What Should I Be Gunning For?

Leverage is the north star to succeed in the early years of VC.

Venture Upward is a field guide for surviving, getting ahead, and succeeding as a venture capitalist. Created by David Beisel (@davidbeisel) and Rob Go (@robgo), it's written for non-partner VCs working their way through the ranks.

As a non-partner VC investor, when career progression looks like doing more and more of the same, it isn’t obvious what the north star should be.  Of course, the idea is to source, select, and win the next exceptional investment… and to get credit for it.  How do you build a road to get there?  The foundation for a successful VC path is to build leverage within and outside of your partnership that buys you more time to stay in the VC race and attach your name to success.  Leverage is accumulating tangible accomplishments and perception milestones that would make your hypothetical departure from the firm a detriment.

First, there is building internal firm leverage by becoming perceived as an invaluable contributor in most or all of the five functions of a venture capital role.  It’s incumbent to build an internal reputation not only by adding to the partnership, but also by doing so in a way that’s differentiated from your colleagues.  Instead of just being responsive and supportive, you can proactively offer to help on initiatives you’re not obviously a part of.  For dealflow, you can cultivate a unique set of sources that are absent from your peers or even superiors.  Add to internal deliberations and discussions by developing expertise in a domain which your colleagues aren’t focused on but could be important to the firm’s activities.  With portfolio companies, you can source & place talent and share job postings.  And with LPs, you can always volunteer for grunt work. To synthesize, you’re not just helping… you’re doing so in a way that others aren’t, aren’t willing to, or perhaps even can’t.

This leverage idea extends externally by making it apparent to outsiders (including firms who could hire you) that you are valuable to your partnership and could potentially be to theirs.  That means becoming known for something, recognized in the venture community that you have a unique deal flow, and that flow is portable if need be.  Additionally, you should aim to attach your name to specific investments — whether that’s sourcing them, working on them directly during diligence, serving as board observer, or eventually serving as a board member.  The more specific and tangible your role, the better.  These exploits all become external leverage because they’re what LPs pay attention to.  Investors in venture funds want the same individuals and arrangements for what has worked in the past doing so in the future.  Accumulating these personal milestones builds leverage with your firm, whether or not you have direct relationships with LPs, because during any fundraising process many of them will diligence around attribution.  So subtly but not crassly leaving digital breadcrumbs (e.g. board observer status on LinkedIn, a “why we invested” in this startup blog post, or “how I met” this founder tweetstorm) about these achievements helps solidify the accomplishments looking in as an outsider.

If you gun for leverage as your input, the output rewards will follow — salary, title, carry, “check-writing,” etc.  Developing real leverage necessitates that your firm will need to reward you, as the senior partners will increasingly want to ensure that you don’t leave for a competing firm.  If you instead directly seek the specific output rewards first, they may come and perhaps even more quickly, but not necessarily on a solid foundation for an enduring seat to stay in venture.  True leverage gives you more time for success to blossom with the investments you’re involved.