On Monday, I will join Brad Burnham and Fred Wilson as an analyst at Union Square Ventures. This is the story of how it happened...
Last September, Marcy popped her head in my office and asked me to come with her to a fundraising meeting with a new group. Being a large and well known program that has been in the asset class 25 years, we tend to see A LOT of groups passing through. And it isn’t just because we’re big… the new funds we see don’t even need that much money... at least not necessarily in the size that we have the capability of putting out. They know we’re sticky money if you meet our bar, which is pretty high. We are committed to the asset class and while its tough to get us to give you money, when we do, we’re in it for the long term.
Anyway, I was pretty busy that day, and almost didn't go, but I know how important it is to have a colleague with you when you see a new group. Sometimes, you need to bounce ideas off of each other and get feedback to really get a good assessment. So I went, and that was the first time I met Brad and Fred--when they were fundraising for Union Square Ventures. Well, actually, it was the first time I met Fred in person. It turns out I had been reading his blog for a while, but, to be honest, I'm reallly bad at associating people with the blogs they write. Had he introduced himself as "A VC" I would have realized it. I'm just as bad with AIM screenames. I kept thinking, "How do I know this guy?" I thought maybe it was just because he looked like Gary Sinese. Only after the meeting when I went back to my Feed Demon did I put two and two together.
There are a lot of "me, too" emerging funds out there. Just as there were too many funds popping up in '99 and '00, there are way too many people out there raising money, and to be honest, all their stories sound the same. If I had a dime for every fund with a few guys with short track records and one or two hits that weren't even really their deals, and portfolios sitting at cost, which makes them top quartile for the vintage... well, you know how it goes.
Brad and Fred were different. They had track records going back over ten years. They had a story--one that made a lot of sense to me. They weren't going to do "chips and routers"... they're were enough people doing that out there. They were going to do applications of interesting technologies--in New York of all places. I remember at the time I was noodling all the blogging going on about the "web as a platform" and I was already convinced that the real money was going to be made building on top of all the infrastructure that had already been laid out. I had also been working on due diligence for Ignition. They, too, were extolling the virtues of consumer services and the new layer of opportunities being created, and I really respect their knowledge and insight. Plus, it all just sounded very reasonable, and I am, if nothing else, a reasonable guy. I like buying into ideas that make sense to someone like me who might not have a degree in electrical engineering.
Very quickly, USV was down to its last $15 million (they were raising 125) and about to close. Marcy and I really liked them and so we fanagled our way back into a window to check out the fund. At the same time, we were going through a strategy review on our philosophy and approach to emerging funds.
I've been joking around that we didn't come through with a commitment, so Brad and Fred spitefully took an analyst instead. The truth is, we liked USV, and want to keep track of them over time, but we don't usually do first time funds for a variety of reasons. I personally never really bought into the "first time fund" idea for people with extensive track records like they had, but there is an added element of risk when you have two people working day in and day out together for the first time. That isn't to say that veteran teams don't tire of each other and break up as well. Partnership dynamics are a tough thing to diligence and probably impossible to predict, so you thoughtfully decide where you want to play and you hope it all works out.
At the same time, as you well know, I was thinking about grad school. I was looking at the future and trying to figure out what was going to be the best route for me going forward. GM was a fantastic experience for me--all eight years of it, but when you're 25, and you're working with one of the best teams of experienced partner level people in the business, there is a limit to how fast and how far you can move up in responsibility.
After meeting with Brad and Fred and doing due diligence, I had continued talking to them about the space. One day, as I was thinking about potential career paths, I dropped Fred a question over e-mail:
"Out of curiousity, what is the profile of the type of candidate a smaller VC firm would look for in an analyst/associate role? What would role would they play in the firm? I'm filling out all these grad school essays and its just making me think about career options from this point forward in general."
Would you consider a one/two year stint as an analyst at Union Square before
going to B School?
If you are interested, let me know
Admittedly, I wasn't really prepared for that. You have to understand what a mainstay GM had been in my life, and while I was still having a great experience there, it was the third time in a couple of months that I had been face to face with the prospect of actually leaving. First was grad school, and second was the possibility of applying for Liz's position at Fordham's career office. I took this one the most seriously, though. Life was trying to tell me something and, once again, I fell into a fantastic opportunity. I have a great track record with random chance. :)
So, Brad, Fred, and I got together and started talking. I think it was beneficial for them to have almost a year of my blogging to help in their initial due diligence. (That's what helped clue me in to the idea that blogging could act as a career tool, as well.) My first interview was like a fourth interview and we went straight into pretty substantive discussion. They were direct, and honest, and I appreciated that.
So we kept talking as they finished their fundraising and, after the holidays, it became obvious that this was all coming to a head. I have to say, they were very thorough in their due diligence. We met again right before they started going through my reference list and that's what sparked this post.
Perhaps Fred will blog more about what they thought they were getting when they hired me, but I doubt it, because I have yet to directly appear on his blog. I did get referred to once, though. That was special... seriously! (He's like a blogging rock star!)
Anyway, I'm looking forward to this new experience. I've been at GM eight years now, four interning in various groups and four fulltime in private equity. When I first started, it came out of a high school internship. We worked for a free lunch, and then, in the summer, I asked to be brought on as a paid intern. I remember getting my offer--a fixed rate per day--and then calculating whether or not that offer was better than my hourly rate in the mailroom of Waterhouse, where I had worked the two previous summers. I was 17, and I was more concerned with money in my pocket than the upside potential of working for the largest corporate pension fund in the country versus the mailroom of a brokerage firm that was being bought out by a Canadian bank. Good thing my offer at GM was better. I might still be in the mailroom. :) Point is, I could have never conceived that all this would lead to where it has brought me up to this point.
That's part of what is exciting about joining Union Square. I have no idea where it will lead me. Perhaps I'll move on to grad school afterwards and come back on a GP track somewhere. Maybe I'll wind up joining a startup, or doing my own. To some extent, my success so far has afforded me a certain amount of predictability and stability in my career relative to a lot of people my age... and I'm very lucky for that. But now, I think its the right time for a shakeup. I thought Stanford was going to be that shakeup, but life has an interesting way of playing bait and switch at key moments.
So, on Monday, I'll start working with Brad and Fred, two people whose accumulated experience I plan to download as much as they'll let me for at least the next two years. Am I nervous? No, not really. I think when you know you're making the right decision, your clarity of vision calms you. Anxious? VERY. I know there will be a ton of things I want to dive into--one of the great things about a small group with a wide open mandate. A group of LPs has given these two professionals (with a hopefully helpful contribution of support from yours truly) a mandate to go forth and make money in the second generation of the web and media convergence. Plus, I'm anxious to prove myself, too. I know they could have had almost anyone and I really want to make them glad they chose me--everyday that I'm there. If this isn't a chance to do something utterly fascinating with my time, then I don't know what is.