Terry McGuire, a venture capitalist of 25 years and chairman emeritus of National Venture Capital Association, is the co-founder of Polaris Ventures, a firm that manages $3 billion and has invested in over 100 companies. After college, he spent a year in Ireland and learned to speak Gaelic. Co-incidentally, at his first job interview at a Chicago-based venture firm, the interviewer spoke fluent Gaelic. As the interviewer walked in, he softly muttered, "An bfhuil se fluic, amach?" which is Gaelic for "Is it wet outside?" Terry promptly responded in Gaelic. The two hit it off, and Terry landed the job.
But was it just a stroke of luck? It certainly helped that Terry was the president of the Harvard Business School Venture Capital Club. "It's a combination of training, the network, and opportunity that presented itself," says Terry, who went on to start Polaris Ventures after a seven-year stint at a Chicago-based venture firm.
For a few chosen practitioners, the entry into VC was not an uphill crawl or a series of grueling interviews. It was as if the opportunities came seeking them. Bryce Roberts was planning to go to law school and in the interim decided to start a ski company in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. "One of my neighbors, a venture capitalist, invited me to sit in on pitch meetings and offer feedback," he says. Bryce went on to be the co-founder of O'Reilly Alphatec Ventures (OATV), which has led investments in a number of prominent technology startups.
Jack Ahrens, co-founder of TGap Ventures, has been in the venture business for over 35 years. Employed at a bank in Illinois, one afternoon he stumbled upon an internal memo that suggested his department was being shut down. "I was irritated and told my boss I would be leaving." His boss promptly jumped in: "We have a venture capital arm—what if we made you the president and gave you a raise?" "I took it—I barely knew what the heck venture capital was, but here I am some three decades later," says Jack. In these three decades, Jack has led over 35 successful exits, including twenty IPOs.
With Terry, Bryce and Jack, luck may have played a role in getting inside the promised VC land. Luck can get you in the door. But Luck leaves as soon you get in that room – from that point on, the show is yours. There is no way of knowing whether you are a natural, as Sanford Bernstein puts it. Bernstein, founder of the investment-banking firm Robertson Stephens and Company, had invested in venture funds for two decades. "Some do it, some can't and like with athletes, there is no way of telling till they take the field," he once remarked.
In the meantime, let's practise our Gaelic ..repeat after me...An bfhuil se fluic, amach?