As someone who has worked and searched for roles within the VC industry, a common piece of advice I’m often asked, and ask others, is how to initiate useful introductions. Fortunately, there are a range of guides, scripts, and tactics out there to help, from the pragmatic to the cringe-worthy.
But to flip this around, something that once caught me off guard was the “reverse cold call.”
What do you do when a VIP-type investor gets in touch with you directly? Seems like a great situation, right? Well, of course, it’s a fantastic opportunity, but one that requires a different kind of tact.
In my case, about a year ago, a GP at a renowned fund in my market reached out cold on LinkedIn after reading an article I’d written related to VC. In essence, this is why people write online: For lead generation. This works across the full spectrum of meeting like-minded contacts, up to sales and deal flow prospecting.
The GP’s message was brief, expressing enjoyment for the article and with an invitation to meet. From my perspective, this was an awesome chance to pick the brains of a successful VC and see if there was a way to assist the firm.
What I did
I responded relatively promptly and cogently by agreeing to meet. I decided not to ask clarification of what the objective for the meeting was, my rationale being that such questions may ruin the whole serendipity of the encounter. More on that later.
After some back and forth, a time was set. In the interim I read up more about the partner, the firm and its history. My process for this was:
— Crunchbase deepdive
— Figuring out the org chart
— Podcasts and video interviews to gauge personality
— Articles about firm milestones
— Views on sectors we’re both involved with
In the end, I went in and we chatted for an hour, mostly about my piece and the motivations for writing it, followed by wider topics about our histories and industry views. It was a congenial and laid-back affair that did not have an interview “vibe.” I sensed that I was being qualified for my credentials, based on a curiosity to know who this random person was and how he conducts analysis.
Subsequently, I was invited back to observe a wider team meeting and then later attend a conference. There were discussions about roles (“Not hiring at the moment”) and working on side projects that they had, which began in earnest, then ultimately petered out.
Fast-forward a year later and a friend mentioned a similar situation that she was having, which prompted me to reflect upon this experience.
1. Never be Ambiguous
Looking at it now, at the time of the meeting, my sincere goal was to give myself the opportunity to work for the firm; it would have been a huge chance.
I intimated this during our conversation, but not directly enough, as I was engaged with other work at the time and felt that my fortunes would be better served by demonstrating capability based on what was projected through my written work.
In hindsight, this approach was too proud and stoic. I could have served myself better by:
— Initially seeking more clarification about the motivations to meet, or on a more softer level: A proposed agenda
— Focusing more on the GP’s fund-level issues, instead of wider macro-industry ones
— Probing for relevant external introductions. This does not make you seem like you’re fishing for absolutely anything, which is what I’d assumed
— Asking more directly for advice. People love to give advice
2. Don’t Put People on Pedestals
There is a natural tendency to be deferential towards successful people. Thinking about this anthropologically, this is typically based on their past actions. Yet, people maintain success by continuing it into an unknown future, one where they will always have to challenge established assumptions.
Successful people can also be surrounded by sycophants, which affects their confirmation bias and increases the weight of responsibility on their shoulders. The best are aware of this and welcome informed contrarianism.
Treat the VIP like a normal person. I’m not saying go in, put your feet on their desk and destroy their portfolio. But talk normally as you would a peer, giving method to your views.
I think this is one area that I didn’t fall down on, but the corollary of this approach is being arrogant or aloof, which is one way to get a meeting to awkwardly end early.
3. Figure Out What Their Problem Is
Not having any agency (be it carry, mutual investments, or even personal ties) makes you an interesting connection for a VIP GP. What keeps them up at night may be revealed obviously, or may be inferred through what they discuss candidly. Figure out a way to solve them, but don’t go and claim it as “homework,” as it won’t feel genuine.
Frame their problem within your world and how it’s correlated to your own intellectual curiosity, and/or work. In my case, this side-project was tangentially related to previous work that I’d done at a fund, so it seemed like a natural idea to explore further.
4. Play the Long Game
I’m convinced that most interesting career opportunities come from chance encounters and chains of events. We have a tendency to play this down, as waiting for an unannounced phone call is less systematic than the instant progress gratification of shooting off an email.
In my case, what started as a cold meeting may still have a butterfly effect that will only become obvious years down the line. Don’t be pushy or try to put your agenda out there, instead seek to solve other people’s problems and make your input irreplaceable.
I went into the meeting hoping that a path forward would emerge in an obvious manner. When it didn’t, it left me stumped. I should have prepared myself better for this.
5. Be Consistent with What Got You There
However you got in the room – be it an article, a connection, or reputation – should give you reassurance that your presence is warranted and you’re not a charity case.
But don’t try and be something you are not, and respect the link that got you there. It might appear tenuous trying to bridge the gap from supporting the same sports team to discussing power law theory, but if it is to be, it will be.
6. Instigate Reasons to Keep in Touch
The side project that emerged was delegated to another team member, which meant there was no firm agenda for the GP and I to touch base regularly on. Failing to establish this was a mistake.
As with anyone you meet professionally, they are not obligated to you in any way and may feel unnerved by responsibilities being placed on them. In my case, I should have asked for soft timescales to keep in touch and update one another about our respective situations.
7. Adapt Towards Other Team Members
You might not get the same kind of positive initial responses from other members in the firm that the GP subsequently introduces you to. They will have their own agenda and just having a warm referral from the GP won’t give them much to go off, along with potential weariness of being handed over someone.
Be aware of the firm’s hierarchy buckets and what kind of issues the team member might be facing. Think about them, the GP, and yourself as a triangle and where your actions can benefit everyone simultaneously.
7. The Rules of Karma
Something that I respected was the GPs comments about regularly engaging with people outside of warm referrals. A lot is said about the pros and cons of these, so to hear someone say that they like to break away from this system showed that the best still challenge the norms.
Everyone gets random cold LinkedIn, Twitter, and email messages. Sometimes they are ill-defined, or just needy spray and prays. But whenever someone reaches out to me sincerely, I will always engage with them. What goes around will inevitably come around.
Ambition ≠ Desperation
It would be masochistic to say that I got nothing out of the experience, just because I wasn’t instantly offered an amazing role. With reflection, I got to spar with a renowned investor and observe how their fund worked internally. This helped me improve within my current role, improve how I appraise people and deals, and inspired a ton of ideas to write about.
Under the gaze of reflection though, the experience demonstrated that it’s vital to be clear about your goals. It’s not desperate to have ambition, but it’s not the responsibility of others to help you achieve it. If the door opens to you because of something you have done before, keep doing the same thing and you will keep demonstrating value. But if you are too scared to jump off the fence, you might find yourself waiting a while longer.
Alex Graham is a London-based CFA charter holder who has had a global career across investment management and strategy consulting. At present, he works as a consultant through Toptal for VC funds and startups, engaged across thesis writing, market sizing, financial modeling, and budget construction. His career began at Investec Bank and following an MBA at IE Business School, then continued in Colombia at a scale-up consultancy and working for a local VC seed fund.