From b-school to a startup (or a VC)

From 1/6-1/8, I co-led the Duke MBA Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club‘s Week-in-Cities networking trip to Silicon Valley. It was a blast! We met with Venrock, NEA, Greylock, DFJ, Canaan, and Harrison Metal. We also met with several well-known start-ups, such as AdMob,, Redbeacon, Five Prime Therapeutics, and Kai Pharma. We then finished off our trip with a visit to Dogpatch Labs, which is run by Polaris Venture Partners. Needless to say, we were busy driving up and down the peninsula, but we had a great time and learned a lot from our hosts. Thank you to all those who hosted us!

Here’s a summary of what I learned:

  1. Leverage your technical skills: You can get a lot more responsibility at an early-stage start-up if you have technical skills (CS/engineering degree or equivalent experience). Without such skills there’s not much for an MBA to do because a really early-stage company is often trying to prove its product and there aren’t many “business” issues to address. Of course, some people are more marketable because they have both a technical background and an MBA.
  2. Consider your risk tolerance: Being part of a start-up from its inception is exciting and could provide a significant upside, but it also posses a great risk if you are relocating from a different city to do so (meaning you don’t have an existing network in the City your moving to) because there’s so much uncertainty with an early-stage start-up; it’s better to join a company that has at least somewhat proved its business model.
  3. Later-stage may be better for MBAs: As an MBA without extensive technical skills, its better to join a company that fits the description of latter half of #2 because such company needs more “business” help- i.e. business development, marketing, product management, etc. Edit: By “Later-stage” I don’t necessarily mean a Series B/C company. I personally like seed-stage companies and plan to join the earliest stage company possible where I can add value. So if that’s a super young company with a solid technology that needs BD help, then sign me up! But for most MBAs with a mountain load of student debt, something a bit more stable and less risky might make more sense.
  4. Build your network: One alumnus told me that he decided to join a large “entrepreneurial” firm in the Bay Area instead of going straight to a start-up because he wanted to build his own network. His logic was that he’d get a lot of inbound interest from start-ups wanting to meet with his company. To him, this was a risk-less way of developing his network and moving closer to the start-up scene. It make sense.

What the VCs said varied a lot more. Some VCs, especially the more senior ones, flat out said that one should not pursue a career in venture capital right of b-school. Some VCs, especially the younger ones, said that one should do all he/she can do to secure a job a VC firm if that’s what they really wanted coming out of b-school. I take both advice with a grain of salt. Obviously, the senior associate who secured his job out of b-school isn’t going to say that getting into VC right after getting an MBA is a bad idea. But here’s what I took away:

  1. Go work for a (big) company like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, Amazon,, eBay…. you get the idea and become responsible for P&L of a product, service, or a division. Build a great reputation for yourself in the industry. Once you’ve established yourself as an expert in a particular area, you can then go and pursue a job in VC.
  2. Go work for a start-up: Not just any start-up, but a good one. Go become very successful and then go work for a VC. Maybe the one that funded your company.
  3. Do a combination of 5 & 6: Go work for a larger company and then transition into a start-up role. Once you’ve been successful at both, go work at a VC.

While I heard different things throughout the trip, I did notice a common theme- an insatiable hunger and drive for success. I’m not talking about greed or obsession for wealth, although that may well have been the case with some of the people I met. What I noticed was a genuine interest and passion for entrepreneurship.

The VCs I met with were passionate about working with start-ups. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. The entrepreneurs I met with were excited about taking the big plunge. Some of them were on their 3rd or 4th start-up.

They all reminded me of what Randy Komisar wrote in his book “The Monk and the Riddle”:

“…I inevitably find personal risks that need to be considered along with the business risks. Personal risks include the risk of working with people you don’t respect; the risk of working for a company whose values are inconsistent with your own; the risk of compromising what’s important; the risk of doing something you don’t care about; and the risk of doing something that fails to express – or even contradicts – who you are.

And then there is the most dangerous risk of all – the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet that you can buy the freedom to do it later.”

I really enjoyed my time out on the west coast and can see myself living there pursuing my entrepreneurial dream. I hope I can secure a great internship out there this summer.

By: Jonathan Lee
Twitter: @hi5at5


One response to “From b-school to a startup (or a VC)

  1. Pingback: How to secure an internship at an Internet start-up without a technical background «

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