Q&A: Former Students

Table of Content

Students are sometimes are rightfully tempted to get back in touch for follow-up questions about class discussions and sometimes career/business advice.

However, since there are a lot of them out there, with lots of reasons to engage in such an exchange, this could be divergent...

For that purpose, here is a list of classical questions I receive and the classical answer I provide. If possible, check first whether you can find the answer. I am happy to try to help my former students, but do understand that my profession is professor/researcher, not headhunter/fundraiser/consultant ;-)

(questions are real, sometimes I just translated them, and anonymized them)

"I have an idea/project I'm working on, can I meet you with my co-founders to discuss it with you?"

A: Getting (good) advice is a key activity for entrepreneurs (and any human being for that matter). However, like many things, there are constraints, including the fact that quality people who can provide advice are usually strongly time-constrained. So, here is a good approach you can consider, and I will usually ask my students to follow it when asking for advice from me.

I. make a short first contact (ie send a short email), and try to ask a specific question. Do not just assume you’ll get the person to allocate you 1-hour “on-demand” (you can be innocent to believe it, or you can be bold to ask it, but be realist, it is not too likely)

· If you have a specific subject, state it, and the question.

· If your question is general (i.e. “what do you think of my idea”) then … summarize your startup in such a way that the informed reader will understand roughly where you’re aiming. Summarizing does not mean sending 30 slides BP, but something like 1-2 paragraph max, explaining the product/market, stating your stage of progress (team? funds? Etc.), and be upfront about how your idea compares/contrast to the closest existing thing in the market. So, say you want to do a “match.com” for blind people (whatever!), mention match.com in that quick summary, and why you believe you can provide something that will substitute them for your submarket ("visually challenged persons").

· In both cases, shoot for your contact to provide a short answer (i.e. to your specific question, or a first gut feeling about the idea)

II. If after that, if you feel you could extract further information, try to enlarge the questions/elements provided

· The person might, at that stage, invite you to chat, but again be reasonable and already happy that the “conversation develops”.

· In that second phase, it might become reasonable to have a phone conversation, which impacts less the agenda of the busy person

* it may also happen that the conversation naturally dies out. Be sensitive about it: insistence can be a quality for an entrepreneur, but you don't want to systematically alienate your contacts by assuming they have to suffer beyond their point of comfort...

III. If the conversation continues (i.e. the question/answer seems productive), it could naturally come that you guys meet

As far as *I* am concerned, the demand for advice on business plans is too plenty that I can not provide it outside of my former students.

Concerning my former students, I expect them to go up those stages and assume that not all contacts will go to third base (so, asking for third base immediately might sound to me a bit “brusque”). Here is the summary of the three stages:

Stage I: send a well-thought email with precise questions and expect an answer

Stage II: continue that exchange, maybe planning for a phone conversation

Stage III: end-up planning for a formal meeting face-to-face, in the Clinique format (recorded and published)

"I can get a lengthy advice session, but it would have to be public?"

Given that there are more people asking for advice than I can follow, I have developed the 'Clinique' format, whereby I provide advice but in a public manner so that at least others can benefit from it.

Therefore, for stage III, it is possible I could be available only if you agree for our interaction to be captured as a Clinique (recorded zoom conference).

You may think that entrepreneurship requires some elements of confidentiality about your plans. However, consider that:

  • if a few elements are truly strategic, they can be communicated privately or edited out of the published video

  • nevertheless, as discussed in my course, the key differentiator of entrepreneurship is not in high-level ideas (which in all cases are shared by many teams) but the ability to execute a lot of good decisions in a specific context.

"I insist I need to chat with you to discuss my nice plan where I raise a lot of money to pay a co-founder to develop my core technology"

Well, that's an interesting one. Your current approach is to consider the following things:

  • me, the business person, and my intuition

  • and my night-long friends Excel and Powerpoint

  • landed on a fancy idea

  • for which we elaborated THE plan

  • which involves hiring a "maker" (cook, engineer, you name it) for money (hey, he's not a dreamer like me!)

  • for which I need to raise money

That is an ugly scenario, even this is a common story in the way people view entrepreneurship (even *I* fell to it somewhat in my own entrepreneurial experience). Here is the alternative I would spend time on:

  • me and a bunch of people

  • have the core competency

  • for an idea we share (i.e., we could be defined as "maker" in the business we intend to enter in)

  • PS: we swear Powerpoint and Excel have not polluted our minds by pushing us to draw a hypothetical future built onto bought core competence which we'd finance by belly dancing in front of angels and VCs...

So, your question reflects you are in the first approach, and I consider good entrepreneurship work can mainly be done in the second one. In this case, frankly, I'd rather we do not spend time too much together at this stage. The few times I've tried to convince a founder to switch, the person, in the end, thought that I was a real pain to keep on pounding on the plan and the Powerpoint/Excell buddies :-) I want to avoid you some pain ;-)

Switch from approach 1 to approach 2 is really what my entrepreneurship course is all about. So ...

  • If you are a former student of mine, sorry you did not get it yet, I obviously did not do such a great job as a teacher (seriously). Please, think about it, and if you can start seeing how you could tackle your business idea closer to the second approach, contact me afterward if you need so.

    • In other words, I'm not against giving the usual "entrepreneurship" advice (i.e., funding, team building, marketing, blablabla...) as long as you're in the proper entrepreneurial state of mind.

  • If you're not a former student of mine but still want to learn this new paradigm, maybe you should consider taking my course ;-)

"But I insist: I just need you to put me in touch with your VC friends!"

A: Well, trust me, my VC friends are mainly interested in people that already have technology and traction...That is why my recommendation would be worth something if I make a point to send them things that are truly valuable to *them*

"For my job search, would you get me in touch with the many consulting/IB/VC firms I assume you know ?"

A: Unfortunately, I can not put in touch all my former students with all the firms I have contacts with. I will intervene in very specific cases when circumstances are warranted, but not "in general".

"Would you know who has an opening in industry X, Y, Z ?"

A: I happen to fall on opportunities, and I usually either share them directly in class or send them to the proper student mailing list (eg "Entrepreneurship track", "Media chair", etc) and to the DREE. I am therefore not usually up-to-date on the state of the job market, at least not as much as the professionals dedicated to that task.

"Can you help me get an internship in a Venture Capital firm?"

My shortest answer is to decline politely, usually after sharing the following thoughts ;-)

  • VCs do not take many interns because they do not need much number crunching. They do not take many juniors in a permanent position either.

  • VCs may not be so formative, including as a first job, but I acknowledge it is very attractive

  • to the idea that one wants to be a VC to become a good entrepreneur, I view it as a reverse causation issue (i.e. good entrepreneurs can make good VCs, the opposite is not clear)

  • to the question "what could be a good training to become a VC" (hey, VC is a very honorable job, so why not shoot for it ;-), I would remind that

    • a) good entrepreneurs can make excellent VCs

    • b) VCs need deal/execution skills, so investment banking jobs are common training grounds for VCs (hopefully, not producing 100% banker VC teams), as is corporate law.

  • And what if I really want to start being a VC *now*: well, that’s legitimate but then consider you’re committing yourself to the “private equity” industry in general (not entrepreneurship!), and then you should enlarge your view towards IB because there are many positions there, with excellent training that lead to a more employable profile than a first position in a VC fund. Large private equity funds do need interns/juniors because number crunching is justified on big deals on mature firms, so go for it.

  • Hopefully, some of you will still fight to get a job in a VC fund and succeed at it. My congratulations to them (that’s a feat, really!) and say Hi to my many friends there J

  • One last word: if the question is about getting a VC job in Silicon Valley, stack up the idea that U.S. corporate world does not practice much this “intern” thing as the French do. So, if you make that miracle happen, let me know, you’ll receive my sincere admiration.

"I am considering joining a project and wonder how much equity I should ask? (variation: I can't put cash, how much equity can I still get)"

A: Well, that is a tough one because it goes to the heart of the problem: how much is each party bringing (which will impact balance among parties) & who is taking risk (which will impact whether equity is warranted vs. ... salary!)

Unfortunately, it is always difficult to answer those two questions "objectively". So, it'll come down in the end to a negotiation, to a power game, to a socialized agreement, to not working together anymore and not be friends anymore, etc. ... depending on various parameters such as realism of each party, their sophistication, their subjective appreciation of the situation, etc.

In a few cases, asking equity is not going anywhere: e.g., you are an intern in a startup and you day-dream that you'll get equity ... and the founders have never seriously considered diluting themselves, at least not for such "low ranking" kind of employee. In such a case, and in many others similar, it'll come down to: do you want to work there, and maybe you should ignore whether or not you are involved in the potential upside.

Take peace in the unscientific fact that the cases where people haggle about equity are those where it will, in the end, be worthless; symmetrically, equity has been little discussed in a situation where it was indeed worth a lot (remember "The Social Network"? ;-)