What do venture capitalists do? Venture capitalists invest money in start-up companies to help fund the development of new products or services In return, they receive a stake in each company they help finance. If the start-up company succeeds, the venture capitalists who back it realize a profit. Very simply then, a venture capitalist has four basic job functions:
* Finding the deals-Seeking out good private start-up companies to invest capital
* Winning the deals-Convincing the entrepreneurs that the VC money will bring the most value-add to the start-up
* Working the deal-Collaborating with the entrepreneurs to make the company a big success.
* Raising the Capital – Raising the capital to invest in these companies
Unlike angel investors, who put in from $250,000 to $500,000 into companies to help get their business plans and market research done, venture capitalists typically invest from $5 million to $50 million. “So they have their skin in the game in terms of ownership,” explains Atul Kapadia, a managing director at Infinity Capital, a venture capital firm based in Palo Alto, California. Therefore, a venture capitalist’s role goes much deeper than making mere equity investments. “Venture capitalists are active advisors to their portfolio companies on issues ranging from operations to strategy. They support entrepreneurs and management teams during the growth phase of a company through their own efforts and extension of their network,” explains Anju Ahuja of the Chicago-based First Analysis Venture Capital firm. Whether it is finding and hiring the right talent at short notice, identifying the best bankers for an equipment lease line, or getting an introduction to the first key customer, venture capitalists have the ability to open the first few doors for their portfolio companies.
The Successful Venture Capitalist
Relatively few recruits to a venture capital career come directly from the university. Sure, a BE, MBA, or CPA will provide a useful foundation for venture work. “But if you understand emerging technologies and market fundamentals, if you are really motivated to help other people succeed and if you have an intellectual curiosity about new ideas, you are well suited for a career in venture capital,” says Mhatre. Historically, venture capitalists came from operating or finance backgrounds. More recently, individuals with technical backgrounds plus strategy and corporate development experience have become active venture capitalists. Each of these backgrounds provides a unique and beneficial perspective although “it is becoming more difficult for individuals with pure finance backgrounds alone to differentiate themselves and provide the depth in strategic guidance and operating support that entrepreneurs seeks,” says Ahuja. This is especially true for early-stage venture capitalists because start-ups are looking for business and strategy advice. “People with financial engineering and investment banking are a good fit for later stage companies,” she adds.
Certain sectors of the market, such as fabrication or telecommunication, that absolutely require technical knowledge. In these cases, an engineering degree or technical experience is invaluable. “Domain knowledge is everything in these markets. I’ve spent the last two years of my life understanding the data communications market,” says Kapadia. For markets like e-commerce, a non-technical background is okay so long as the venture capitalist is deeply connected within the industry. “But you must also understand that a venture capitalist will never know as much as the entrepreneur he is backing so business experience is very important. An MBA from a top notch university or solid on-the-job training would be a big plus for a venture capitalist,” adds Dev Purkayastha, a 19-year veteran venture capitalist from southern California, who is about to form his latest fund. “Some companies are attractive for their technology, but most companies live and die by sales and marketing strategies. Without a solid market approach and unique points of differentiation, the best technologies will never reach their full potential,” Ahuja says. “While a technical background is quite helpful, the ability to refine business models and work through corporate development issues is necessary,” she adds. But, says Mhatre, whether your background is technical or non-technical, “someone with experience with startup companies, marketing and operating experience, and an MBA degree would be a good candidate for a venture capital job.”
In this business, personality is just as important as professional background. “Above everything, the best suited traits for a VC are good interpersonal skills and a good network. You should be able to co-exist and lead your entrepreneur while adding positive energy within your partnership,” Kapadia emphasizes. “You have to be passionate about what you do,” agrees Purkayastha. “At the same time, you have to have a little bit of detachment to maintain a level of objectivity in monitoring your investments,” he adds.
“Ideally, venture capitalists should be extremely open minded,” says Ahuja. They must balance playing a visionary role along with identifying processes and methodologies that help young companies grow. “This is a people business. Venture capitalists don’t invest in business plans or concepts, they invest in teams with visions and skills to make those visions a reality,” she explains. As a result, venture capitalists must be able to work with diverse personality types.
Before jumping in, however, would-be VCs should be realistic about their expectations from this job. “People sometimes have a glamorized vision of this industry,” says Mhatre. Spend some time with a venture capitalist and see what the day-to-day rigors are like. “There are some terrific highs in this profession but you also work very hard without immediate feedback,” he adds. Like physicians, the notion of being “on-call” is a very real one…except venture capitalists are always on-call and always need to be responsive to their entrepreneurs. “Successful venture capitalists tend to be able to multi-task and are generally intellectually curious. They also tend to be high energy, whether this is veiled by a more casual demeanor or not,” Ahuja concludes.
Pick up any major metropolitan newspaper-you’ll be lucky if you see a job listing for a venture capitalist. “This is a mentorship-driven business,” explains Mhatre. The way to get an entry is as untraditional as the profession itself. Some venture capital firms like to hire technical people as consultants and advisors and that is one way to learn the business. Other venture capital firms have something called an Entrepreneur Residence program. They invite directors, VPs or CEOs of different companies to join their company under this program and use the firm’s resources to research and evaluate the market, build networks and leverage opportunities. If this proves to be a successful partnership, they often land the job of a venture capitalist. A third way to try to enter the industry is by getting an MBA from Stanford or Harvard University, since most of the venture capitalists are alumni of these two schools. “Work at a start-up, get noticed and jump into venture capitalism,” Mhatre says.
To get ahead in this game, “network, network, network,” Mhatre states emphatically. Focus on a specific domain and become an expert in it. “At least one area has to be a leading indicator for you,” says Mhatre. But whatever your path, once you gain an entry, you should learn by working closely with people who have had experience. Unlike other traditional careers like engineering or high-tech marketing, this profession has a less crisply defined career ladder. Over time, a venture capitalist will progress in terms of level of credibility and responsibility. He or she may join the firm as an associate, and over time, advance to become a general partner, a managing director, a VP, president or CEO.
The money in this business is good. “Money is never the problem; its about how much value you add and what companies do you build,” says Kapadia. If you are good at what you do, there is no discrepancy in how much a person with a technical versus non-technical background can make in this profession. “Mike Meritz, a journalist by profession is just as successful in venture capital as Vinod Khosla, an engineer,” says Mhatre.
Typically a venture capitalist gets 2 percent of the total fund to manage it. An associate with 2 to 3 years’ market experience before or after an MBA may easily make from $100 to $200 thousand, a general partner may net from $200 to $300 thousand and the top honchos may rake in upwards of $500 thousand annually,” states Purkayastha, cautioning that is just a general, ball park estimate of compensation. Ahuja, Purkayastha and Mhatre suggest looking up the December 1998 issue of the Venture Capital Journal for compensation statistics. “You don’t succeed in this business for the love of money,” says Mhatre. Ninety to ninety-five percent of compensation is tied to the performance of the investments your venture group makes.
The Hot Spots
In the US, the Silicon Valley still remains the best market for venture capitalists. New York, Boston, Seattle, Atlanta and the mid-west have also started reaching a critical mass. “The markets are more conservative in the east coast and things don’t move with the same velocity as in Silicon Valley,” says Mhatre-but stresses that these areas have good markets as well. According to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers Money Tree Survey for Q2 1999, Silicon Valley led all regions in total venture investments, with 35 percent of all Q2 dollars going to bay area companies. The highest growth rates by region between Q2 of 1998 and 1999 were in New York Metro with 322 percent growth, New England at 177 percent, and Los Angeles/Orange County with 167 percent growth. Only the Southeast trailed Silicon Valley’s 115 percent growth with a 47 percent increase.
“These different geographic markets tend to have different industry focuses. As a result, the venture firms in these markets tend to have a perspective that is unique to that region,” says Ahuja.
Like venture capital itself, venture capitalists will be in demand for a long time to come. “Many people debate the nature of market activity with the dramatic number of start-ups, consolidations, mergers and acquisitions. But few will truly dispute the amount of market activity to come,” says Ahuja. “We’re so blessed with creativity in this country, that as long as entrepreneurialism is alive and well, the demand for venture capital is going to be insatiable,” states Purkayastha confidently. So if you’re smart, well qualified, driven, resourceful, people oriented, have nerves of steel and a heart of gold, and can be passionate about success, this might just be the career for you. Care to capitalize on this venture?