Hot Town, Intern in the City

Hot Town, Intern in the City

Late last week, I got asked for advice on how to excel at summer VC internships. As someone who worked as a Spring MBA intern, a summer associate intern, and held a paid, effectively full time internship for another six months – all of which I leveraged three years ago into a FT job – I think I have some credibility when it comes to advice in this realm

In my mind, being a good intern is kind of like being an acoustic solo opening act to a six piece rock band. Everyone leaves the show (or summer) with good vibes & memories – but no one ever thinks much about the opener. If you’re a good summer intern, you’ll learn a bit, make some friends, but little in the way of lasting relationships (and I’ve been a “good” intern many times in college…so I would know). The question every intern needs to ask themselves is: how do I become a great intern?

The challenge with trying to be great as an intern is obvious. You have three months, minimal training, and a light existing network. So if you attempt to punch out of your weight class, it’s hard for anyone to take you seriously – you’re more likely to look outright foolish. Why should you be trusted?

When I was getting into venture, one of my mentors, John Tough, taught me what I consider to be the golden rule of Junior VC: the single greatest asset an experienced VC has is time, and unfortunately, they are mostly (and knowingly) operating on borrowed time. The catch-22 of breaking into venture is that you need to convince a group of people who already have ZERO free time to invest their non-existent free time into training you. It’s a seeming impossibility.

On the first day of my internship back in 2012, I turned to my boss and said “my goal over the next three months is to make your life easier. If I don’t save you time every single day, I’ve failed at my job. That’s what I want you to judge me on.”

Because it became abundantly clear within minutes that my priorities as an intern were genuinely to reduce the burden on the partnership – as opposed to say, just trying to sweet talk execs at fund parties, or try to look cool with entrepreneurs, or whatever – I was increasingly given additional responsibility and my decisions were increasingly respected.

With that of the way, here are my principles for VC internships:

  1. The internship is not about you. It’s about the fund. Every action or decision you make needs to consider: what is my intention here? To benefit myself or benefit the fund? The partnership will recognize that.
  2. Hopefully there will be one partner or senior member that is drawn to you. You will know this because they will either say “X about your background really appealed to me. Why don’t you swing by my office for lunch this week?” or something similar. When you have that opportunity be genuine. There is a beautiful line in a book of Jewish wisdom I study regularly “Ethics of our Fathers” that urges “Make for yourself a mentor/teacher.” It uses the language of “make” rather than “find” specifically because mentorships are a process. Be keenly aware of signs that someone may have an interest in teaching you and latch on to those opportunities.
  3. If you’ve found someone you connect with deeply, request a consistent 15 minute meeting every other week on the calendar. In reality, these meetings get scheduled for 30 minutes anyway, but a 15 minute ask reflects how much you value their time. Where possible, try to have these meetings in the early AM before the day has become too hectic.
  4. VC firms optimize for resourcefulness. You will be asked to review some decks that come in. Don’t shoot from the hip like the majority of people – “I think this will work because X”. Make an accounting of your friends and contacts and where they are in different industries. When something comes in, immediately call your friends to get their feedback on the viability of an idea, or pain point for market participants. Respond with: “I asked a friend who runs an $X business in Y industry about this idea, and she told me that it is/is not a real problem, because:”
  5. When you are included on firm correspondence discussing an investment opportunity and you see a window to provide value in a credible way, do so. For example, both of my in-laws practice medicine in a private practice. Several times during my internship, we looked at HCIT companies selling to small practices. I offered in each case access to my in-laws as diligence. Of course of course other people at the firm also have access to doctors (who doesn’t), but my offer was accepted it reflect my willingness to hustle and be selfless.
  6. Internships are not the time to play politics. Sadly (and I hate this) there are a lot of politics in VC firms. But if you meet people (through friends, parents, or your own outreach) that you think the partners would benefit from meeting, it pays to be selfless. Invite those contacts to the firm office and schedule a meet & greet meeting with your seniors (ideally your mentor). They will appreciate those contacts and your selflessness. Especially in firms where politics (and exclusive relationships) are a regularity, your break from that process will enable you to stand out.
  7. Focus on being a great culture fit. You can never go wrong being positive, happy and optimistic. Most importantly though, you need to be yourself. Find ways to express yourself that are genuine. As most of you know, I love writing. So six months in to my internship, I wrote a reflective piece on all the pitch decks I’d seen. It ended up getting thousands of views and the partnership got great feedback from entrepreneurs and fund LPs who viewed it. That affirmed their decision to have given me increased responsibility and access.
  8. I am torn on the idea of working on a “summer internship project.” On the one hand, I think it’s great to emerge from a summer with a tangible project you can reference for future opportunities. On the other hand, I think it can detract from your overall fund experience and turn you into a mindless, rat-racing researcher as opposed to an integrated member of the fund.  This is one, that imo, you need to feel out. If you do choose to work on a research project, try to ensure its actively relevant to the fund, not busy work. I would even advocate that it become a market map on a fund thesis, where you get the opportunity to engage with each of the companies you find relevant to a firm’s thesis. Entrepreneurs LOVE people (no matter how junior) who obsess over their markets the same way they do and its imperative that you communicate to your senior partner that your presence will be highly value-additive to those discussions.

I hope these eight points are helpful to everyone starting/getting going in a VC internship this summer. It is an amazing industry, but one that is extraordinarily competitive and demands heavy focus to break through the noise and become an outlier. I’m hopeful these nine tools will point you on the right path. Hit the comments if you have other specific questions.

About the author

Ezra Galston
Ezra Galston

Consumer focused hustling @Chicago Ventures, Young Entrepreneur @Foundation Capital, Class 18 @Kauffman Fellow, and Chicago Booth MBA. Former professional poker player, with 4 years experience doing marketing/biz dev in the online gaming industry. Launched a "poker hedge fund" in 2011, a record label in College, and produced a festival screened short film in 2006.

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