Recently I read a book called, Never Eat Alone by Keith Farrazzi. It’s an incredible book and one I highly recommend you read regardless of age, especially if you’re young.
The premise of the book is, a network is the most powerful thing you can have. In addition, it offers many tactics to build a network and how to leverage it in a way that benefits you and your contacts.
That book, combined with my background as a small-town country boy from Wisconsin, has inspired me to write this.
While the title says barista, this can apply to anyone in any entry-level, no-experience-required job. The end game is also flexible. It doesn’t have to be a VC you aim to work at, just take what I’ve described and adjust it to the model you need. But, for the sake of continuity, we will use Barista to VC as our example.
For context, if you’re unfamiliar with the term VC, it is a fund of money that is invested into startups. The hope is that several of those startups will end up becoming the next Uber or Facebook, thus increasing the invested capital by many factors.
Imagine you are a barista. You could be working in a coffee shop (anywhere) and you want to get a job in VC (venture capital). You have some skills but not skills that allow you to apply to a job in VC and be able to offer any true value to them (unless they have a cafe on-site at their office). You need to bridge this gap between Barista and VC. It seems like a big gap, and it is, but it’s not impossible to bridge.
You can bridge that gap through content and network, tied together.
You have the target industry figured out, so now you now start consuming content about this topic. You spend a lot of time reading about the industry. You read 6+ books on the topic. You listen to podcasts of folks in the space. You follow every VC you hear of on Twitter. You might even consider turning on notifications for each of them so you consistently are appearing as you like their tweets. You can read up about the industry and what has happened in the past 10-20 years with that space so you understand its evolution. As you begin to consume all this content, you’ll slowly be turning into an expert about the space without being in the space.
Somewhere along this journey, towards the beginning, you need to start producing content about the space as well. This can initially be in the form of tweets, blog posts, a newsletter, podcasts, TikToks, or anything. This gets you into the habit of talking about what you know which is public proof of your knowledge. It goes a lot further than just telling someone you know a lot about the space. Many young folks make the mistake of telling people they are really knowledgeable on a certain topic instead of showing proof. This happens often because when you are young/inexperienced it’s easy to overlook the fact there is so much you don’t know.
At some point, you need to create content that involves speaking with people in the space. For me personally, this is podcasting. It can also be in the form of interviewing to write a piece. I personally like podcasting a lot as it gives you an opportunity to not only privately show your personality and demonstrate your knowledge in that conversation, but it’s then also blasted out to the world to see. Yes, the world isn’t likely to see your show right away, but someday it will.
Now that you are having regular conversations with people in your desired industry, you need to bring something of value to the table. This could be offering to help them by sending them deal flow or perhaps they have some projects you could help with. The point is, figure out something you can offer of value beyond just this. Maybe you cut up the episode into clips for them to use for their marketing purposes. Just, find out what value you can create that they actually would like to have. Doing this will elevate you from just another podcaster to someone who has spunk and is offering value.
You should also get a little vulnerable in these conversations. I’m not saying you should tell them your whole life story, but in the process of thanking them for coming on the show, you can mention your background and why you do this. When they hear that you’re looking to get into the VC space someday, speaking your goals out loud, eventually you are likely to hear someone offer their help.
People love to help others, especially when they feel they can make an impact on that person’s life. The reality is they too, had someone help them out along the way and they want to pass it along. At some point, I would venture to say, you might even get offered a job by one of these just by doing this. However, I still think there would be another step.
While doing all this, you’ll start to understand the space internally and what roles are held in the VC firms. You can use your conversations to learn about those things. Then you can go and learn those skills. You can take online courses. When you understand the technical details, then do some of these projects weekly. If for example, it’s financial modeling, model out several projects a week. Make this work public through a portfolio. The best is if you record yourself solving these and building the spreadsheets.
By this time, it’s likely you are more skilled than most fresh graduates who studied this for even 6 years. And guess what, you now have a network from all the folks you spoke with. Now you can strike.
Now that you have skills, know-how, and social proof, reach out to your network to ask who they could recommend you speak with as you are seeking an entry-level job. When compared to a Grad Student, who will rank higher? Someone who has been involved in the space for 1 year, practicing relevant skills (and proving it), creating content, networking, building relationships, and working hard –OR– someone who spent 6 years partying, doing a couple of internships, taking a bunch of totally irrelevant classes that have nothing to do with VC, learning theory rather than real-world knowledge.
I’ll let you answer that one.
There is one other component to this, which is location. I did mention above that location doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t. It can be done successfully regardless of location, however, there are some things you can do to stack the deck in your favor using location.
For example, if you work in a cafe in Iowa vs one in San Francisco (the global capital of VCs), you will have a lot higher chance of bumping into someone in the space. When you bump into them, either intentionally or accidentally, you can use that opportunity to start building a real relationship. Being in SF would offer you more opportunities to do that.
However, this is also a downside to being in a place like SF. Given it is a mass collection of these folks, there is a good chance they are inundated with these similar requests. Many folks chase power. Whereas, if you lived in Iowa, you might be able to find the two or three folks that live within your vicinity. When you reach out to them, they might be a lot more receptive than the folks in SF, simply because they don’t deal with this type of brown-nosing on a usual basis. Because it’s infrequent, it’s likely to flatter them more than annoy them.
This is an opportunity to speak with them in person. If you’re following the content path, you could first ask them for an interview. Then after the interview, ask to buy them a coffee and pick their brain. You can mention your overall goal of getting into VC and ask to speak with them about their advice to you. In this way, they kind of become a mentor unofficially. You might end that initial meeting with asking, what are you looking for. Is there anything I can do in return for your help? If they don’t offer something, try and find a way to provide value beyond just mentoring.
Eventually, if you play your cards right, you can ask this person to officially mentor you. They could then give you the additional inside scoop, introduce you to members of their network, and they will likely be keeping an eye out for openings for you in the background. Often without being asked. Again, people love to help others. Especially if they feel that person looks up to them as a mentor.
This is possible both in a concentrated and unconcentrated area of professionals working in the industry you want to break into. You just need to find ways to differentiate yourself depending on the environment you find yourself in.
All of this above can likely be accomplished in the course of about 1 or 2 years. In that same amount of time, you could have obtained half a degree, and maybe done 1.5 internships.
And that is how you can go from Barista to VC.