One common question I get is, “Should I start in private equity rather than doing 2-3 years of banking first? And if so, how exactly do I break into private equity or hedge funds right out of undergraduate?”
The first question is actually trickier to answer, and you can read all about the trade-offs right here.
But I have an easy answer for you on the second one: read this interview with a reader who broke into private equity right out of undergraduate, without any prior investment banking or private equity internships.
Q: Why don’t you start by walking us through your background and what you were up against when it came time for full-time recruiting?
A: Sure. I was from a “target school,” so I certainly had an advantage in that banks actually recruited there. However, I was also at a big disadvantage because:
- My GPA was not spectacular and as a result most banks didn’t even look at me.
- I had no investment banking or private equity summer internships.
- My school had no Economics or Finance concentration, so on paper I didn’t look qualified.
I only got 1 summer internship first-round interview, and when it came time for full-time recruiting I applied to over 100 jobs and only got 2 first-round interviews – neither of which led anywhere.
Q: Wow. So what did you do during your junior year summer if you couldn’t find an investment banking internship?
A: I found an internship at a small VC firm, outside the US in another region of the world – I had some family and friends there, so effectively I got it through my own connections.
Q: Ok, that sounds pretty good. I mean, a VC internship is certainly better than nothing… did bankers just not care about it?
A: Pretty much. I couldn’t write “Investment Banking Summer Analyst” on my resume, so bankers didn’t take me seriously – and to make things even worse, it wasn’t even a brand-name firm.
I tried to spin it as best I could, but banks wanted people who had done banking before.
Q: So no internships and then no full-time offers… what was your next move?
A: Studying abroad in Europe for the next semester, of course!
I was out of the country for the next few months on a study-abroad program, after full-time recruiting was over – so I was set to graduate and come back to the US with nothing at all lined up.
Networking: Top-Down, Business Cards and… Business Cards?
Q: Ok, so I’m guessing that you had to do a lot of networking in this situation. Had you done much before you left for the study-abroad program?
A: I had been going to some informational interviews, and I went to a bunch of recruiting events at my school. I knew that I had to be aggressive with getting business cards and following up with people, so I collected around 40 cards and always wrote about the people I met in my cover letters.
But that didn’t work too well, since I only got 2 full-time interviews.
M&I Note: See, no one reads cover letters… for the last time.
Q: Ok. So you went off to Europe and indulged in some models and bottles while taking a break from recruiting.
How did you get back into the swing of things, and did you do any networking before you arrived back in the US?
A: I took some time off at the start of the year, and then in the winter I started ramping up my networking efforts once again.
I created an Excel file of anyone even remotely related to investment banking and started emailing them asking for advice. I also continued applying for jobs, but overall it was hard to get anyone on the phone when I was on the other side of the world.
Q: So you have your list of names in Excel, and you’re doing some networking while in Europe… or at least trying to. Where did you get these names from?
A: At first it was just friends and family – I started with those I knew best, and took it from there.
The response rate from friends and family was not spectacular, so when I came back to the US in the summer I started moving toward my alumni networking instead.
A lot of alumni were “nice,” but many of those contacts didn’t go anywhere either, so I continued using both sources throughout the process.
Q: Let’s talk about that transition back to the US. What did you do after you arrived back from your trip to Europe?
A: I woke up every day and just sat on the computer and called people all day long. It was a mix of cold-calling, reaching out via email and going through referrals.
I was constantly going downtown (M&I Note: This was not downtown Manhattan – it was another, smaller financial center) and talking to people in equity research, investment banking, private wealth management, and institutional asset management – I was at the point where I didn’t care what I got in finance, as long as I could find something relevant.
Networking Tactics: Nuts & Bolts
Q: So you used a combination of informational interviews and cold-calls and to spread your net wide when reaching out to your contacts.
Now let’s talk about your tactics – what did you actually say to alumni when emailing them?
A: Most of the time I just asked for advice – “I’m so-and-so and graduated from ________ recently, I’m looking for a job in __________ now and wanted to get your advice on what I should be doing.”
When we met in-person, some people were very direct – they would just say, “Ok, so what do you want me to do exactly?” whereas with others it was more of a relationship and they seemed interested in getting to know me.
Q: Ok, so you asked them for advice and met with many of them in-person… what about follow-up? I get a lot of questions about how to follow-up and how often to do it. What was your approach?
A: I just emailed everyone after meeting or speaking with them the first time – but I didn’t stay in touch with every single person I met on an ongoing basis.
My approach was simple: if I needed to stay in touch with people, I did – otherwise I didn’t feel obligated to send anything.
Some people were more open than others, had more contacts to share, or had more advice for me… so I gravitated toward them and sent follow-up questions and requests when I had them.
When I finally landed my offer, I also emailed everyone responsible and thanked them for everything.
Q: You also mentioned cold-calling. Can you walk us through what you did there?
A: It was a devastating process, and I hit rock-bottom multiple times.
I focused my cold-calling efforts on Equity Research Analysts – since they don’t get contacted as much as investment bankers do, cold-calling was more effective.
I created a list of around 50 research analysts in my city by looking online and searching for the appropriate industries, and just started calling the firms and asking to speak directly to the analysts.
If I called 50, I found that 45 would not pick up at all, 5 would agree to speak with me and then 1 would agree to meet in-person. One of them actually asked me to create a sample research report for him and deliver it for our meeting!
The odds are definitely against you when you’re cold-calling, and there’s not much you can do about it – aside from getting the basics right, it’s all about brute force.
M&I Note: While this is true, keep in mind the corollary as well: all it takes is one. Much like becoming a celebrity or starting a business, networking is very, very random but all you need is 1 grand slam to propel you to success.
Q: You mentioned speaking with the analysts themselves, but how did you actually get in touch with them? Most people have trouble getting past the gatekeepers when cold-calling.
A: If I didn’t have their direct contact information, I would call HR and ask to be put in touch with someone in equity research close to my age, or from my school.
This would probably not work as well in investment banking since more people apply each year – but it was effective for equity research, asset management, and private wealth management.
Whither Private Equity?
Q: So you were doing a ton of networking, thinking about all these different industries – and ultimately you won that offer in private equity.
But you haven’t mentioned private equity at all yet – how did it happen? Did you just wake up one morning with an offer letter under your pillow?
A: I wish. I had truly hit rock-bottom 2.5 months before getting the offer, and no longer felt like talking to anyone or doing any networking. But then I got lucky and suddenly all my efforts paid off.
The 200th person I contacted while networking – a commercial banker – had given me some advice and put me in touch with a few other people.
Then one night he went to dinner with another friend of his, a Director in the Private Equity group of an investment bank – and he mentioned my name to the Director and said I was a good guy.
I got the intro because I had done so much networking and met so many people that my contacts started doing the work for me.
Q: Wow. So you just got referred to a private equity interview like that – what was the process like? Were you competing against “normal” people as well?
A: Yup. The interview process took about 2 months, and the whole time I was competing against experienced bankers and equity research guys who wanted to move into PE as well.
Most of the interviews were behavioral, and by this point I had gotten really good at those. For a lot of questions I didn’t even have to think before responding – I had been through so many interviews and informational interviews that the process was just mechanical.
Q: Right, that’s definitely another advantage of networking. But I’m sure they had some concerns about you since you had no full-time work experience – what were the biggest obstacles you faced?
A: The whole time, they liked my personality but doubted whether or not I could do the work.
I was up against investment bankers and equity research associates, so they had a lot less to prove than I did.
But I continued to perform well, and eventually we got to a point where they had to make a decision and give an offer to one of the remaining candidates.
Q: So what did this final challenge consist of? Moving boulders uphill? Catching fish with your bare hands? Opening a gateway to a parallel universe?
A: It was much simpler: they wanted me to spend 3 hours writing a 1-page memo recommending either Coke or Pepsi for investment.
I didn’t get a “formal” case study with an LBO model and valuation, or anything like that – I did use some numbers in my analysis, but it was qualitative and more about coherently presenting the merits and risks of an investment.
I submitted it over the weekend, and found out about my offer on Monday.
Q: That’s amazing. So how did you beat all these experienced bankers for the job?
A: I found that enthusiasm and excitement were the most underrated factors.
A lot of the guys I was competing against were clearly burned out and not enthusiastic at all about getting another job in finance – and that’s where I beat them.
People like to obsess over technical skills and trivia about obscure tax laws, but when you start working you’ll forget all that and you’ll have to look it up anyway… and financial modeling is not rocket science, you can pick it up as you go along.
Q: So you went from sub-par grades, no summer internships, no full-time offers, and no longer even being a student to a full-time private equity offer. Anything you would have done differently?
I should have done all the in-person networking I did in later months much sooner.
Having good grades and solid internships certainly helps, and if mine had been better I would have had an easier time – but networking is actually more important than either of those, because hardly anyone does it.
Students especially like to sit in their comfort zones, sit around applying online, and trying to get perfect grades when they should be out there pounding the pavement from day 1.
Q: Awesome, thanks for your time and good luck with your PE offer.
A: Sure thing, anytime.