal through for some time, and that’s okay. You can be a part of the conversation and you can be learning.”
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