After over three years of applications, 30+ interview processes, two internships and moving country three times, I finally landed a full-time role at a venture capital fund. Over the past three years, there were several times when I considered giving up as the process took a financial and emotional toll on me. All these disappointments meant that, when I finally received an offer to join a firm full time, I was overcome by a mix of relief, vindication and excitement. This excitement has stayed with me over the past two months and I am looking forward to starting a new chapter of my career tomorrow working with Icebreaker Ventures.
I decided to write this post so that those contemplating a move into venture capital have a better map of the junior VC job landscape in Europe, and hopefully waste less time than I did. While I have read a lot of books and posts about breaking into VC, I believe that these materials often misrepresent the difficulty of getting a role by ignoring the scarcity of positions (and consequent hyper competition) and omitting serious discussion of how chance interacts with each individual interview process. This post aims to remedy some of those omissions by describing the lay of the land and providing some practical advice on how to improve your chances of getting an offer. This essay is split into three parts: Part I is my roundabout journey to my current role, Part II is a more structured view of why the market is so unforgiving and Part III contains some practical advice on how to maximise your chances based on the lay of the land.
It would be dishonest of me to launch into this post without first stating my priors. When I decided that I wanted to work in this field, I already had several advantages which made life easier for me. I was fortunate enough to have read Law at Durham University (a well-regarded institution in the UK), I was working as a junior investment banker covering TMT companies (a conventional starting point for VCs), and most importantly I had developed the financial security to uproot my life on various occasions to CV build / network via internships. While none of these managed to stop me from spinning my wheels for three years, they did increase my odds of getting through to the interview stage of any given process. I am doubtful that, were I unable to take the financial risk of quitting my job to do a six-week internship last summer, I would have gotten the role that I have now.
Part I: My winding road into VC – Skip to Part II if you do not want to read my life story
I became seriously interested in the European venture space through an interaction with a recruiter in February 2017. At that point in time I was 1.5 years into an investment banking role in Credit Suisse’s European TMT team and was going through the motions of interviewing with private equity firms (like seemingly every other junior banker). A recruiter reached out to me about a role at a venture fund and, over the course of some fairly intense interview prep, I fell down the VC rabbit hole. The transformation was rapid! Overnight my podcast listening patterns morphed, I found myself encumbered with as Stratechery subscription and I even started to regularly use Twitter. While I did not end up getting that role, I naively assumed that worming my way into VC would be no more difficult than finding a PE role. How wrong I was!
n.b. I do understand that PE roles are extremely competitive! My point here is that it is materially easier for a junior banker to get into PE than it is to get into VC – I would estimate >40% of my intake at Credit Suisse landed PE roles before I left. I appreciate that this is not the case for people without typical PE recruitment backgrounds.
It took me about six months of low interview volume and lacklustre progress to make a change. I decided that I needed to differentiate my CV. I started by creating this blog (which was initially supposed be focused on the intersection of venture capital and video games) and beginning to advise some UK startups in my free time.
This apparently was not enough, recruiters remained largely ambivalent towards me and I was consistently failing to get first round interviews when I applied for openly listed positions. This was particularly disheartening as, on the rare instances where I did manage to get in front of funds, I typically progressed past the case study stage. I took this as proof that I did not lack the core skills funds were looking for, but that I just was not attractive enough for them to bother interviewing me. It was a humbling experience to say the least.
After around six more months of this, I chose to take more drastic measures to differentiate. In April 2018, I moved to Berlin to join infarm, an early stage vertical farming company, immediately after it announced its Series A. My primary aim was to get an insider’s view of what it was like to work in the type of company that I wanted to invest in. I was, however, definitely hopeful that working at a ‘rocket ship’ would help me stand out from the reams of banking CVs flooding the process when I planned to resume my search for a VC role in earnest.
After around a year at infarm, I restarted my search for a VC role, now equipped with my shiny new operator / banker CV. My improved resumé, however, had cost me around 50% of my interview volume. By leaving the bank I had lost most of my recruiter contacts, making it necessary to rebuild my interview flow. Part of this was done through a combination of subscribing to VC job mailing lists, stalking funds and investors on LinkedIn / Twitter to check periodically for recruiting announcements and scouring online job boards. The other part involved far more desperation, it involved cold emailing / DMing partners at new funds asking to interview (I even delivered a hand written letter once!) and asking the one VC that I was close enough to at the time if he knew if anyone was recruiting. Between January and June 2019, I managed to secure only three interviews, my curated interview pipeline did not seem to be flowing particularly well – no matter how good my newfangled CV was.
Once again it was time for a change of approach. I had cottoned on to two facts during this period. Firstly, I realised that my one VC friend knew about several roles that were not listed anywhere and secondly, I began to understand that open application processes could be and were being short circuited by warm introductions. The latter, I realised when one of the funds that I applied to during this period explicitly stated that it would look favourably on applicants with such an intro. As naïve as it sounds, it had never occurred to me to muscle my way into a first round interview at a fund via my network. This oversight was probably due to a combination of my lack of any meaningful network to leverage as well as some idealistic notions about meritocratic interview processes. I previously held the belief that if they posted it in public it was fair. In any case, it had become glaringly obvious to me that knowing VCs made it significantly easier to become one.
While I was pondering how to meet more VCs and, more importantly, how to get them willing to bat for me, the opportunity to participate in the DiversityVC’s 2019 FutureVC scheme came up. If there was any way to meet VCs and get them to vouch for you, it was doing an internship at a fund. Moreover, the fact that there were several masterclasses with investors served as an opportunity not only to learn more about the asset class but also to gain exposure to other players in the ecosystem. It was exactly what I was looking for.
There were just two problems:
- It was a six-week internship
- It was in London and I was in Berlin
Right after I had helped infarm raise its $100m Series B and had secured a promotion, was I really going to leave to do a six-week internship? Moreover, leaving would entail moving back to UK, while remaining on the hook for rent back in Berlin for last six months of the year. All this in the hope that these six weeks would help me improve my access to the job market in a sector that had consistently rejected me. At the time I felt that, if it went wrong, it would be the most expensive six weeks of my career. I managed to push these concerns to the back of my mind and applied for the program anyway, there was no point wrestling with the risk before I got an offer.
My ability to avoid coming to terms with this risk evaporated when I was offered a place on the program working with the LocalGlobe team. I am not entirely sure how I managed to overcome my fear at the time, but I bit the bullet, quit, and moved to London for the summer.
With the benefit of hindsight this was the turning point in my search, however, in late September 2019 (two months after the internship had ended) I felt otherwise. I felt lost and stupid. Following my internship in July, I had earned the opportunity to participate in the formal process for an associate position at LocalGlobe. Moreover, I managed to pick up an interview at another firm (the one I sent a handwritten letter to all the way back in April 2019). These processes spanned the two months following the internship and I was the most optimistic that I had ever been about securing a role. I had worked at a great fund, received good feedback, learnt so much about the profession both through the internship and the masterclasses and, to top it all off, even had home team advantage! When I found out that I was not going to get an offer after the final round of the LG process I was devastated.
My world unravelled and I was forced to face the fact that I had not managed to succeed despite all the chips seemingly being stacked in my favour. Unemployed for the first time in my life, I spent the next month in my Berlin apartment coming to terms with what had happened (I had moved back to Berlin as I was stuck paying rent there anyway). The LG team kindly offered to help me with my job search (references, intros etc.), but it would be a full month before I was mentally able to get back on the treadmill. It took around a month of licking my wounds for me to gain some much-needed perspective and finally acknowledge the true nature of my position. Yes, I had failed to land a role immediately, but from a venture recruiting perspective I was the best placed I had ever been. I had gained several things:
- Much improved visibility of the job landscape
- Via a combination of my peers on FutureVC, the DivVC team, the LG team and friends I had made along the way
- An even more differentiated CV
- Having worked for a venture firm unsurprisingly makes venture firms more likely to be interested in talking to you
- An invaluable understanding of how VCs think and operate
- Respected people who would vouch for me
Equipped with all the above I began applying for roles again. This time it was different, everything had traction to it – of the six roles I applied for between November and December 2019, I got to the first round of five processes. For someone who had spent the previous two years largely having his applications and cover letters ignored, this was revolutionary. Four of these five processes were for full time roles while the last was for another internship. In the end I got to the final round for one of the full-time roles (another painful rejection) and received an offer for the internship. I accepted this offer and, encouraged by my change in fortune, resolved to redouble my efforts to find a full-time position over the next six months.
In January 2020 I relocated again, from Berlin to Stockholm, to do the second VC internship – this time I would be spending six months at Creandum. My plan was to learn as much as possible, work hard, make connections while on the job and apply for full time roles in my free time. If I did not get a role by the end of the internship, I would put my search on hold for the foreseeable future and stop the financial bleeding (alternating between internships and unemployment is not exactly lucrative).
Five months, several case studies and more than five interview processes later, I made it. I got an offer to join the Stockholm operations of Icebreaker Ventures and I could not be more excited to start this September. Three years of country moves, foregone promotions, uncertainty and heartbreak turned out not to be for nothing. Now all I need to do is learn how to invest! 😉
Part II: What makes the junior VC job market so unforgiving?
Now that I have bored you with life story, it is time to get into the nitty gritty of what made the journey so long. There are three main factors that make junior venture roles elusive. These are: the low volume of roles; imperfect visibility / access to the available opportunities; and hyper competition for each one.
Low volume of jobs
There are not that many funds in Europe and, while this number is growing, this does not correspond to an explosion in junior roles. Venture funds generally have low headcounts, with some of the most successful funds in Europe having well under 20 employees. Low employee counts coupled with the fact that funds have equally low staff churn means that your dream fund may happily go years without recruiting a single analyst or associate. Sprinkle in the fact that funds do not need juniors (Benchmark’s investment team for example is comprised solely of partners) and you have a recipe for a dearth of analyst and associate positions.
If you are somewhat selective about where you want work, it would be a stretch to find 15 processes to apply to in any given year.
Access to job opportunities
Even though there are relatively few roles, it is not feasible to see / access all of the available ones due to structural opacity in the VC job market. Roughly speaking, fund recruitment approaches can be grouped in into three main categories: network-based, recruiter led and open. The first two of these are fundamentally untransparent.
A significant percentage of VC roles are filled through network. Unless someone you know reaches out to you about the role, you will remain oblivious to its existence until you see a new associate appear at Fund X. If you are lucky, you may hear a rumour that a fund is recruiting but will still have no direct means of applying. Here your options are to ask your network to snoop around for you (assuming you have a network!) or to try and cold email your way into the process.
Another sizeable portion of roles are filled through recruiters. In practice this works almost exactly like network-based roles, with the main differences being that you can at least make yourself known to recruiters and that they are not inherently nepotistic. Whether they care about you, however, is a different matter… My experience of recruiters has been fairly transactional, the minute they lose confidence in you or find someone shinier your flow of opportunities from this source will dry up. If you have a non-traditional background, getting a recruiter interested poses a particular challenge. Typically, they favour investment banking and management consultancy types, presumably in a bid to maximise the efficiency of their efforts. This professional services bias renders this source of opportunity flow unattainable for a large portion of prospective applicants.
Lastly there are open applications. These are by far my favourite source of opportunities in that they are the fairest. This fairness, however, comes at the price of hyper competition which I expand on below. Moreover, open applications are often only relatively fair because several funds (perhaps in an effort to lessen the administrative burden created by hyper competition) allow their processes to be short circuited via network. At its worst, this has the effect of rendering some processes faux open as the warm intros crowd out the rest of the applicants. I find this particularly frustrating as applying often requires meaningful effort. It is perverse to make people waste their evenings and weekends crafting responses and tailoring cover letters only to ultimately fill the first round of interviews with candidates from your network.
The practice of favouring warm candidates hinders diversity in VC firms. If you are filling 10 of 20 places in your first round of interviews with people from your wider network, how do you expect to make venture less homogenous?
Hyper competition goes some way to explaining why processes are often so gatekept / prone to being usurped via network. Venture roles have become extremely ‘glamorous’ and, given that there are no concrete prerequisites for junior positions, receive huge numbers of applications when they are made open to the public. Anecdotally, I have heard from several funds of situations where they have had well over 500 applicants for a single role. This combined with no real way to filter CVs for anything other than ‘pedigree’ (there is no qualification for taste in startups) makes it difficult for funds to narrow down who makes it into the first round. If you are narrowing from 700 CVs to 40 first round interviews, how does one meaningfully differentiate between the 30 McKinsey consultants, the 20 investment bankers, the 15 start-up founders / operators and 20 FANG PMs?
This problem is one of the reasons why VC firms often outsource recruiting efforts to their network or headhunters rather than opening roles to the public. When they do have open applications, funds often deploy ‘coping mechanisms’ to make filtering easier. These include:
- Long application forms which ask the candidate to answer a few questions
- Questions range from identifying interesting startups / investment themes to waxing lyrical about the best book you have read in the last year
- Preferring candidates with warm intros
- A practice which unfortunately contributes to keeping venture homogenous
- Only looking at the first N applicants – often a slow application is as good as no application
What does this mean in practice?
The long and short of the above is that the hardest stages of any VC application process are the first two. Discovering the process at all and getting to the first round. For network and recruiter-based processes discovery poses an obvious problem. For open roles getting from the application stage to a first round interview is brutal. Assuming that the average open process at a good fund receives 600 applicants and that they take 30 people to interview, that leaves you with the gargantuan task of beating out 570 people before anyone has even spoken to you. Those are tall enough odds without places in the first round of interviews being siphoned off to your better networked competitors. I would go as far as to say that once you can get first round interviews consistently (and put together a half decent case study) it becomes far more of a question of when you will get a role than if you will get one. Consequently, the advice section of this essay will largely focus on how to maximise your chances of getting to round one.
However, before we dive into advice it is important to explore one other issue which colours the entire venture recruitment process. Namely, the fact there is no objective benchmark for a candidate’s ability to do the job. Venture capitalists themselves do not know whether their own investments are performant (thus whether they are good investors) until several years into their careers. Consequently, judging whether you will be a good investor from a couple of conversations is impossible to do objectively. The most your interviewers can do is check whether you understand the intricacies of the venture business model, know their firm and its thesis and whether you can put together a coherent investment memo (which they typically do via case studies). This is not a particularly high barrier.
Once you get past the case study and into the final rounds the firm interviewing you has generally accepted that you are competent enough to do the job. So, at this point they are mainly comparing the remaining qualified candidates against each other. The lack of objective criteria often makes this a test of fit more than of skill, exposing you to the whims of chance and bias. In one final round interview, I distinctly remember talking about a video game investment thesis to a partner who unbeknownst to me had a video game tattoo which he subsequently showed me. At this point in the process, there is little you can do other than be personable and hope that you gel with your interviewers better than the others. The upshot of this ‘randomness’ at the last stages, is that you have far more influence on whether you get into the last five to ten candidates (post case study) than you have on making sure that you are the successful one. Thus, it makes the most sense to focus on the former which means making sure you discover as many relevant processes as possible and maximising your chances of getting to the first round. Tips on how to do this are discussed in the next section.
Part III: How to maximise your chances
This section contains a pragmatic approach to increasing your odds of getting a junior VC role. In practice this means that, despite my personal distaste for the outsized role network plays in these processes, building and leveraging your network is still good advice unless most VCs change their recruitment practices overnight. Moreover, while some puritans may balk at the idea of carrying out a career move for the express purpose of making your CV more attractive, I include it as a tactic in spite of how mercenary the optics look.
The advice below assumes you are in this for the long haul, some of it is rather drastic and will not necessarily pay off in the short term. None of the advice here guarantees you a role but rather it increases your chances of seeing / getting any given role. If you are not sure that you want to work in the industry most of the advice is not suitable. Do not quit your job, move to a new country, and do a VC internship because venture is the flavour of the month!
I have identified four main types of behaviours you can adopt to increase your prospects of getting a venture role. They are:
- Boosting signal – making your CV look shinier
- Growing your network
- Controlling all the controllable aspects of processes
- Identifying the low hanging fruit
Below I dive into each of the themes and provide examples of actions one can take in keeping with them. These examples are not meant to exhaustive, there are definitely many other creative methods of pursuing the above strategies, instead they are supposed to serve as inspiration.
Boost signal – CV Building
Making your CV stand out is key to getting through the application phase of VC roles. Often you need to convince funds that they want to interview you more than 500+ other people, several of whom will be extremely impressive too. Boosting signal is the first port of call for a candidate, there are so few roles available each year it is imperative that you do not burn them.
Some signal building actions you can take include acquiring hybrid experience, doing VC internships and cultivating external proof of interest in tech / startups.
Acquiring hybrid experience (normally adding start up experience)
VCs often get several CVs that look alike (remember the 30 McKinsey CVs). You can be the one consultant they decide to interview by having experience from different areas; by being a Consultant-Plus. For example, I began my careers as an investment banker and subsequently moved to Berlin to work in strategy for a startup there. I really enjoyed the experience of working inside a high growth startup, expanding from one to ten cities and helping to raise the Series B round. However, at the time of accepting the role, I was fully aware of that it would help me stand out from the countless other investment bankers who would doubtless be in the mix when I decided to begin applying for junior venture positions again in the medium term.
VC internships are generally easier to get than full time roles especially if you are an experienced hire. This heightened access to internships in conjunction with the fact that funds will generally interpret your internship at another fund extremely positively, makes them invaluable for breaking away from the herd of CVs. Consequently, while becoming an intern four years into your career may feel terrible for your ego and even worse for your pocket it can pay dividends as you continue your job search.
I personally did two internships before I secured a full time Venture Role. There is some privilege inherent in this, internships can be extremely disruptive for one’s near term career and earnings. This makes this strategy highly irresponsible if you have dependants and do not have the means to weather a spell of unemployment in the aftermath. As a result of my first internship I spent August 2019 to January 2020 in career limbo, having been unable to secure a full-time role immediately following it.
It is also worth noting that the above description does not account for some of the other benefits of VC internships, including an insider understanding of the asset class which will shine through in future interviews as well as access to a network of VCs willing to vouch for you, refer unlisted job opportunities to you and provide warm introductions.
Cultivate niches that prove interest in startups / tech
This is the vaguest of the tips here but in a nutshell, it is all about proving that you are interested in the ecosystem. One way to do this is create content which displays your interest that is visible to the public. From podcasts and videos to blogs and newsletters, there are a variety of media you can leverage to signal that you have more than a passing interest in the ecosystem you are going into.
I started a blog where I wrote some markedly average theses about video game tech. I never got to the post cadence I would have liked to have reached or achieved coveted ‘thought leader’ status, however, I could put a link to my blog on my CV and have had multiple interviews where the interviewers referenced my half-baked musings.
Growing your network
Littered through the above essay are references to how network interacts with the VC job market. Being well networked helps you see the opportunities that are not made public, have someone to vouch for you when firms reference you and (most problematically) can fast track you to the interview stage for some processes. This has obvious negative implications for diversity efforts in the sector. Consequently, I hope that recruitment processes become less prone to this kind of influence and must applaud the few firms that I have seen deliberately design processes to limit network’s power.
That being said, I would not hold my breath for widespread change in the near future – and thus would encourage any prospective candidate to build their network if they are serious about maximising their chances. Practical things you can do to build your VC network include:
- Attending and participating in events – the more intimate the better
- Join support groups e.g. YSYS
- Helping founders and other people in the ecosystem
- Access schemes like FutureVC and IncludedVC
Things to think about when networking are depth versus breadth of relationships. While having a wide network is helpful, having deeper relationships is important when you are asking someone to lend you their credibility. Depth in these relationships is best built by working with the person, another plus for VC internships, but helping others with no expectation of return goes a long way (e.g. referring interesting companies to an investor / helping a founder with her pitch deck). People will generally see through it if you are purely transactional.
Making sure that your network knows you are in the market for a role is very important when it comes to discovering job opportunities. You want to be front of mind when your contact hears rumours about a position at fund X. Because there are so few roles and because they are so hard to discover, the more people who know about your search the better. It does not matter that you are embarrassed that you have been very publicly searching for over a year – it is better to be slightly embarrassed and seeing opportunities than to retain your pride and search for another year!
Control what you can
Venture processes are scarce and are difficult to control. Especially once you are in the last stages of a process, things often become rather subjective. Given the scarcity, it is imperative to control all the controllable parts of the process. Normally these are the quality of your application (the thing that goes alongside your CV), the speed of your application and lastly the quality of your case study (if it is take home). It is better to overdo it and get through than do the minimum and lose one of your 10 interview opportunities that year.
High effort applications
In short, put a lot of effort into the written part of the applications be that in Q&A format or cover letter. I normally spend at least four hours on an application – if I am very motivated, I can spend a decent portion of a weekend tweaking and tailoring my responses. It helps to be organised – VCs often ask similar questions, thus once you have carefully crafted an answer for one process save it for use in future applications. This type of preparation will help you apply earlier which can improve your chances of getting an interview. Here is a link to some of my historical answers and cover letters.
As VCs often get flooded with candidates, the sooner you apply the more likely you are to avoid any artificial cut off periods. This obviously needs to be balanced with the quality of the application, but I would not advise spending an extra week fine tuning it once it has reached reasonable quality. In that week, a few hundred CVs may get in between you and your dream job.
Overperform on case studies
If you have a take home case study just overdo it. There are so few roles you do not want to risk failing here because you wanted to do the minimum. I have included some examples of case studies that have got me through to the next round before here.
Find low hanging fruit
Lastly it can be extremely effective to pro-actively identify processes that will inherently be less competitive. One way to do so is to pre-emptively apply to funds that you think will need to recruit soon. Most new funds fall into this category as they often announce their fund closing before they have filled any junior positions. In this type of situation, a well written cover letter with your CV attached can net you an interview where it would not normally. I have secured at least four interviews by proactively reaching out to these new funds and asking if they are recruiting. Because these roles are not being actively filled, these processes are generally a lot less competitive than formal ones significantly increasing your chances of getting to the later stages. On the other hand, there is often a lot less urgency and structure than in formal processes.
The European Venture job landscape is bleak and breaking in can often require a significant amount of perseverance. The aim of this essay has been to document my journey, describe the lay of the land and finally provide some advice to prospective candidates that will hopefully shorten their searches. It would be disingenuous for me to pretend that the landscape is not discouraging, however, at least there are some actions that I have found can be helpful for candidates contemplating a transition into VC and willing to sacrifice to get there.
Below I have included a list of resources that may be useful in your search as well as thank yous to the dozens of people who helped me and kept me sane along the way.
Job mailing lists
Books on venture
- Secrets of Sand Hill Road by Scott Kupor
- Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason A. Mendelson
Thank yous – this section is self-indulgent
Creandum – to the whole team for an amazing six months of learning and support and for taking a chance on me
- Staffan, Simon, Carl and Johan – for leaving no stone unturned during my search
- Fredrik – for teaching me so much about venture
- Sanna – for being an amazing support before and during COVID and making sure I settled into Stockholm
- Beata – For being my first friend in Stockholm and putting up with my nonsense
LocalGlobe – to the whole team for the best introduction to European Seed that one could wish for and for taking a chance on me
- Mish, Julia and Remus – for continued support, advice and encouragement post the internship and for lending me your hard-earned credibility
- Suzanne – for taking me under your wing during the internship
- Ophelia – For the being the friend I made under the strangest of circumstances and a breath of fresh air
Diversity VC – For FutureVC 2019, the program which completely changed my trajectory in June 2019
- Check Warner – For everything you do for people like me and specifically for telling me to keep going last summer
- Seb Butt – For coordinating such an amazing program
- Harry Briggs – For the support and the kindest rejection email that I have ever got
- Michael Tefula – For the continual support and being the first warm intro, I received in my entire life
VCs who had no reason to help me but did anyway
Martin Janicki, Esther Delignat-Lavaud Rodríguez, Dele Akin, Aurelia Hummelbrunner, Ricardo Sequerra
Friends – for keeping me sane at the lowest points in this three-year journey
Alex, Temitayo, Ophelia, Rumbi, Kieran, Damon, Asia, Alice, Dan, Ryan, Chris, Annalisa, Adam and Isaiah