Editor’s note: Alex Banayan is an associate at Alsop Louie Partners, an early stage technology venture capital firm based in San Francisco, CA. He is nineteen years old (and thus this post could really use a #humblebrag in the title). To stay connected with Alex, sign up for his newsletter here.
Okay, full disclosure: I’ve never had a startup go through an IPO, I don’t have an MBA—heck—I’m not even old enough to take the finance course offered at my school, but I’m now an associate at Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. My story is a bit crazy, so by all means stop reading now if you’re looking for a fairytale. Being a VC at 19 was never part of the plan.
Fellow TechCrunch readers, I’m sure you can relate: in high school all of my friends would talk at lunch about last night’s Lakers game while all I wanted to talk about was Steve Jobs’ MacWorld keynote. I was “that kid.”
When I started college in 2010, I was a pre-med student thanks to the encouragement (aka pressure) from my Persian immigrant family. While studying in the library with my bio books, my mind kept wandering. I couldn’t stop wondering how people jump-started their careers. How did Bill Gates, as a sophomore in college, make his first successful sales call out of his dorm room? I became obsessed with this topic and read every book I could get my hands on, from “Founders at Work” to “Outliers.” After months of searching for that ideal book that specifically focused on what little things the world’s most successful people did to propel their careers, I was left empty handed. I found a gap in the market and decided to fill it. If no one else was going to write the book I wanted to read, I would write it myself.
I approached my book like a startup and I spent the next year running around getting my idea off the ground. I cultivated a network of advisors, I got to know my future audience, and I focused on building my product every day. I obsessed (and still am obsessing) over getting interviews with the world’s most successful people and putting their advice together in a way that isn’t just compelling but also practical as hell.
This past winter I came across an article featuring Ernestine Fu, a venture capitalist from Alsop Louie Partners. Now, I don’t have many natural talents—I’m terrible at talking to girls and I can’t throw a football—but I do have a knack for finding people’s email addresses online. Although my goal wasn’t to be a VC (frankly, I didn’t even think it was possible at my age), the article really piqued my interest so I decided to reach out to her via email. Ernestine and I had lunch the next week.
At the end of that lunch I heard the single sentence that changed my life: So, would you consider working in venture capital?
To be perfectly honest, my first thought was a blunt no. Although I was very much immersed in the startup scene and I read TechCrunch on the daily, it was never part of my plan to be a VC. However, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. I said yes and was interviewed by the firm’s founding partner two weeks later.
After my interview with Stewart Alsop, the head of the firm and one of the godfathers of Silicon Valley, I was invited to San Francisco to meet the entire Alsop Louie team. I packed my bags thinking I was going to do some quick hellos and be a fly-on-the-wall while they did their thing. I definitely did not expect what came next.
In that single day, I met the partners, attended a meeting with the entire firm, sat in on a startup pitch, and even attended a board of directors meeting for a portfolio company. Naively, each time a new meeting began, I thought, “Let’s just sit back and observe.” Little did I know I was going to be quizzed on what my tech philosophy was, questioned about my opinion on the startups that pitched us, and asked about my thoughts on the current Silicon Valley scene.
Two weeks later, the email came in. The subject line simply read: Alex Banayan’s Offer Letter. I couldn’t believe it.
The most frequent question I’m asked is what happened at that initial lunch meeting with Ernestine Fu where she first suggested I work with Alsop Louie Partners.
No disrespect to the great Dale Carnegie, but I disagree with his clichéd mantra of “be interested, not interesting.” At that first lunch, although I was passionately interested in hearing from the other VC, when the time came later in the conversation, I didn’t hesitate to show my feathers. I was interested and then interesting.
I was open about sharing all the adventures I went on during the past year—from winning The Price is Right (and using my prize money as seed funding for the book) to flying in zero gravity. I spoke openly about my obsession with the tech world.
People tend to get the words humble and modest mixed up. Humbleness is an internal sense of gratitude whereas modesty is a facade of meekness. At that lunch meeting I was humble, but I sure as hell was not modest. Being humble is one of the most important virtues in life—it is a state of gratitude in which you acknowledge that all the opportunities available to you today are thanks to the tracks laid out by the people who came before you. Modesty, however, is an attempt to mask how awesome you are as a way to charm others. Never shy away from sharing with people your crazy stories and your prized accomplishments—modesty is fool’s gold.
If you share your story with genuine passion and a sincere sense of humility, and you are sure to first be interested in the other person, you never know what opportunities might manifest.
As a venture capitalist who is still an undergrad in college, the second most frequent question I’m asked is what my thoughts are on the current college startup scene.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that 80% of the college startups I see on a regular basis are complete trash. I know most of you reading this will be taken aback by my brashness, but if you sit in on an Intro to Entrepreneurship class where students come up with a startup idea the night before their project is due and start saying they have the next Instagram, you’ll see what I mean.
Most startups I see on the ground level are campus daily deals programs or textbook exchanges. There are of course exceptions, but I don’t give these pitches as much consideration because, frankly, how can I advocate to the firm to invest a million dollars in a dorm room food delivery service? Where is the technology? Where is the growth potential?
However, the other 20% of startups really, really excite me. They are playing in frontiers with big opportunities, such as big data, cloud computing, and mobile security. I want to see entrepreneurs who are either disrupting or creating new markets, not just adding noise to already crowded spaces. That’s where I believe the action is, and most importantly, that’s where you can really make a dent in the universe.
Being nineteen and seeing my name on my company credit card sometimes freaks me out. I’d be lying to say there aren’t moments of self-doubt. Am I sure I have the chops to stand by my opinions when I’m on conference calls with the other partners—who have all been involved in the computer industry for more than twenty-five years each?
On the flip side, my age presents me unprecedented opportunities: I’m tapped into what’s happening in the trenches. Steve Jobs started Apple a month after his twenty-first birthday. Gates started Microsoft at twenty and Zuckerberg started Facebook at 19. At my age, I’m not just hearing pitches from entrepreneurs, I’m hanging out with them in their dorm rooms.
Although I was initially worried that I might be spreading myself too thin if I accepted the VC job in addition to being a full-time college student and working on the book, my position at Alsop Louie Partners is working out perfectly in my schedule (albeit, quite tightly). Attending venture capital mixers, sitting in on demo days, and meeting one-on-one with startups is the tech equivalent of working in a toy store for me.
Did I know that my obsession with the tech world would lead to a job in VC? Not at all. Regardless, this is the most exhilarating, and humbling, experience of my life.