The Definitive Guide To VC Career Growth

Many VCs are brazenly bad managers; so we are open sourcing Primary’s rubric for breaking in, getting promoted, and managing well in venture.

The Definitive Guide To VC Career GrowthThe Definitive Guide To VC Career Growth

When we open investor jobs at Primary, we receive thousands of applicants; but what actually drives success in venture capital can be a black box. What’s clear from many of those applications is that it’s hard to know from the outside what sort of skills and activities drive success in the VC world.

In my experience as a Chief People Officer at companies like Enigma and Capsule, I always led our hiring and professional development processes with transparency. As Primary General Partner Cassie Young says, “We regularly remind our portfolio founders that their people are their most important asset and preach the importance of transparent conversations about career pathing—so of course we hold our own team to the same standards!”

However, when I made the leap into VC, I was shocked at how rare this is in our industry. Part of why this problem persists is that there’s just so many types of deep skillsets and behaviors that go into being a good investor. Another part of the problem is that many VCs will say they’re “bad managers”—and let that be their excuse not to become good ones!

So with this article we’re excited to share the Investor Development Guide we’ve built to guide investors along their career development path, plus offer guidance on how to maximize use of this resource. In the sections below, you’ll hear from me as well as investors who’ve successfully used this matrix to get hired, get promoted, and become better managers.

Breaking into VC: How to get hired

Somehow there’s a misconception about VC that seems very hard to quash: That it’s easy work.

What strikes me most about investing is both the breadth and depth of skills required. VCs must be industry experts, relationship builders, savants on finance and business fundamentals, tactical company builders, board members, well-connected sellers, tough negotiators, deep analytical researchers, and star writers. They spend long hours not just in the office but also hitting the pavement building relationships and their personal brand. Plus leadership, communication, and managing up are especially important in this highly abstracted service economy job.

VC is a finance job, but in early stage investing, people with liberal arts backgrounds can be very successful because it’s about research, writing, discovery, building hypotheses about the market and where it’s going, doing interviews with customers, and synthesizing that information better than your peers. That means the relevant backgrounds are more heterogeneous: Union Square Ventures GP Rebecca Kaden, for example, started her career as a journalist, but the skills she built in that role carried over to VC. Sam Toole, now Partner at Primary, was an English major and started multiple non-venture backed companies before moving into tech and investing.

No matter what background you join from, the best way to show you can do the job is to start doing it!

Zach Fredericks, for example, was working as a Group Product Manager at Loadsmart, which helped him become an expert on an area he’s passionate about—Supply Chain—and from there he built a network, created a syndicate called Supply Chain Collective, and proved he could find and fund good companies. Gaby Lorenzi wrote a blog that caught our attention and proved she’s a deep thinker. Jason Shuman, now a General Partner, sourced deals for free for four months in Boston, sending VCs in New York Deals as they didn’t have good coverage there. “I found a way to add value before ever having the job.”

Overall the industry is becoming more specialized, so think about the sector you want to live in and start proving yourself there, not just to founders and investors but also to the customers of those products who can help you learn about the opportunities, challenges, and white spaces.

Tobias Citron, who joined Primary as a MBA intern and then was hired to Senior Associate before being promoted to Principal, says specialization was a big part of getting a foot in the door. “Competition to break into VC is so insane that you really need to stand out, and the only way to do that is by spiking somewhere. You’ll end up disqualifying yourself from a bunch of opportunities because not every VC will be looking for the very thing you spike in, but, hopefully with some VCs, you’ll stand out. That’s way better than being an ok option for everyone but not the best for anyone.”

“Once you’re in the building,” he says, “over-execute and make yourself as indispensable as possible. This means going above and beyond and doing things that aren’t expected but are deeply valued and appreciated. Even if that doesn’t lead to a job at the VC where you intern (maybe because of fund cycle or hiring needs stuff), what you want is advocates. If you do an incredible job and the fund advocates for you to other funds, you’re in a good spot.”

Growing in the job

The first thing you need to know about leveling up in VC is that it will take longer than in other industries. In early stage venture, your efficacy can only really be judged on 10-year cycles—not that you’ll only be promoted on those cycles, but it’s uncommon to be promoted every year or two.

As Tobias says, “I’ve gotten promoted once, from Senior Associate to Principal. When I was promoted, I think I was essentially doing the job already. The promotion should be pretty seamless. You should be picking up the baton with a running start. There are always added expectations and responsibilities when you level up, but if your mindset is to be good at those things and show you can do them before you’re promoted, it makes the decision way easier, and the transition totally painless.”

Here’s where you’ll especially benefit from using the Investor Development Guide. The best thing you can do for yourself is get an honest assessment of where you are now, and how you can grow—whether that’s via education, experience, or exposure.

As Sam shares, “Getting promoted to partner at a VC firm can be a long and often nebulous process because it’s traditionally so focused on returns. But, in early stage venture, this can take a long time. So having the structure of the Investor Development Guide let me understand how I should be spending my time and also helped me judge my progress in the meantime.”

As Gabi Monico shares: “I use the Investor Development Guide to have clear guidelines on the expectations of my role and how I'm tracking compared to those expectations. In addition, it's helpful to know where I need to spend time developing my skills to grow into the next level.”

Start by going through the matrix and self assessing where you stand on each of those areas, citing as many specific examples as you can. Then review with your manager to get their assessment. This way, you’re facilitating an open conversation about what will get you to the next level.

As Tobias puts it: “Every review cycle, I’m reviewing the Investor Development Guide and taking an honest assessment of how I’m doing across different dimensions – sourcing, diligence, portfolio support, specialization, etc. It’s a good reminder to pat yourself on the back for things where you’re strong and to really focus on areas where you can improve. I’ve always looked at the descriptions of the kind of work I should be doing at the next level up (so, if Principal, looking at Partner), and asking myself: how do I get there? What’s the unlock? What would that look like? Where should I expend energy based on where the gulf between where I am now and where I want to be in the future/to get promoted is the widest?”

VCs tend to have less experience in people management, so you need to own your development here: ask for feedback, prove that you really want feedback and take it well, develop mentors within and beyond the firm. You as a direct report can use a template like this Individual Development Plan worksheet to help manage up and get the best feedback from your manager. You could also try asking for postmortem notes about how your manager would have approached something like a pitch different from how you did it, or ask them for an example of what an excellent work product looks like and how your output could look more like that.

Hopefully you’re meeting with your manager weekly, which can easily get into day to day work, but be sure to also carve out time for professional development / big picture advice. This 1:1 meeting structure can help you structure those meetings. Ask questions like “What is one small thing I can do this week to improve?” or “Who does this really well?” to connect your big-picture growth with day-to-day work.

Becoming an investor manager

No one is born knowing how to manage. It takes experience; it takes coaching. The Investor Development Guide and 1:1 agenda can serve as vehicles that hold you accountable to management—and makes the job easier.

As Jason Shuman says: “The matrix helps me be super clear about expectations and creates an open dialogue about where we think people are at versus where they believe they’re at. It helps us create action plans to take them to the next level and helps us create a real path to promotion in a world where title inflation was getting out of control.”

If you’re a good investor, you’re likely good at these competencies. Ask your direct report to do a self assessment and look at where you agree and disagree. If there are big gaps, look at why you’re on a different page. Try to be as objective and data driven as possible. Questions like these can help seed your conversation:

  • What work did you do there that exemplifies that self assessment?
  • How does your work compare to an example of what excellent looks like?
  • How can that gap close through education, experience, and/or exposure?

If your direct report is performing below expectations, it’s important to give immediate, specific feedback to help get them on track. But your employees deserve good feedback all the time! Here are some tips from Jason on how to get specific:

  • Explain the impact and why doing something a certain way matters. Why does it matter? Who’s affected by it? Start with something like, “I mentioned it because”
  • Provide facts: Focus on the behavior, not the person. Focus on data, not interpretation. Instead of blurry words (e.g. good / bad), give very specific examples. Start with something like, “I noticed that”
  • Make the implicit explicit. The people who you are managing can’t read your mind. Even if you think they know what you’re thinking, you need to be clear about it. Overcommunicate.
  • Provide feedback as close to in real-time as possible. Providing feedback to your team members in a timely manner is critical. When it’s fresh on your mind, the person will be more coachable around it as they’ll likely have a better idea of what they were thinking when they decided to do something a certain way or say something in a specific manner. Don’t only tell them it was bad. Share an example of what great looks like or coach them on how else it could have been done.
  • Make time for questions and create a two-way dialogue. You’ll get better buy-in if you joint problem-solve and agree to an action plan to remediate or improve.

Cassie Young points out that these types of open conversations support more honest career trajectory chats, too. “A leveling resource like the Investor Development Guide enables managers and employees to have very concrete professional development conversations and to align on the most important gaps to close for a potential promotion. Moreover, this rubric—and the job requirements it implies—might actually help an employee to realize this is not the right long-term role for them, and that's an okay outcome for us! While it may sound controversial, we are proponents of naming when a role might not be a fit and to be as helpful as possible to employees in helping them determine a longer-term path that better aligns with them individually. We are big believers in talent export, and the guide helps with that just as much as it does with internal development and promotion.”

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