RUDE VC: Asking a VC for a job. Do's and Don'ts.

Finance

Last week I received a job inquiry which consisted of a CV attached to the following email (translated more or less verbatim):

Dear Mr. Bivens
Student at [local university], I’m looking for a job in private equity in Paris.
Competitive, aggressive, and dominant on the French private equity market, Truffle Capital is the enterprise corresponding to my aspirations, which I why I wish to join.
I attach my CV and remain at your disposal for further information by email or phone.
Sincerely,

Emails like this surprise me, especially coming from a student at one of France’s top grandes écoles.

First of course, there’s the cardinal rule that when sending a CV with a job inquiry, it’s worth doing a tiny bit of research into the recipient before writing the cover email. If this candidate had spent 60 seconds looking at our firm’s website, he would have known that Truffle Capital divides itself into three specialized sectors – biotech, energy, and IT – and would have indicated which sector his interests and talents fit best. He would have added some semblance of specificity rather than throwing out generic platitudes like ‘competitive’, ‘aggressive’, and ‘dominant’, which don’t really tell me anything. He also would have addressed the message to a proper email address, which in my case can be easily found on my blog.

There’s also another issue at play here, which I suppose I cannot expect young adults fresh out of college to think through – especially in France – but one that bothers me nonetheless. And that is that newly-minted undergraduates are not thinking long-term when they expect to join a VC firm as their first job.

I can understand why becoming a VC looks attractive on the surface: the job sounds glamourous, and there’s a prestige factor at landing a VC gig, perhaps even greater than McKinsey or Morgan Stanley for ambitious undergraduates. The glamour and prestige are over-estimated, but the perception is understandable given today’s self promotion-oriented VC community.

But the truth of the matter is this: venture capital is all about the portfolio companies. Venture capitalists work in service to the entrepreneurs they finance.

Accordingly, to be a good VC, you have to be able to provide relevant and beneficial assistance to the portfolio companies.  The value you will be called upon to bring can encompass direct sectorial knowledge, networks, privileged introductions, strategic guidance, operational insights, processes and methods, and especially credible ‘cheerleadership’. I submit that in order to do all this, you must gain industry experience before becoming a VC.

Furthermore, and I recognize this it is practically heresy to say this in France, but I firmly believe that to be a truly effective VC, you must have significant startup experience.

So when I receive a job inquiry from a new graduate, I immediately think that the candidate hasn’t sufficiently thought through the implications of what it takes to become an effective VC, or worse, the candidate is merely interested in the job for the prestige.

So, am I just wasting my time if I send you my CV ?

Not if you’re still reading this!  I am a firm believer in helping people that are serious and committed.  I welcome people contacting me over the transom for contacts or advice on employment opportunities within the VC/startup ecosystem in which I operate. In fact, I very much value this. Our portfolio companies are relentlessly seeking growth, and the recruitment of top talent plays a key role in their progression. At any given time, there are several employment opportunities, or at least unmet needs, across our portfolio.

That being said, my bandwidth is extremely limited. I help people with career guidance when I can, but I must give priority to our investors, my colleagues, and my portfolio companies.

Accordingly, some ways of soliciting career advice from me are more effective than others. Here are a few suggestions to increase the likelihood of a desirable outcome:

  • Mass emailings of a CV and/or cover letter are not effective. I usually junk immediately unless my stringent spam filter does it for me.
  • Tell me clearly what you’re looking for. A generic, “do you have any job openings for me?” often goes straight to trash.
  • If you’re looking for a job in venture capital, and you’re a newly-minted undergraduate / grande école degree-holder, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.
  • However, if you have substantial work experience, and are convinced you want to become a VC, I urge you to first take a month to reconsider. 🙂 If after that month, you still remain undaunted, spend the effort first to fully understand the VC model, research the firms in the market, and feel free to let me know what type of role you’re seeking. Also, be aware that VC funds generally don’t have formal or frequent recruiting processes. The VC model is not scaleable in headcount like big corporations, banking, or consulting. Be prepared for a binary yes/no response that is usually ‘no’.
  • If you’re looking for a job in a startup, I applaud your decision! (see Free your career). Now, how can I help? Take a look at our portfolio companies. Which interest you the most? Of that subset, visit their respective web sites. Many post job openings in clear view (I also maintain a list under the ‘jobs’ tag on my blog. If you see a role you want, please apply directly to the company, but feel free also to alert me of your interest. I will try to ensure that your application receives attention and that your candidacy is seriously considered.

If you do not see a startup job opening that corresponds to your specific aspirations, get creative! If you’re passionate about a specific space in which one of our portfolio companies is operating, think about how you might be able to add value to the firm.

I’m of the mindset that passion is far more important than which university you attended, and often even more so than specific sectorial experience. If you can succinctly articulate how you think you might be able to benefit a given portfolio company, I will probably go out of my way to introduce you to the decision-maker there.

3 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Stanislas Marion

    great post. It’s refreshing to read that kind of thinking on the French scene.

  2. Avatar
    Kevin O'Leary

    Mark –
    I really enjoyed your post and agree with your thoughts.  As a current student (just down the road from where you went) interested in startups and potential VC longer term, I’ve had a lot of discussions on this topic with fellow students.  I was hoping to hear your thoughts on a slightly different take on breaking into VC that I heard the other day. 
    The argument is as follows.  In the US, your argument holds true: go get domain expertise while working with a startup and then think about VC longer term.  But in emerging venture capital markets – Asia, Africa, etc – VC is at an earlier stage and startup experience isn’t necessary, and perhaps isn’t even the best way to break into VC in those markets.  Instead, it would be better to go into a McKinsey, Bain, Goldman, etc for a few years and get a brand name on your resume.  VC in the emerging markets is still at a stage where the broader experience is the best way to break in; similar to how it was a common route in the US in earlier decades when VC was still a nascent industry.  Would really appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.
    Thanks

    • Avatar
      mark bivens

      Hi Kevin –
      Thanks for your comment and for soliciting my thoughts, the first of which when I read your post was: Go Cubbies !
      Onto your point, I’d like to draw a distinction between the idea of being an effective VC versus the notion of breaking into VC which you raise. For the latter, what you’re saying sounds intuitively true for emerging markets. A brand name like Monitor, BCG, or Morgan Stanley might help attract the LPs or sovereign capital you need to raise that first fund. Heck, brand names still play a role even in more developed markets, though it’s more about graduating from the right school.
      As far as becoming effective as a VC, i.e. truly helping entrepreneurs build successful and meaningful businesses, I’m still inclined to favor prior startup experience as the best preparation, perhaps in emerging markets combined with strong local expertise and networks. Of course, valuable and relevant skills for helping future entrepereneurs can undoubtedly also be drawn from consulting, banking (investment more than commercial), and especially formidable training grounds like GE, Nestle, IBM, GSK, 3M.

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