Contributed by Joan Xie, Summer Associate at Centzy -- former ffVC Fellow
As a recent college graduate (Georgetown Dec. 2011) with nine months to spare before starting a full-time strategy consulting position in October, I decided to pursue two internships: one at a VC, and one at a seed-stage startup. I first interned with ff Venture Capital, a seed-stage fund in NYC, and then with Centzy (a 4-person ffVC portfolio company where I currently work). This post will cover my impressions of the similarities & differences between working at an early-stage VC vs. a startup.
Getting the job
Having gone through and also having been a part of the recruiting process at ff, I can say that the application process is very competitive. The resume screen considered several factors – such as GPA, work experience, and demonstrated interested in the startup community – and was followed by a multi-round interview process with a mix of quantitative and qualitative questions.
Internships at startups are more abundant, less competitive, but under-publicized. Because startups operate on lean teams, free or low-cost labor is often a welcome addition – especially when the applicant can clearly communicate his / her value-add. However, since few startups have formalized internship programs, it was direct outreach (not application) that opened up these opportunities – you’d be surprised what you can get from a cold email!
Unlike the larger organizations I had worked for in the past, there was no bureaucratic chain-of-command at either firm; I was working directly with the Partner (ffVC) or CEO (Centzy) to complete high-priority projects.
While both firms offered an entrepreneurial setting, Centzy offered a more collegial, laid-back environment where projects were completed on-the-fly and I was encouraged to shape my own role within the company. This aspect of working at a startup is often glamorized; however – for someone used to the clear expectations of better-established institutions, the paradigm shift can be uncomfortable.
ff VC, on the other hand, offered a more structured, professional environment where I had a clearer idea of my responsibilities and had greater access to senior mentorship. My manager emphasized that I should feel free to make suggestions for new initiatives. In practice, because a VC is typically a more developed business with more established processes, it’s harder to have a dramatic impact on the business as a college-level intern.
Overall, I’ve found individuals within the startup community quite willing to entertain out-of-the-blue requests to chat. However, ff VC offered a unique and powerful platform to network as many early-stage companies are interested in getting in front of anyone working at a VC fund, regardless of seniority. Given that, there was a perception of reciprocity involved in the interactions I made.
Centzy has a great location at WeWork labs in Soho alongside numerous other seed-stage startups, which also provides many opportunities to learn from other startups. The network opportunities here are much more peer-to-peer rather than VC-to-startup, and I’ve enjoyed comparing experiences versus simply mining information. That being said, when there’s less ability to reciprocate, outreach to those with busier schedules will usually fall into the email abyss.
Nature of work
As both firms operated on lean structures, I was able to work on different types of projects during both internships. My work at ff was heavily process-driven with a pretty clear idea of what the output should be. Since the goal of a VC is to offer institutionalized support for its portfolio companies, being able to create scalable, easily distributable systems & databases is key. My responsibilities mainly fell into one of three buckets:
- Internal development (e.g. marketing, PR, etc.)
- Due diligence on upcoming investments
- Portfolio company support (e.g. strategic planning, recommending service providers, etc.)
Because Centzy is building an innovative product, there’s not a ton of prior art – as such, the nature of my work has involved more invention / trial-and-error, with a constantly evolving interpretation of the “final product”. Furthermore, there is a ton of focus on execution – which can be challenging when you don’t have complete confidence in what you’re executing on.
My responsibilities at Centzy include everything from building out a computational algorithm for “best value” local services, to assisting with fundraising marketing materials, to optimizing the data collection process.
For those interested in taking a more macro view of trends within the startup world, VC is probably a better fit; for those wanting a hands-on approach working directly with disruptive technologies, consider working for a startup.
From my perspective – as somebody with no prior experience in technology, programming, or startups, I was given a great foundation upon which to learn about the startup community & VC investment criterion at ff. However, I eventually wanted to be part of the creative process, and found a good second home with Centzy’s product, team, and vision.
Editor note: the views & opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the opinions & views of ff Venture Capital.