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What are unconventional ways to get an entry-level job at a venture capital firm?

July 30, 2015, 7:31 PM UTC
Business people in discussion in an office
18 Mar 2015 --- Business people in discussion in an office --- Image by © Wavebreakmedia LTD/Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis
Image by © Wavebreakmedia LTD/Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis

Answer by Crystal Huang, VC at GGV Capital, on Quora.

Speaking as a VC who interviews for our own entry-level roles, I don’t think your current pitch will necessarily hurt you, but it won’t really help you stand out either for these reasons:

Not a unique pitch: It’s actually the opposite of nonconventional to offer to work for free because the bar for making this offer is low. Many people can and do offer to work hard for free because you don’t need experience or any other value to be able to offer this.

Adverse signaling: You’re sending the negative signal that you don’t particularly value your own expertise, experience or network since you’re only pitching your willingness to work under relatively unfavorable terms (and are not mentioning other qualities that would be far more pertinent to a VC job). For most VCs that are not on their first fund, an analyst salary is not a huge amount of money, and they are likely much more concerned about the potential lost productivity/invested training hours from hiring the wrong person as opposed to paying the right person. It’s the same idea for title: A title is cheap and easy to give out, as evidenced by the large number of non-GP “partners” in the Valley, so saying you’re willing to take any title doesn’t do them a particularly big favor.

Junior VCs must find ways to create value, not just take direction: VCs don’t enter the industry to manage employees, and the GPs are usually too busy with their board memberships and deal pipelines to spend much time actually specifying discrete workflows for their junior professionals. When you say that you’re willing to work for free, but don’t describe any creative, differentiated ways in which you can actually help the firm make more money, you’re really creating the impression (at least for me) that it would require work to manage and train you. It takes time to devise tasks, communicate them clearly and then provide feedback afterward, and if they believe that you will require a large upfront time investment before you start becoming productive, then they’ll be wary of hiring you. Some of the best people I’ve interviewed have shown up at our initial meeting equipped with actionable ideas and plans for how the firm can do better, whether that’s on the deal sourcing, marketing, portfolio management or reporting fronts. These people give off the impression that on day one they would have the self-direction and internal motivation to drive their own projects through without needing much input from me, and that’s an attractive proposition.

Some firms do hire from their intern pool, especially if you’re an MBA summer associate, so if you can get into those recruiting processes, it’s a solid and well-traveled path into the industry. However, even in those cases, you won’t win the full-time job offer on the basis of the pitch you’re making in your question.

Below, I’ve written out some ideas for standing out, especially if you come from a non-traditional background (i.e. you were not previously a semi-successful founder, product manager or investment banker). Some people would advise you to earn work experience at a startup first, which is fine advice, but since it’s also possible to go straight to a VC with some effort on your part, I’m going to focus on answering your question, which I assume focuses on getting into VC today:

1. Demonstrate market knowledge with research decks around specific focus areas

Since you do not have a traditional background for investing, you’ll need to demonstrate that you can learn enough on your own to identify interesting startups, develop a thesis and argue convincingly for certain investments. I would recommend putting together some simple presentations (or detailed emails) that outline investment recommendations in a few categories within healthcare (examples could be medical devices, EMR software, hospital administration SaaS, fitness trackers and health insurance shopping). Topics to cover include market size, competitive landscape, what startups have been VC-invested and by whom, business model and any other useful data that are not easily obtainable.

One of my prior interviewees, when I asked him to look into a company for me, actually called 20 of their customers and asked to speak to the VP-level end buyer of the product to get direct feedback as well as estimates of contract sizes. That was pretty gutsy — outside of what I would have expected him to do on that timeframe — and of course I loved it. Once you have these mini-presentations, you can send them to any VC as a part of a cold email or follow-up conversation to convey what type of research and insight you’ll be able to deliver immediately. This demonstrates both knowledge and pro-activeness, and the document will be super easy to forward onto other partners, which helps you gain “virality” in an organization.

2. Start sourcing today

You don’t need to get a job offer to get “a shot at helping source” deals, since sourcing just means bringing in possible investments with a discerning filter. You can get to know a few interesting healthcare startups now via meet-ups, conferences or your college network, and offer to introduce them to VCs you’re talking to. No VC will be annoyed by this unless you’re not filtering the companies at all, and you can stay top of mind for them over the course of several months by consistently pinging them with attractive opportunities, especially if you are able to make a persuasive argument for why those companies are worth a look. Even if the firm is not hiring immediately, you’ll be a familiar name to them if they start looking.

3. Benefit their portfolio today

In a similar vein to point number 2, you can start thinking up strategies for helping the VC’s portfolio companies, potentially with hiring, marketing and business development opportunities. As a young person, you probably have a network of ex-classmates, at least some of whom are now software engineers, designers, marketers or salespeople. Reconnect with these people and if they are interested, offer to introduce them to startups in the VC’s portfolio as possible hires. Hiring is a key value-add that VCs are expected to deliver, and yet it’s very challenging to find the time to actually source and vet candidates for our companies. Having someone help us fulfill that promise and look good in front of our portfolio companies is a big deal.

You can also generate the mini-decks mentioned in part 1 to compare portfolio company competitors, recommend product features or suggest growth strategies for a given portfolio company. Even if none of your recommendations gets implemented, the VC will likely appreciate that you surfaced some interesting ideas. Best case scenario, they’ll send along the suggestions to the portfolio company and feel grateful to you that they were able to help that company out in some small way.

4. Build the skills you’re lacking today

You mention that you don’t have any real finance experience. To be honest, VC rarely requires hardcore financial modeling at the level of investment banking or private equity, especially at the early stages. There is a lot you can learn from textbooks, career guides such as Vault, online corporate finance training classes and even public financial modeling templates. If you can speak comfortably about basic revenue multiples-based valuation and key items that appear in a term sheet, you’ll already be ahead vs. many entry-level applicants in showing an understanding of VC finance.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What are unconventional ways to get an entry-level job at a venture capital firm?

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