the only thing VCs can control that will improve their outcomes is having enough guts to bet on markets that don’t yet exist. Everything else is noise.
This post was originally distributed via John Gannon’s VC Jobs mailing list. Edited and re-posted here because I regularly get inbounds on this topic.
I recruited for VC jobs in the spring of 2012 during my first year at Barclays, where I was working as an investment banker.
My recruiting process was fairly straightforward. I met with some headhunters (Glocap and Amity) who specialized in placing Investment Banking analysts as associates in VC firms. I utilized the VC Careers mailing list as well as Christina Cacioppo’s list as resources. I also dropped my resume at several places that posted an opening (e.g. online job boards or targeted mailing lists).
I definitely bombed a couple of interviews early in my process, but the journey definitely taught me how to present myself as a more viable candidate. So think of your VC job hunt a little bit like SAT prep – the only way to get better at it is to do more of it.
On that note, here are the key lessons that I learned during my search:
- The saying goes that you have a better shot of becoming a professional athlete than a VC. I haven’t done the math, but the bottom line is that VC openings are much more limited than the number of folks who wants to get into the industry. At the beginning of your process, make a list of the VC firms you’d prefer to work for – either from a stage, geography, or focus perspective. However, at some point your recruitment process will turn into a numbers game. I’d like to say that you should be strategic in which VC firms to approach, but the reality is that it’s a buyer’s market.
- Part of being a VC is having the luxury for being paid to think. My interviews were always casual and conversational, because the partner is ultimately trying to understand the way I thought. There are only two ways to hone on-the-fly critical thinking skills: read a lot and blog even more. Be prepared to present some of your theses with the reasoning to back them up.
- They say VC is also a people’s business. As much as it is about the analysis and decision-making, VC is also about who you know and who knows you. In an interview context, this is why networking is so important – don’t be afraid to name drop some folks that you have met and maintained relationships with, especially if they are relevant fellow VC or entrepreneur. While in banking, I spent many of my free evenings and weekends attending tech events in NYC. With the proliferation of blogs and tweets, it’s only become easier to access tech investors and entrepreneurs, even if you’re chained to your day job.
- Firms seeking candidates with finance backgrounds are typically later-stage VC’s. Those firms prefer hiring folks out of an Investment Banking or Management Consulting program. One recent implication is that competition with PE firms for these same candidates has driven later stage VC firms to recruit earlier and earlier each year – some, like IVP, even hiring a year in advance.
- It’s a crapshoot. Some firms liked me enough to have me participate in multiple rounds of interviews, while other firms ignored my resume drop and cover letter. Each VC firm may be looking for something different – either in terms of experience, education, or cultural fit. Don’t take it personally and keep your chin up.
Seen by its makers “more R2D2 than RoboCop,” the autonomous policing robot Knightscope K5 promises to patrol geo-fenced beats in hopes of reducing crime by 50 percent.
As a late-stage investor, I’m often waiting on the edge of my seat for technologies to mature to a point when IVP would typically get involved. For me, robotics is one of those exciting areas where I have to unfortunately sit on the sidelines, for now.
Some quick thoughts on how robotics will develop over the next couple of years:
- Forget the consumer angle (see: the Jetsons), as with other next-gen devices such as Google Glass, robotics will first find their plateau of productivity in the enterprise. (see: AMZN / Kiva Systems)
- The future is friendly – robots should be made to look as innocuous as possible. (see: Eve from Wall-E)
- Robots will not only replace human functions, but enhance them too. In the example of Knightscope, the robot can analyze data, such as hundreds of license plates, in a way much faster than a human can. In other words, go for a revenue-generating sales pitch, not just a cost-saving one.
I have to admit that my understanding of robotics is still elementary Any suggested readings for me?
(PS. Speaking of Wall-E, this cruise ship is just missing those personal hovercrafts…)
For the last 12 to 18 months, the private technology market has seen sky high valuations and a significant disconnect from the public markets. Recently, much talked-about startup Slack raised $120M at a $1.12B valuation with just $1M in monthly revenue. My friend, Danny Crichton, wrote a really insightful piece on TechCrunch regarding this new trend of “fundraising acceleration”.
Crichton outlines the factors that have created such a fundraising strategy and also carefully points out the disadvantages of raising too much at too high a price. Namely, he highlights the increasing bifurcation of the have’s and have-not’s (high and low-growth companies, respectively), as well as consequences with equity compensation for employees.
Here are some pitfalls I see with this kind of investment strategy:
- High risk of a down round: Macro conditions are nearly impossible to predict. Unless the mega round is meant to fully fund a company from one bull cycle to another, it’s likely that the next funding round will be a difficult one.
- Capital inefficiency: This type of fundraising strategy is also counter-intuitive to the lean startup philosophy. Raising such a large amount of capital creates negative incentives to be capital efficient, and in the hands of an un-experienced team, can lead to higher burn rates.
- Increased execution pressure: With a valuation so far beyond fundamentals, management teams will and should feel an increased pressure to perform. It’s no longer enough strive to deliver on a vision you’ve sold because you’ve already committed to deliver it. Traditional “Plan B” options, such as acqui-hires, will become harder to sell to the board.
- Diminishing returns: The reason that market leaders are often rewarded by an order of magnitude is that idea that in a networked world, winners take most (if not all). With funding acceleration, VC’s are not only increasing the risk of betting on the right horse, but also driving down their own gains. As the adage goes, capital flows into an asset class until returns revert to the mean. When that happens for the VC asset class, it’ll be a painful day for those holding such over-valued assets in their portfolios.
Crichton also writes,
The person who most popularized this notion of investing was Marc Andreessen (who ironically also happens to be one of the earlier investors in Slack), as well as Peter Thiel, whose experience with Facebook’s growth encouraged his investment thesis for Founders Fund.
While I’m a big fan of both, we should also consider the fact that neither of these two investors have long enough tenures as VC’s to have experienced a downturn in the markets, and more specifically, a downturn within the technology sector.
By now Yiren Lu’s “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem” has made it way around both my personal and professional circles. As a young person living and working in Silicon Valley, I felt a strong sense of resentment after reading the article. The author focused on specific and superficial examples to build a case against many of the talented founders and engineers I know, and thereby, completely missed what makes Silicon Valley great.
In the section titled “Unhappy Valley”, Lu outlines a phenomenon that the layman knows as FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. But it’s not just a “Silicon Valley problem”, but a symptom of our generation as a whole. Sure, FOMO could make us feel like we’re trapped a giant hamster wheel, forever playing catch-up to the Jones. Every generation has a certain amount of FOMO, and given the speed of information today, our generation just feels it that much stronger. I think of FOMO instead as part of the reason why technology cycles have shortened and innovation has accelerated.
The article also questions whether today’s Silicon Valley has created anything of value. To be fair, many of the buzziest startups are consumer-oriented ones, and the value of a Facebook, Snapchat, or Twitter is undoubtedly tied to ad dollars. Money talks, and naturally, VC’s will continue to fund startups with advertising business models because the advertising market is enormous. Instead of asking whether Valley startups are doing anything worthwhile, shouldn’t the question be instead, what good does advertising do for society? By the same token, the author also discounts the importance of startups such as Uber and Airbnb, who have not only provided an additional revenue stream for thousands of people worldwide, but have also fundamentally changed some of the ways that humans interact.
Naturally, Silicon Valley will always have a so-called “Youth Problem”. Startups are risky, and by and large, younger people will have a higher risk tolerance. That doesn’t mean that substantial valley startups, like Dropbox and Stripe, are not striving to recruit tech veterans in leadership positions (in this example, former Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside and former Google executive Claire Johnson, respectively). Startups, especially venture-funded ones, do not have the hubris to believe that inexperienced 20-somethings are equipped to run billion-dollar businesses on their own.
Perplexingly, the author also tries to paint some of the most positive externalities of Silicon Valley in a poor light, for example, the democratization of tech and the consumerization of the enterprise. Isn’t it great that today’s teenagers, with just a conceptual grasp of computer science, could build an app for his/her own use and/or entertainment? Shouldn’t we support the notion of making enterprise applications easier to implement and more user friendly?
Most importantly, I’ve always believed that the most innovative companies are not necessarily apparent at first. One very prominent example of this is Google, a startup founded by two 23-year-olds in a garage at a time when there were already several search engines on the internet. (Maybe yesterday’s search engine is today’s texting app?) Larry Page, in a recent interview, spoke about grander ambitions for Google:
Even Google’s famously far-reaching mission statement, to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, is not big enough for what he now has in mind. The aim: to use the money that is spouting from its search advertising business to stake out positions in boom industries of the future, from biotech to robotics.
Researchers at the American Institute for Economic Research found that Asian tech workers on average made $8,146 less each year than white workers in 2012, $3,656 less than Black employees, and $6,907 less than those who identified as “other.” Women, as a group on average, earn $6,358 less than men each year.
The article points to the fact that many H1-B workers are Asian, which contributes to depressing the average salary across the tech industry. As an ethnically Chinese person on the H1-B, I think the stat actually demonstrates that Asians are culturally and systematically discouraged from being demanding or confrontational.
As an Asian woman, I don’t always feel comfortable in negotiating what I want and promoting myself to an employer – a shortcoming that I learned the hard way when interviewing for an investment banking position alongside other white male candidates. The real action point from this data is that Asians need to better learn how to negotiate their salaries (and not let “karma” take care of it, à la Satya Nadella.)
Khazan: What about people who say that there is a paralysis of choice—that online dating makes us non-committal because we can always go on a date with somebody else?
Yagan: I think that means you end up in a better relationship. When you decide to stop going on OkCupid dates, it means you’re happy with the date you have. I think one reason we have high divorce rates is because people have had limited pools. You only had the pool of people who lived in your town or who you went to college with or who go to your gym.
Relationships that start online are much more heterogeneous than those that start offline by the simple nature of the fact that the people near you are more similar to you than the people who span a broader geography. So I think it gives you much better selection, not just more selection..
My friend, an Econ PhD candidate at Berkeley, and I have often debated the merits of online dating. (Fun fact: we actually met on OkCupid.) Our conclusion is that online dating is best for folks with edge preferences, as it offers better filtering and wider top-of-the-funnel.
I like Yagan’s answer on the paradox of choice because it proposes marital satisfaction in America as a “smile” or J curve. Social media and online dating has decreased friction for unhappy relationships/marriages to end and for folks to start new relationships. At first, this could contribute to an uptick in divorce rates, but over time, the hope is that more data and wider top-of-the-funnel will result in happier couples.
If there is one thing I learned while living on the Upper East Side many years ago, it’s that York Avenue is quite a hike from the subway (at least as far as hikes from subways in Manhattan go). That fact can sometimes help keep housing prices down, at least until the 2nd Avenue Line comes in.
I’ll always remember how excited I was every time Mary Meeker’s report came out – especially when I was still a banker at Barclays. It not only contained tons of useful market data (a gold mine for analysts), but it also marked the steady passage of time. You could always count on a new Meeker presentation every 6 months, or so, and the topics she discussed often had a nice continuity. Today, these reports are a pleasant reminder of how lucky and excited I am to work with companies that will shape our future.
Some of my initials thoughts:
- Slide 8: Very surprising that PC users are still lagging global TV users. This data shows that technology platform shifts can leapfrog each other. The “next big thing” (in this case, PC’s) may not be as big as the “next next big thing” (mobile phones).
- Slide 9: It’s no longer enough to be the “largest in the U.S.” – companies need to think globally. It’s disappointing that those of us in the Valley still tend of think of tech as being very US-centric. For example, most people can name tons of early-stage startups in SF, but haven’t heard of companies like Alibaba or Baidu. Meeker goes long on China later in the presentation (slides 127 – 136).
- Slide 10: If it wasn’t clear enough already, platform wars are over and Android is a clear leader (though not without its problems).
- Slide 15: Meeker has underlined the disconnect between “time spent” and “ad spent” for years now. The hold that print advertising has comes from the strength of traditional advertiser/publisher relationships and the traditional budget split between branding and performance campaigns.
- Slide 55: Meeker positions the “Internet Trifecta” as getting a critical mass of content, community, and commerce. I believe these criteria mainly fit e-commerce companies. Other consumer web startups, such as Dropbox or Uber, have focused instead on delivering unparalleled value to the user, without the 3 C’s.
- Slide 161: This slide is probably the most valuable to founders & entrepreneurs. Particularly this piece of advice: great companies grow revenue, make profits, and invest for the future.
I’m an investor, and since most of Meeker’s analysis is backward looking (historical trends and “re-imagined” use cases), I try synthesize some of her forward-looking takeaways. Most prominently, Meeker’s presentation sheds light on three major markets: Online Video, Healthcare, and Education. Some of our most recent IVP investments tie directly to these themes, such as ZEFR and General Assembly, and I’m excited to discover other great startups in these verticals.
Both the Internet and my own circle of friends have debated this issue to death (so price. much social.) And as Fred Wilson puts it,
It isn’t clear if the next thing is virtual reality, the internet of things, drones, machine learning, or something else. Larry doesn’t know. Zuck doesn’t know. I don’t know. But the race is on to figure it out.
What we can expect, however, is increased VC interest in companies that could potentially bring us a new future. This is true for companies who are both competitive and complimentary to products by Nest or Oculus. Competitive companies stand to gain from these acquisitions because VC’s know that it’s rarely a one-horse race. Complimentary companies stand to gain even more as many tech incumbents have already signaled that this is where the future is going.
I’m bullish on VR, and FB/Oculus’ upcoming challenges will prove whether the Oculus Rift is more of a Segway or an iPhone. The best step that the iPhone took was to create an ecosystem that was both open and controlled – any third party could build on top of the iPhone, but the quality of the apps were held to a high bar.
There are startups that are already building technologies that would be a great fit for the Oculus Rift. Thalmic Labs, based in Canada, has created the Myo armband for accurate and granular gesture control. Nymi and InteraXon are two bio-sensing startups – they measure heartbeat and brain activity, respectively, to control a connected device. And the quantified fitness space continues to grow with startups like Push and Hexoskin.
As I look at the new crop of hardware startups that will help create the next platform, it’s easy to see two things:
- As Chris Dixon said, the next big thing will start out looking like a toy.
- Many of these next-generation hardware startups are based in Canada, where cost of living is cheaper, recruiting is less competitive, and the government has been supportive of startups by offering R&D tax incentives and offering a start-up visa.
From where I stand, the future is both fun (toy!) and friendly (Canada!). I, for one, cannot wait.