by Brian DeChesare Comments (153)

Why Private Equity?

Why Private Equity?
Man in white and question marks above head..

So you’ve made it through your first 6 months in banking alive. Your waist is bigger from all those tiramisu desserts, but luckily your bank account has gotten even fatter than your stomach.

And your bank account is set to get even fatter in the future – if you can successfully break into private equity.

While you know about the case studies and modeling tests you’ll get and the deals you’ll have to discuss, you haven’t put any thought into the “Why private equity?” question.

Which is a problem – because the last thing PE guys want is a banker or consultant who wants to do PE simply because he/she hates banking or consulting or because everyone else doing it.

Why Does This Matter?

While PE firms want people who are technically proficient (one reason why consultants face a more difficult time getting in, at least in the US), fit is even more important than in banking because firms are an order of magnitude smaller.

Whereas the top banks have tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of employees, the biggest PE firms in the world only have a few hundred – and there are thousands of PE firms with fewer than 10.

Unlike banks, private equity firms have no need to hire an army of analysts to do grunt work: they’re not creating pitch books and competing for sell-side, buy-side, and financing mandates all day, and if they’re understaffed they can say “no” to potential investments.

The interview process can also be much more of an extended affair in PE, with many firms below the mega-fund level conducting interviews over months rather than the days or weeks you see in banking (the mega-funds do it much more quickly).

As a result, fit is critical and if the Partners doubt your motivations for wanting to do PE, they won’t give you an offer.

What NOT to Say

As with some other interview questions, there’s a temptation to say something stupid in response to “Why private equity?”:

  • “I don’t like the hours in banking, and I want a better lifestyle.”
  • “You can make much more money in PE because you’re an investor rather than an advisor!”
  • “Well… all my friends are doing it!”
  • “I want to control companies rather than taking orders from my MD all day.”

I doubt you would say anything this bad in a real interview, but your actual answer may not be significantly better, either.

All the reasons above are bad answers, for different reasons:

  • While the lifestyle may be a bit better at smaller firms, it’s still far from a 9-5 job. And at mega-funds it’s banking all over again.
  • The pay is also not that much better, especially when you first start. Yes, Steve Schwarzman makes more than any MD in banking but he’s also the Co-Founder of the best-known and oldest PE firm in the world, with 30+ years of experience.
  • If you want to become an investor, you want to demonstrate independent thought as opposed to following what all your friends are doing.
  • You don’t “control” companies as an analyst or associate, you manipulate spreadsheets.

In short, any variant of “I don’t like my current job and PE would be better because [Insert Reason Here]” is bad because it’s too negative.

And anything where you sound like you expect to conquer the world and become a trillionaire also sounds bad because it shows that you don’t have a clue about how the industry works.

PE: The Promised Land? Fact and Fiction…

You might have had dreams of becoming a baller at KKR or Blackstone making $100 million per year, but you should pinch yourself and wake up since that will never happen.

I often group IB and PE together on this site because the work is not much different.

If you don’t like Excel, if you think EBITDA is boring, or if you have no interest in analyzing financial statements or reading about different companies, you should stop right now and do something more creative like advertising instead (I hear Don Draper is hiring…).

There are advantages and your role differs from what you do in banking, but if you fundamentally do not like analyzing and valuing companies, you’re going to hate it.

You do get more responsibility at certain firms, sometimes you’ll get to observe Boards of Directors and sit in on meetings, and you don’t get the stupid fix-the-printer-and-fetch-coffee tasks that you see in banking.

But please do not assume that it’s a night-and-day difference just because a bunch of 22-year old students in your finance club say it is.

Better Answers to “Why PE?”

To answer this question successfully, you need to avoid the clichés above and point out positive differences between PE and banking or between PE and whatever you’re moving in from (consulting, corporate development, etc.).

But you need to do that by highlighting what you’re looking for rather than what you don’t like about your current job.

Examples of solid reasons:

  • You want to work with companies over the long-term instead of just on a single deal.
  • You want to get exposed to the operations of companies and understand all aspects rather than just the financial ones (note: “exposed to,” not “control” or “improve”).
  • You want to contribute to companies’ growth by looking at add-on acquisitions and other expansion opportunities that only an investor would be able to execute.
  • You see yourself as an investor in the long-term, and want to learn all aspects of the process and how to evaluate whether a company can deliver solid returns.

It’s not “wrong” to make a direct comparison between PE and other fields (see the first 2 reasons) but you always want to downplay the negative part.

Ideally, you’ll tie the investments a PE firm makes to what you’ve done previously in school or work:

  • The engineer-turned-banker has a much better story to tell if he recruits for a tech PE firm or growth equity firm and explains how he’s interested in applying his knowledge of IT and finance to investing in IT companies.
  • If you’ve worked in Restructuring or Distressed M&A, you have a much better story if you recruit for a firm that specializes in turnarounds or distressed investments.
  • If you’ve done consulting for restaurants or food chains, you’ll have a much better story to tell when you recruit for a PE firm that specializes in those types of investments, or even in the consumer sector as a whole.
  • If you’ve done corporate development at a media or broadcasting company, you’ll have a much better story to tell when you interview with Bono at Elevation Partners.

The exact reasons depend on your background and where you’ve worked before, but you should combine these points – industry / company / deal focus + investing and working with companies in the long-term – to frame your answer:

  • The banker would talk about how he wants to work with companies over the long-term and learn how to assess whether they can deliver solid returns so that he can become an investor in the future.
  • The consultant would talk about how he wants to learn both the financial and the operational aspects of companies, and how he wants to be involved with decisions that a company implements rather than just recommendations.
  • The corporate development guy/girl would talk about how he/she wants the opportunity to work with all different types of companies in the market rather than just one.

It’s not rocket science: highlight the positive differences between PE and your current field and why you’re interested in pursuing them as you transition into becoming an investor yourself.

If you’re coming from a banking or consulting background, you may get questions about PE vs. other exit opportunities:

Why PE Over VC?

If the PE firm you’re interviewing with asks you this one, say that VC is too far in the operational direction for you, and how you feel it’s more about predicting the next Google/Facebook/Zynga than analytical reasoning.

You prefer PE because it’s a blend of both operations and finance and because you can help Founders with well-established businesses make them even better via solid analysis and research rather than just guesswork.

And, of course, if you’re interviewing for VC you want to take the opposite position and say that PE is all about financial engineering with little value-add and that you can truly help early-stage companies take off because they’re more in need of help than established ones.

Why PE Over Hedge Funds?

This one is harder to answer because there are so many types of hedge funds and the strategies used and the fund sizes can make for completely different experiences.

But the main difference between most hedge funds and most PE firms is that in PE you invest in entire companies (at least, in developed markets) whereas at hedge funds you make much smaller investments and it’s often closer to trading.

You prefer PE because you want to understand how entire businesses work – at a hedge fund you would only get the financial aspect and your skill set would be more limited.

Why PE Over Corporate Development?

This one also has a more subtle distinction: the main difference is that in PE you look at all sorts of different investment opportunities and companies, whereas in corporate development the scope is more limited and you’re always looking at deals and partnerships for your own company.

So that’s exactly what you say in your answer: you want to gain a broader horizon and work in industries and sub-industries outside your own.

You’re more likely to get this type of question if you’re already in a corporate development role and you’re moving into PE – as a banker or consultant it’s not terribly likely unless you say you’re also interviewing for corporate development jobs (um, don’t do that).

Is Any of This True?

I mentioned above that many of the myths about PE (becoming a baller making $100M USD at age 25, buying countries, and surpassing deities) are untrue.

For all these “Why PE” examples I’ve been referencing the mix of operational and financial work and working with companies over the long-haul – so you might rightfully wonder if any of that is true.

It’s somewhere in between: some firms do focus more on add-on acquisitions and operational improvements, whereas others really are just about financial engineering and using as much debt as possible to boost returns.

Even if the firm you’re interviewing with is more focused on finance, though, you will still learn more about operations because you do a ton of due diligence before you actually invest (in banking you mostly just send these documents to other parties).

Unless you start or work at a real company, you’ll never learn the ins and outs of how it “really” works, but you will at least learn more than you would as a banker – so it’s more true than the bad “Why PE?” answers in the beginning.

Why PE?

Hopefully not because you have delusions of grandeur and you’re planning out which beach in Thailand you’ll buy with your first $10 million.

Focus on the positive differences, link your reasons to your background and long-term goals (just like with the “Why investment banking?” question), and don’t fall prey to any of the bad answers about pay or lifestyle.

For Further Reading

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About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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How to Break Into Finance as a Consultant

How to Break Into Finance as a Consultant

I’m not gonna lie: I haven’t treated consultants very well before – and even though that infamous Leveraged Sellout video is ancient history by now, it still pops into my head whenever I get questions from consultants.

But despite that, I still do get lots of questions from consultants on how to move into the world of finance, mostly to investment banks and private equity firms.

In some ways, you’re in a better position than engineers, lawyers, or accountants trying to break in – but the bad news is that a lot of bankers don’t like consultants.

So here’s what you do to get around that and break into finance:

What You’re Up Against

Just to recap what you’re up against vs. other professions moving into finance:

  • Engineers: They are great at math, but can they talk to people and work a lot more than they would at Google or Facebook?
  • Lawyers: They can put up with sociopaths and work 100 hours per week, but can they count?
  • Accountants: They know accounting and Excel, but are they hungry enough to work without sleep for days at a time?
  • Liberal Arts Majors: They can communicate, but can they crunch numbers and burn the midnight oil?

As a consultant, here’s your challenge:

“I know you can work with clients and that you understand the business world. But can you build an LBO model? Do you have any discernable skills? And are you prepared to work true banker hours?”

So it’s a combination of what lawyers and accountants face, with some extra prejudice thrown in since many bankers don’t take consultants seriously – especially if you’re an IT or HR consultant rather than a management consultant.

What Will Help You

But you do have a few things working in your favor:

  • You “get it” – you’re not some engineer with no business experience who doesn’t understand how to work with and manage clients.
  • If you’re working at a top firm (MBB), you have a prestigious name that all bankers recognize.
  • Better networking opportunities than an undergraduate – Partners are well-connected, and your clients might be investment banks.

Your Story

Just take the story-telling tutorial and template here and apply it to your own situation.

Here’s a sketch of what you might say:

“I was really interested in business and advising companies on major strategic decisions, so after graduating from [University / Business School Name], I decided to take an offer at [Consulting Firm]. I’ve done well there and have gotten good reviews, but I also realized that what I did as a consultant was rarely implemented by clients.

I had worked on a few M&A and due diligence-related projects, and realized that in [investment banking / private equity] you have much more of an impact on the company you’re working with – and I was more interested in modeling and valuation than in qualitative work.”

That is just a sketch of the basic idea – you would expand on that in interviews.

If you’re moving in from something less business-related – like IT or HR consulting – then you should also include something about wanting to see the trees for the forest and understand the business at a much higher level.

Point to specific clients or cases you worked on and the finance-related analysis you did that made you more interested in finance.

“I worked with a $50B telecom company in its restructuring process and learned about what management considers when it decides to declare bankruptcy rather than restructure its debt – and I got to assist bankers with analyzing the best debt structure going forward” sounds much better than just saying you think financial modeling is cool.

And before you mention it, yes, I know that common stereotype of consultants’ advice not being implemented is not necessarily true.

Plenty of work you do as a banker never sees the light of day, either, and it’s even worse in PE.

But what matters here is perception, not reality – and financiers like to think of themselves as shaping industries and companies and “having a really significant impact” (even if they don’t get home by 7:15).

Networking

So you have your story… now how do you pound the pavement and make sure someone actually hears it?

I’m not going to repeat the dozens of tutorials on networking, informational interviews, weekend trips, cold-calling, and so on because those still apply if you’re a consultant moving into finance.

The main differences lie on the sourcing side – where you find names in the first place:

  1. You have access to an additional “alumni” network – from your consulting firm. Leverage it and contact everyone who now works in finance.
  2. Partners at consulting firms are very well-connected and will know bankers. Don’t be shy about asking, especially since you’re expected to move elsewhere after working in (management) consulting.
  3. You could move to a finance-related group at your firm, or go to a banking or PE group that has overlap with your background (e.g. if you consulted with energy companies, you could target oil & gas groups).

Those 3 represent a big advantage over anyone else who’s moving into finance.

You could still cold call rather than using the strategies above, but don’t start there unless you are targeting boutiques and have absolutely no connections (unlikely).

Should you focus on boutiques rather than bulge brackets?

That may improve your odds, but it may not be necessary depending on how well-connected your firm is: if you can contact bulge bracket bankers, at least give that a shot.

Finance-Specific Consulting Firms?

Similar to industry-focused investment banks, there are also industry-focused consulting firms.

So it must help to go to a place like Oliver Wyman that is well-known for financial services consulting rather than a firm that does everything, right?

If you have the choice between 2 smaller or 2 specialized firms, yes, go for one that has the financial focus.

But don’t pick a finance-specific firm over McKinsey (or Bain, or BCG) just because you get to work with more finance companies – brand name makes far more of a difference if you’re breaking into banking or PE.

Resume/CV Spinning

You have it easier with your resume/CV than an engineer because at least you’ve worked with clients before and can point to specific projects and “deals.”

Click here to download the “Experienced” resume template and view the tutorial, and then make the 3-4 most relevant clients you’ve worked with into separate “Project” entries.

Your main challenge will be spinning what you did into sounding relevant to finance:

  • If you worked on anything related to due diligence, M&A, or capital markets, obviously list that and hype it up.
  • If you don’t have anything directly related, take what you have and highlight the quantitative work you did rather than the qualitative side. Numbers and dollar/Euro/other currency figures are good.
  • Even if you have not worked with financial statements, you can highlight market-sizing analysis, cost analysis, or anything that involves numbers.

And remember the golden rules of spinning: re-adjust the focus, magnify small details, and omit facts that do not make you look good.

If you write something like this:

  • “Worked with Fortune 500 Company to analyze hiring and retention strategy for sales force and make recommendations that improved retention by 50% by better aligning incentives, target customers, and sales rep performance.”

That might be a good bullet for consulting jobs – you have a specific number and your recommendations were even implemented by the company.

But for finance you should write the following instead:

  • “Worked with Fortune 500 Company to boost revenue and profitability by improving sales rep productivity and revenue per sales rep and by reducing G&A costs associated with sales force hiring; led to estimated [$xx] increase in revenue and [$xx] increase in pre-tax profit.”

You’re still writing about the same client engagement, but you’re framing it differently and focusing on finance rather than operations.

You probably won’t have exact numbers in this situation, so estimate and make it clear that it’s just an approximation.

Interview Domination

Interview questions will focus on the key “objections” that bankers have to consultants:

So you need to address both of those and presenting solid “mini-stories” that prove your points.

For #1, talk about how busy you were due to the infamous consulting travel combined with client demands and how you had to pull banker hours for an extended period.

Even if you work less than bankers on average, just point to a particularly busy period and use that, and then turn around and use the same story for the other standard fit questions as well.

To prove you know something about finance, either talk about finance-related projects and analysis at work, or how learned on your own from classes, training programs, and self-study.

While I’m not a fan of the CFA, it would make sense to bring it up here if you’ve somehow had the time to complete it.

Other than that, all the standard fit and technical questions covered in the superday interview guide and the investment banking interview guide still apply here.

Technical Questions

As a consultant, you may receive more technical questions than others because bankers will be skeptical of your financial know-how.

While the CFA is overkill and isn’t realistic given how much you work and travel, a crash-course on the technical side is not a bad idea.

You already know about the financial modeling training programs offered through this site, and I’m too lazy to insert a sales pitch here but you can read all about them on your own and decide what’s right for you.

You could also look at the books recommended on IBankingFAQ for a solid grounding in accounting, valuation, and finance.

Remember that you are competing with ex-bankers, undergraduate finance majors, and others who know the technical side very well – you don’t want to give banks a good reason not to hire you.

And For Private Equity…

I’ve been lumping banking and PE together, but there are a few differences if you’re focused on the consulting –> PE transition.

First, it’s very difficult because private equity firms recruit almost exclusively from the investment banking analyst pool.

So it might actually be easier to get into banking first and then make the move to PE.

If you don’t want to do that, you need to target firms that have a tradition of hiring consultants – the classic one is Golden Gate Capital, which was founded by Bain consultants and still hires mostly Bain consultants.

Focus on firms that emphasize operational improvement and turnaround strategies over financial engineering (actually easier to do in a recession or quasi-recession).

Your chances of getting into KKR, Blackstone, TPG, and so on, are slim because they only make a few hires each year and only hire those few from the top banks – the vast majority of bankers at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan don’t even have a good chance of working at those places.

So target operationally-focused firms or anything with a complementary industry focus – if you worked with entertainment companies, maybe you can join Bono at Elevation Partners.

Venture capital is also a possibility – they care far less about financial knowledge than PE firms, and if you’ve worked with tech or biotech companies you can easily spin yourself into a “strong cultural fit.”

Hedge funds are more of a longshot because so many are about hardcore finance and don’t care about operations or strategy – if you want to go there, you’ll have to find one that is more strategy/operations/long-term investing-focused and less about short-term trading.

Plan B Options

So what if you’ve done everything above but still can’t break into finance?

1. Move to a Bigger Consulting Firm

Specifically, M/B/B – see Kevin’s thoughts below for more on this one, but generally the brand name makes far more of a difference than your actual industry focus as a consultant.

Plus, Partners at the top firms are more likely to know bankers and financiers than the ones at smaller firms.

2. Go to Business School

If you go this route, you’ll have a much better chance at post-MBA investment banking positions than PE ones: as interviewees on this site and I have mentioned before, your chances of getting into private equity without having been an IB analyst are slim.

And you should still do a pre-MBA internship that brings you closer to finance or you may not be able to re-brand yourself as easily as you expected.

3. Go to Something Other Than IB/PE/HF

There are plenty of other, less competitive finance industries out there (and yes, before you mention it, they also pay less).

So you could network your way into an asset management or commercial banking role, then get to know people in the investment banking division and move in like that.

This one is a better idea if you have no connections and have no other way in – otherwise you are better off staying a consultant rather than moving to a more finance-related but less “prestigious” role.

More Thoughts from Kevin

To get another perspective, I asked Kevin from Management Consulted for his thoughts on this topic and used some of what he mentioned above – here’s what he said in more detail:

  • It’s all about brand name – get into the best consulting firm possible. While Oliver Wyman is marginally better than, let’s say, Kurt Salmon (boutique retail), M/B/B is far better than any of the rest in helping you get there.
  • Most consulting firms have internal finance groups/sectors – get as many cases under your belt in these groups as possible.
  • Most partners in those practices have serious connections – leverage those connections by over-delivering with your cases and networking heavily with partners.
  • Ask for intros to the banks you’re targeting – they might be your clients and you can build relationships first that way.
  • Go to NYC. Just like entrepreneurs move to Silicon Valley, you must be in NYC to have access and credibility. In Europe, go to London. In Asia, go to HK.
  • It’s all about your network and less about financial knowledge, at least in terms of getting interviews in the first place – organize internal networking events in the finance practice to meet even more people.
  • A lot of consulting firms have externships and special programs to give you corporate exposure outside of strategy consulting. Leverage those as much as possible.

So there you have it – thoughts from someone who knows consulting inside and out.

Still Can’t Buy Bottles with Starwood Points?

So if you’re tired of flying up to Saskatchewan every week to tell a company what it already knows, follow everything above.

And you just might be able to get rid of those Starwood points and buy a few bottles with your banker friends.

Series: Career Transitions

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About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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by Brian DeChesare Comments (326)

No, You Can’t Have It All: Why Finance Does Not Guarantee You $10 Million and Your Own Beach in Thailand

No, You Can't Have It All: Why Finance Does Not Guarantee You $10 Million and Your Own Beach in Thailand

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.”

– Helen Keller

I almost decided not to publish this article.

But it needed to be said.

This one is long – so grab some yerba mate, take a seat, and close your YouTube window before you start.

How It All Started

“I’ve been keeping up with your blog for quite some time now and I’ve noticed that a very diverse group of people eventually “discover” that they want to become a banker (former premed students, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, …).

That said… do you find it odd that so many people always ask you about exit opportunities in the first place when they’re still trying to break into the industry? This makes me suspect that some people have the wrong mindset going into the game (models & bottles).”

Yeah, of course *I* find it odd.

But does anyone else?

No, apparently not – just look at comments like this one:

“Damn… there goes another profession I was aspiring to do go down toilet. I thought the travel involved in consulting was just exaggerated. But I was wrong. I heard from Kevin that consultants at McKinsey travel 50-75% of their time. I’m sorry but I just can’t handle that. My only other alternatives are PE and HF. How are the hours and travel like for each of those professions. I’m praying that at least these jobs don’t screw up my life…”

At least he’s done his homework though: he understands some of the trade-offs between these different options.

But he’s still searching for the magic-bullet solution: a way to become a deca-millionaire with no risk and no 100-hour weeks.

About twice a week I get emails asking, “So, if I work at a boutique can I go home at 10 PM rather than 2 AM each night?”

If you don’t work in the industry or if you haven’t done an internship, I can understand why you don’t “get it” yet.

But then the other day a friend at a top bank emailed me saying:

“Man I’m so tired of banking right now, do you know anything else that would pay me this much and give me much better hours?”

And that’s what pushed me to hit the “Publish” button on this one anyway.

What Do You Want?

It’s a broad question, but most “goals” can be reduced to:

“Become a deca-millionaire without doing much work and also getting my own private beach in Thailand while having the best life ever.”

This brings up a slew of other issues – such as, “Wait, so what then? You’ll get bored in a week of doing nothing” but we’ll put those aside for now.

Based on this goal, you may have already decided that finance is the best route to becoming rich with no risk – and sure, the hours may be bad, but they get better over time, right?

Not so fast.

If this is your plan, you don’t understand the trade-offs between finance, different fields within finance, and different options altogether.

Trade-Offs?

There are an infinite number of variables, but we’re just going to look at the most important ones here.

Pay

This is one of the biggest lures of finance: just work for a few years and you’ll become a millionaire instantly, right?

But it’s also one of the most poorly understood trade-offs: most people in finance save little money, and any money they do save they either manage poorly or not at all.

$500K per year doesn’t mean much when it’s only $250K after taxes and $240K of that goes into models, bottles, and sports cars.

Prestige

I almost cringe writing this one – but it needs to be addressed here.

The secret that no one tells you about prestige: no one in the real world gives a crap where you work or where you went to school.

I can’t even remember the last time I told a stranger where I went to school, even though it’s supposedly one of the top universities in the world.

And not to turn this into a dating column, but citing a “prestigious” school or company won’t attract members of the opposite sex – at least not the ones you want.

Lifestyle

Sure, your life may suck for awhile but once you hit 35 and have $10 million you can just deposit it all in bonds, make $800,000 per year in tax-free income, and then retire to the Caribbean right?

Except I know of no bankers or other financiers who have actually done this.

To quote a friend who finished the Analyst program at Goldman Sachs a few years ago: “Even Partners take calls in between their kids’ soccer games on weekends.”

If you’ve been working that much for that long a period of time, you’re going to be bored out of your mind if you actually “retire early.”

Enjoyment

You might actually get a thrill out of running around and being on-call all the time; you might like traveling every week; or maybe you just want to relax.

So it is relative.

But we can say a few things with certainty: for example, banking has a lot more grunt work and repetitive tasks than other fields. So you’re probably not going to “like” what you do on a daily basis compared to other options.

Social Aspect

This one seems like an afterthought: who cares how many friends you have at work, right? It’s all about the dollars!

Well, not quite. Certain fields are lonelier than others – and one untold benefit of banking is that you’ll make a lot of close friends because you spend so much time at the office.

But in most other fields you’re either alone most of the time, or you don’t have close peers.

And what good is money if you have no friends?

Risk

“You might get rich if you start your own company, but it could also fail, you’ll go bankrupt and your life will be over. On the other hand, if you go into finance you will easily become a deca-millionaire with almost no risk of losing money or getting laid off.”

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past 2 years, you know that the second statement here is false.

But you may not realize that the first statement is also just as wrong. The real risk of starting your own company is not going bankrupt – it’s something else that nobody ever tells you about (yes, you have to keep reading to see what it is).

Ok, Now Let’s Get Specific

“Ok,” you say, “but what about all the fields I’m interested in? Why are you saying I’m wrong about everything?”

Investment Banking

Yes, this one is well-worn ground and we’ve talked about everything from stuff investment bankers like to pay to stuff investment bankers don’t like.

But there’s more.

Besides the pay being extremely variable, you should note that most bankers save nothing in their first few years.

$60K-$70K base salary is barely enough to get by in New York, and your bonus just pays off credit card debt. Even at the VP-level and up, plenty of guys make $500K, then spend it all and have no savings.

Think you can avoid that and still save a lot? Peer pressure is tough to resist.

If you really want to “get rich,” you have to stay in the game until you’re at the MD-level, and then be a seasoned MD with regular business coming in.

And that doesn’t happen in 5-10 years.

Prestige? Well, your parents can brag about it to other prestige-obsessed parents but otherwise it has no effect on your life.

Lifestyle: if you have clients and live transactions, you’re always on call – no matter what level you’re at. MDs spend a lot of time answering email and checking their Blackberries “on vacation.”

But despite other drawbacks, banking is good for forming real relationships with people – you spend so much time at work, it would be hard not to. And that keeps you (relatively) sane.

Everyone has heard about “risk” in terms of layoffs and hiring freezes, but actually getting laid off at the entry-level doesn’t matter much: when you’re young you have plenty of options.

But when you reach the mid-levels it gets very, very difficult to “jump back in” if you get cut – which is a big problem when you have 2 mortgages, 3 BMWs, and 2 kids.

Sales & Trading

“Ok,” you say, “so banking is not that great – I know, I’ll do Sales & Trading instead and make as much or more money but also have a life!”

On the surface the lifestyle is better because you work roughly market hours – it can go beyond that, but you’re not going to be pulling all-nighters.

And hey, you can tell people you work at a bank, so it must be prestigious right?

Plus, the social aspect is quite similar to banking: you make a lot of friends because of the environment you’re in. Sure, you might get hazed but that’s just a part of any fraternity trading desk.

And many traders like their work more since there are no pitch books and there’s much less grunt work and coffee-fetching (unless you’re an intern).

So what’s the catch?

Risk and exit opportunities. Most entry-level traders at large investment banks get paid roughly the same, and it’s more dependent on group performance than individual performance.

But as you move up the ladder that changes – more so than in banking, where even a crappy VP might get paid well just because his MD did well.

So yes, if you’re a rock-star trader and can make millions effortlessly year after year, you’re set – but if you have a bad year, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And no matter what area of trading you’re in, you don’t have as many exit opportunities as bankers: as one reader pointed out, this doesn’t make much sense – but that’s the way it is.

You either stay in trading, trade at a hedge fund or prop trading firm, or you get out of finance entirely.

If you’re an intern or you’re relatively new you can move elsewhere but you don’t have the flexibility that banking analysts do.

Private Equity

Ah yes, the Promised Land: private equity. Better pay, even more prestige, and much better hours to boot – right?

Well, not exactly.

Let’s start with prestige: whereas 99% of people have heard of Goldman Sachs, the average person doesn’t even know what “private equity” means. KKR or Blackstone may sound prestigious to you, but anyone outside finance is unlikely to know them.

Pay: despite rumors to the contrary, it’s not dramatically different for most people moving into PE. Yes, if you come in from a banking background you’ll get a higher base salary and possibly some sort of guaranteed bonus, but you’re not going to instantly start making $1 million at age 25.

Yes, Partners at the largest PE firms make 10x more (or more) than the top bankers do.

But very few people make it to the top, the industry is much smaller, and if you’re responsible for one bad investment you could be done.

The risk of getting laid off as a junior guy or girl in PE is lower than in banking – but advancing is just as difficult, if not more difficult.

There is less grunt work than in banking, but just a quick reality check: if you don’t find valuing companies, building models, and doing due diligence interesting, you’re going to hate PE too.

The social aspect always gets overlooked – once you move to the buy-side, you lose that large group of friends you used to hang out with, and your co-workers will be much older.

Yes, lifestyle is generally “better” but that’s not true if you go to a large fund – it’s banking hours all over again. And when you get busy with a deal, you’re going to work. A lot.

Hedge Funds

Much of the above applies to hedge funds as well. The average pay may be higher, but there is so little reliable data on what people at hedge funds actually make that I’m reluctant to say this.

And once again, the lifestyle is not much different from banking at the largest and most well-known funds: You work. A lot.

The risk is even greater with hedge funds, for one simple reason: they have a habit of collapsing.

I’ve been compiling lists of regional banks, private equity firms, and hedge funds, and as I was going through the hedge fund list I kept coming across “As of last year, such-and-such fund has ceased operations” in the “business description” fields.

This isn’t meant to scare you away from hedge funds: it just means that they are more risky than you think, pay is more variable than in banking and private equity (more similar to Sales & Trading), and the lifestyle may not be as good as you think.

Management Consulting

I had already given consultants a good beat-down last year, but hey, let’s give it a go once again.

First, the pay is less than any of the other fields mentioned above – unless you’re at a small prop shop that pays $0 base salary.

It’s hard to say whether McKinsey or Goldman Sachs is more “prestigious” – but the average person is more aware of “consultants” than they are of “private equity guys.”

And then there’s the travel aspect: this seems fun at first, but you quickly get tired of flying to the Yukon Territory every week to “advise” on a new oil drilling project.

Most travel is not that bad – but if you don’t want to be away from home every week, you’re going to hate the consulting lifestyle.

One of the big lures of consulting compared to banking is that there’s less “grunt work” and what you do is more “intellectually stimulating.”

But is that true? There’s certainly more “variety” than in banking but I know plenty of consultants who find it very repetitive and think that most of the “research” you do is just fluff.

Still, on average there’s probably more “fun” in consulting.

Another big lure: exit opportunities. One consultant once told me, “Management consulting is the only industry that gives you unlimited options.”

But ask any consultant who’s interviewing for PE or finance-related jobs, and they’ll tell you a different story: yes, it’s possible to get in coming from a consulting background but it’s significantly more difficult than if you were a banker. It’s hard to “prove” you know how to model an LBO if you’ve never done one before.

It’s good preparation for business school or for “management” jobs at companies, but if you’re coming from a consulting background you’re at a disadvantage next to bankers for finance jobs.

Large Company

I don’t get many emails or comments about this one, probably because no one wants to do it or because you already know the trade-offs.

But I do get a lot of emails saying, “I want to do corporate development after banking to get a better lifestyle. Can you tell me about it?”

My take on it is simple: it’s similar to private equity, but with reduced hours, pay, and upside.

Your chances of getting laid off are very, very low unless you’re at a new startup that happens to fold – but your chances of moving to the top, especially at a huge conglomerate, are slim.

The lifestyle is definitely better than the other options presented here: not much travel most of the time, and the hours are fairly standard except for when you’re working on a live deal.

The other trade-offs vary by what company you’re at and how your group runs – sometimes you might be the only person who isn’t married, and sometimes there’s a bigger group of people your age.

If you go into this after banking – or anything else on this list – you’ll find it very slow since you’re used to constantly running around and being on-call 24/7.

Also, there’s no clear “exit opportunity path” as there is with some of the other options here. Most likely, you’ll end up going to business school or moving to a different company.

Entrepreneurship

I have a theory that everyone who goes into banking secretly wants to start their own company instead. I get a lot of comments and emails that start out like this:

“Hi, I want to stay in banking for 2 years and then use all my money to start a company afterward. Do you think this is a good idea, and if so which group do you think I should be in?”

No, that’s a stupid idea because: 1) You will barely save any money over 2 years. 2) Banking is terrible preparation for entrepreneurship.

This one is almost impossible to write about because it depends on what kind of company you start – offline, online, products, services – and whether you aspire to be the next Google or you’d rather just start a bar with your friends.

But there are 2 important points that no one else ever brings up:

  1. The real risk is not going bankrupt or ruining your life, but rather wasting time going nowhere.
  2. This is the loneliest of the options here, because you don’t have peers – you’re either flying solo, or you have employees.

Yes, you could completely fail, but your life isn’t over – this happens all the time in Silicon Valley and everyone bounces back. More often than not, you might spend months or years on something and not get much traction – so you don’t get rich, but you also don’t lose everything.

On the social aspect: even if you end up with employees, you can’t really “hang out” with them. Especially if you started everything alone or with 1 other person, it’s quite lonely.

Pay, enjoyment, and lifestyle vary so much by what you do that it’s impossible to generalize: you could work 100 hours a week and hate your life, or you could treat your business as a simple part-time job.

If you’re wondering why everything I do is online, it’s for exactly those reasons: offline requires far more work, doesn’t give you as much leverage, and restricts your lifestyle a lot more.

Cliff’s Notes

Ok, that was really long. And maybe you didn’t read everything.

So here are the major points:

  1. Wanting to stay in finance for “just a few years” to “get rich” or “have enough experience to do something else” is a poor strategy. You’re not going to be rich after that short a time – and if you want to do something else, be like Nike and just do it.
  2. Most finance-related jobs entail a lot more risk than anyone ever talks about. And the lifestyle never matches what people with “normal jobs” get, no matter how high up you are.
  3. If you want to reach the top of anything listed here, it requires work, sacrifice, and risk. This doesn’t happen in “a few years” – it happens by spending 10-20 years or more excelling. There’s no magic bullet.
  4. The social aspect of all these options is huge and it’s something that almost everyone ignores. Hopefully you’re thinking about it now.
  5. Be aware of limits on exit opportunities. Hardly anyone tells you, for example, that once you’re at a specialized hedge fund it’s tough to move somewhere that uses completely different strategies.

So, What Should You Do?

Hey, I can’t give you all the answers.

I’m just like Fox News: I report, you decide.

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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