It takes serious guts to be a venture capitalist. One must be willing to take enormous risks for uncertain returns. It’s definitely not a stable, clear-cut path. Perhaps this was what drew me to entrepreneurship and venture capital. The idea that you can make it big or lose it all is unnerving but fascinating to me.
I was first introduced to Laconia Capital Group by Peter Wiener, a former manager whom I had worked with at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Laconia Capital Group’s venture capital funds focus on late seed B2B SaaS startups in the Northeastern US with monthly recurring revenues of at least $25,000. Going into the internship, I did not know what to expect. I knew that I wanted to learn more about the business and how venture capitalists evaluated startups, but that was it.
Four months later, I can say that, without a doubt, my internship at Laconia has been nothing short of a phenomenal experience. I have learned so much from Jeff, David, DLee, and Geri. I sat in on pitch meetings, portfolio company strategy calls, and partners’ meetings. I crafted market research for portfolio companies. I wrote investment memos for potential deals. I even helped source potential deals. In fact, the internship never felt like work. Rather, it was more like attending office hours with three extremely intelligent and business savvy professors and one brilliant TA. I probably ask David on average 15 questions a day. Thanks for being super patient and answering all my random questions, David.
As my internship concludes, I have begun to reflect on everything I have learned during my time here. One thing I have realized is that many times, students and working professionals focus too intently on gaining hard, technical skills and overlook the softer skills. There is nothing wrong with learning how to program if you aspire to be a software engineer or learning how to design circuits if you plan to be an electrical engineer. While it is nice to have technical skills, they are not a necessity in the venture capital world or the broader business world. Instead, people should focus more on learning and developing soft skills. These are the skills that become more useful and essential in life. There are three soft skills that I learned and developed over the past few months.
Writing is arguably one of the most important skills to have for any career. It is a way to solidify intangible thoughts and ideas that someone has in his or her head. The process of writing things down can also help identify fallacies in the ideas. Writing is essential to communicating one’s thoughts. Someone can have the next billion-dollar idea, but if he cannot convey that idea to others, then it is meaningless like a check that cannot be cashed.
At Laconia, writing is viewed in the highest regard like how Michelin star chefs view their cooking appliances. Whether it’s responding to emails, crafting investment memos, or writing LP letters, both syntax and grammar are important. At Laconia, I was able to become a better writer and to learn proper business writing, which is very different from academic writing.
Business is built around relationships. In venture capital, successful relationship management can differentiate the professionals from the amateurs. In today’s Facebook Messenger and Instagram society, it is easy to keep in touch, but it is also easy to lose the personal touch. Now more than ever, successful relationship management is critical. It doesn’t take much to stay connected. A follow-up email after an initial meeting or an occasional update is all it takes. As Jeff says, “Follow-up emails should always be sent out within 24 hours.”
Laconia has a seamless relationship management process that I was able to learn and absorb. No email is left unread. No request is left unanswered. No call is left unreturned.
As Laconia went into due diligence with two startups, I was assigned to write investment memos about the companies. Investment memos are essentially Laconia’s version of McKinsey Insights but with more detail and research. Writing investment memos taught me to think critically and holistically about different startups, their value propositions, market fit, competitors, and exit potential. The ability to think critically about any topic or issue is a vital skill. Whether someone is a venture capitalist or an entrepreneur, he or she will face a wide swath of problems with various learning curves. It is impossible to prepare for each problem, so it is important to be able to think outside the box and approach each problem with an unique perspective.
There is a Chinese proverb that says, “It is better to walk 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.” Most classes that students take are not applicable to the real world. School provides students with a foundation, an academic framework of thought. However, it is up to that student to build upon and expand that foundation. Internships are a great opportunity to gain that practical experience. Speaking from experience, I have learned so much from the Laconia internship that I would not have learned at Columbia. Yes, I learned about the B2B SaaS market. Yes, I learned how to construct financial models and read cap tables. But more importantly, I also learned valuable and overlooked soft skills that will stick with me forever. These are the skills that will help me in my future endeavors.
Tony Zheng is a junior at Columbia University studying computer science and psychology with an interest in entrepreneurship, artificial intelligence, and renewable energy. He is involved with the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs and is an avid camper and reader.