#OverheardOnWestrek – Tactical tips on how to break into start-ups, big tech and VC

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Jennifer HurfordBy Jennifer Hurford, Harvard Business School Class of 2017

Secretly thankful you didn’t get any of those consulting/banking jobs you felt FOMOed into interviewing for? Here are some tips for getting a job in tech and VC brought to you straight from the mouths of HBS SF alums in big tech, start-ups, clean tech, and VC.

Hopping on a plane to SF and Silicon Valley after the LEAD final, 150+ students got the low-down from alumni at 50+ firms such as Google, Facebook, Wealthfront, Airbnb, Uber, Box, Y Combinator, Andreessen Horowitz, etc…  

I could tell you about who we met with and the major tech trends we discussed but you probably want to know more about the tactical to-dos to break in: 


Surround yourself with people who are doing stuff you think is cool. Meet people outside of your section, outside of HBS, (e.g., at MIT, in Boston, etc.).  Read about a cool company? Use LinkedIn to find someone who can introduce you to someone at the firm. Form strong relationships with faculty. They can be helpful in ways you don’t anticipate and if you build relationships now it makes the interaction much smoother when you connect in the future. [Tactical tip: Think about how you can add value to your professors – do your due diligence and meet with professors who do work in areas you are passionate about.] RCs thinking about next year – adapt your learning at HBS to fit your needs for when you come out.  [Tactical tips: Suggest independent study opportunities where you can add value to your professor’s work and more align your academics with your career goals.]  

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Networking – give first & make yourself relevant 

How to get meetings with people too busy to see you? When you cold email, don’t just ask for time to pick their brain. Offer to share what you’ve learned about a technology, market or industry, suggest how you can help to solve their current pain point(s), and prove you add some unique value to them. [Tactical tips: Emails should be 2 lines long, ask them what kind of bite size projects you could work on, start with what value you can bring to them, attach a document with your investment thesis if relevant.]

Should I do a start-up? I want to but I don’t have an idea… 

Trying to come up with an idea? Go on a “content diet”. Stop consuming the McDonald’s of news: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Hacker News, so you can hear yourself think. The only way you get a good idea is by doing stuff, so try to solve or build something. Show it to people. Let them poke holes in your idea so you can build on it. Strong ideas, weakly held. Ride a wave bigger than you – go for growth trends – a rising tide lifts all boats. If your idea is good you’ll get people to join you. [Tactical tip: look to see what top VC firms have funded recently – management of those start-ups has been vetted and they now have funding.] When picking your co-founder, you should feel like you’re getting a steal. Pick someone in a similar life stage as you, someone from “your tribe” who can feed you and help you become a better version of yourself, but who also provides complementary skills and strengths.

Which start-up should I join?

Check out resources such as “2016 Wealthfront Career-Launching Companies List” and “Breakoutlist.com” for lists of start-ups that are gaining momentum.


It depends. A technical founding team lets you have a quicker feedback loop so you manage the inevitable pivot faster. The business person needs to be adding value right away – often we see the MBA bringing the industry knowledge and insight into the client’s needs, i.e. if you are doing a health insurance start-up, the MBA could bring healthcare industry experience. Leverage an area you know something about. 70% of start-up ideas come out of previous work experiences. Do one in an area where you’ve already had a proven track record of success. Go into something where the odds are higher that you will hit a home run. For those interested in developing technical skills, check out CS50.


While some say it doesn’t matter…others say pick a winning company: “Either build the product or sell it. Everything else is support.” Get close to WFIO (“we’re f**d, it’s over”) moments – stay close to the inner circle so you can gain insight on how founders deal with Apollo 13 moments.

Getting into VC

The jobs straight into VC are limited and many firms are looking for people with start-up experience. However, no job prepares you for VC and VC prepares you for no job. To be a great investor you need 3 things: 1) see deals and know how to decide on deals (investment judgment), 2) win deals, 3) work on deals (how to hire product managers).  There is a trend towards hiring technophiles, younger people who maybe have 10 drones at home. To become that person, try on the role of VP of product – it lets you develop a sharp skill set for coming to VC.

Don’t know what you want to do with your life?

Don’t make a default choice, even if you are feeling lost now. Do the penny trick. Fill a jar with 1 penny for everyday you have left to live – lets say you are 30, and you die at 60. You’ve lived half of your life. You have 10,950 days left. Put $109.5 worth of pennies in a jar and throw one out every day. That will make you feel the burn…the pain of not living your dream. It just might do the trick to nudge you into being intentional about how you make your life choices.

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