Initially published on Medium — May 9, 2016
How I Became a VC in Detroit at 22
As of last week, I have been at Ludlow full-time for a little over 3 months. I wrote a small post announcing that I was joining the team; however, I wanted to take the time to explain how I somehow ended up in the VC world as a 22 year-old from a relatively small suburb of Detroit, Michigan.
I’ve talked to a lot of people that want to get into VC, and they all ask me how I did it, so I figured I’d share my story, in case anyone finds it useful.
I’d like to think that I defied a lot of odds, but truthfully I was so heads down focused on achieving my dreams that I didn’t ever notice what the odds were.
My Twitter bio does a fair job of showing on a high-level what I’ve done to get to this point, but I’d like to think my story is much deeper than just a couple of @handles in a Twitter bio.
Below is a timeline of some major milestones, risks, etc. and how it all played a factor into where I am today.
Freshman Year (2011–2012)
January 2012 (Found my mentor):
Shortly after starting classes at Michigan State, I had decided that I was going to get an internship my freshman year. I don’t know why I was so determined or focused, but it probably stemmed from the fact that everyone said it was virtually impossible. Two months into my freshman year, I attended my first career fair. Unsurprisingly, I was shut down by every company I approached.
I knew that if I wanted an internship I had to get creative. I had always been interested in technology companies and quietly dreamed of working at Google one day. Naturally, that meant I frequently checked TechCrunch, GigaOm, VentureBeat, etc.
One day, I decided to cold e-mail and tweet every startup company that piqued my interest on the front page of TechCrunch.
The top story was about a company called: Zaarly, which had just announced their Series A fundraising for $14.1M.
After researching Zaarly and their team extensively, I noticed that their first employee — Eric Jorgenson — had graduated from Michigan State. I remember being so excited to see someone else from Michigan State in the startup world. I immediately cold-tweeted Eric asking if I could e-mail him some questions.
Shockingly, he replied super fast and said:
Note: I used to be @blakeirobbins on Twitter, now I’m @blakeir
Out of sheer excitement, I wrote him one of the cringiest e-mails ever. It was just paragraphs full of questions.
I can’t believe I wrote: “Mr. Jorgenson”
Not even a day later, Eric responded with one of the greatest e-mails I’ve ever received. I find myself re-reading it regularly. He mapped out who I should contact at Michigan State, what I should read, what companies I should target, etc.
He immediately became a mentor to me. The response e-mail is literally 5 pages long, but I’ll share one of my favorite snippets:
Though dated, the advice is absolutely relevant today. Rather than ignoring the advice, I decided to internalize everything and leverage the connections, resources, etc. that he offered me. This was the first time that I got exposure to how selfless and giving certain individuals are in the startup community.
February 2012 (Given a chance to prove myself):
Shortly after connecting with Eric, he asked me if I wanted to help Zaarly with marketing on campus at Michigan State. They already had a small team of three organized; however, most of them were seniors that had bad cases of senioritis. The main goal of the program, was to get the most sign-ups and Zaarly requests amongst 25 campuses.
This was a huge opportunity for me, as it was finally a time to prove to Eric and the Zaarly team that I was worth taking a bet on. I spent almost every day (for the rest of the semester) standing at the bus-stops pitching Zaarly, and asking if they would like to sign-up.
April 2012 (Got my first summer internship):
While marketing for Zaarly, Eric’s connections and support led to me to my first internship opportunity: Loudpixel. Loudpixel was a team of two (husband and wife), and I was given a ton of freedom regarding my role.
I remember when I was still waiting to hear back regarding their hiring decision, I sent them an e-mail and they didn’t respond — so naturally, I decided to stop by their office one day in a suit (so cringeworthy), asking if they had a second.
It felt incredibly risky and scary at the time, but the truth was — I had nothing to lose. I left that office with an offer for an internship, and a true feeling of accomplishment. Without Allie and Jeff taking an early bet on me, I don’t know where I would be. They showed me the ropes of startups and tech, but also taught me how to “hustle.”
May 2012 (Proved to Eric and Zaarly that I was worth betting on)
Thanks to Eric and his advice, I landed my first internship. I was so thankful and pumped, that I immediately started to go full force ahead with marketing for Zaarly. I made sure to not lose focus. During finals week, we still had $300 left in our marketing budget, so I decided to go buy $300 worth of Red Bull.
I sat in the main library at Michigan State and offered a free Red Bull to anyone that signed up for Zaarly and requested a Red Bull on the platform (at the time, Zaarly was a reverse auction site).
We ended the semester with well over 1,000 signs-ups, and placed as one of the top three campuses for Zaarly’s university program. By placing in the top three, it meant that the “Campus CEOs” got a free trip San Francisco for a week, a tour of some top Silicon Valley companies, and the opportunity to attend a Zaarly board meeting.
Although I wasn’t the Campus CEO at Michigan State, the small team recognized my hard work and elected for me to go.
July 2012 (First visit to Silicon Valley):
At 18, I landed in Silicon Valley for the first time. I got to see first-hand what working at a rapidly growing startup was really like. I was hooked. There was no turning back from that point forward, I decided that my future was going to involve startups and technology in some way.
While at the board meeting, I got to meet a few of Zaarly’s investors (For example, Chi-Hua Chien from KPCB). This was my first exposure or insight into what a VC actually was.
I absolutely loved the idea of working closely with brilliant founders that are shaping the future. When I got home from the trip, I continued to research and obsess with the VC industry. I read every single Paul Graham post. I did everything I could to immerse myself in both the startup and VC world. Twitter, for me, was my main way to stay plugged in with the eco-system.
Right before my sophomore year started, I made the decision to view my résumé as my portfolio. I targeted companies that were fairly early, and experiencing some form of hyper-growth. This allowed me the opportunity and exposure to work on small teams with individuals whom had been at these companies since their infancy.
Sophomore Year (2012–2013)
August 2013 (Declared my major):
I quickly realized that if I wanted to continue working in the tech industry, I needed to find my niche. For me, this meant declaring my major as: Supply Chain Management. It’s not widely discussed or known, but Michigan State is actually ranked #1 in the nation for their Supply Chain program.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to compete with marketing or finance majors from Ivy League schools, so I needed to find ways to differentiate myself. The skill-set that I developed in my classes was unique and provided real value to the companies I later worked for.
February, 2013 (Attended a small career fair on campus):
I continued to attend the big corporate career fairs, and was continually rejected by everyone. However, I noticed that one of my favorite companies was coming to a very small career fair on campus: SpaceX.
This was unprecedented. Most companies that went to this small career fair (Supply Chain Management Association Career Fair) were Fortune 100 companies.
SpaceX explicitly stated that they were only looking for full-time employees. I didn’t care…I researched every possible thing there was to know about SpaceX, Elon Musk, etc. and prepared for the career fair.
I arrived expecting a huge line to get just 30 seconds with these recruiters, but to my surprise no one knew who they were. I spent all four hours at the career fair chatting with the recruiters. Literally, I think only 10 people stopped at their booth. They were planning on interviewing 20 people over the course of the next two days, and I knew that — so I asked if I could steal one of those slots.
They continued to reiterate that they were not looking for interns, but agreed to “talk” with me during one of the scheduled slots.
Through some sort of luck, I ended up getting to the next round. I had a phone interview with my hiring manager, and ended up getting a procurement internship on the Propulsions team.
May 2013 — August 2013 (Somehow navigated SpaceX):
I arrived and on my first day, I remember getting a stack full of projects. Many of these projects involved terms that I had never seen in my two years at Michigan State: SQL, RFI, BOM, etc.
However, I was determined to prove to my team and manager that they made the right choice on hiring me. I didn’t ever want them to regret taking a bet on a student with limited experience. I was the only intern that was from Michigan State, and one of two interns that was “non-technical.”
Given the extensive NDA that I signed with SpaceX, I’m not sure how much detail I can get into about the projects I worked on. However, one of my favorite stories involves a SQL project that my boss assigned me on day one. She and the team had been trying figure out how pull a certain report using SQL, but they all had limited knowledge (and experience) using SQL. She didn’t let me know that they had been working on this for weeks. Instead, she let me think this was an entirely new project that needed to be completed as soon as possible.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a test. I knew literally zero about SQL and databases. I was so determined to not fail, that I taught myself everything there was to possibly know about SQL. I completed the report within 2 days, and wasn’t told that it was a “test” until my performance review at the end of the summer.
I’m extremely thankful that they didn’t tell me they were struggling, because I would have had an excuse to quit.
In fact, the ability to navigate SQL and databases has proven to be an invaluable asset throughout my career.
Like all opportunities prior, I made sure to give it my all and prove that I was worth taking a bet on. Thankfully, I think I left a positive mark on SpaceX. At the end of the internship, the team had extended an offer for me to come join them again the following summer. Not only that, my manager and a close team member at SpaceX publicly vouched for me on LinkedIn. Something that I feel was instrumental to shaping my career over the next couple of years.
Junior Year (2013–2014)
January 2014— May 2014 (Interned at General Assembly):
One of the first friends that I met through Eric was Nathan Bashaw. Nathan was also an alumnus from Michigan State working on startups and side projects. Nathan has blown up in recent years, given his early involvement with Product Hunt, Scratchpad, Thoughtback, etc.
Naturally, when he posted on Facebook that he was looking for someone to help with community management for his new project at General Assembly — dash.generalassemb.ly, I reached out immediately.
Thankfully, Nathan was super receptive to me working remotely and gave me a chance. Despite having limited knowledge on how to code, I helped manage the community for Dash. I taught myself how to master every lesson on Dash, and also the Regular Expressions necessary to troubleshoot internally.
At the conclusion of my internship, we decided that having one person answer all questions probably wasn’t the most scalable solution. Thus, I came up with the idea to create the “GA Dash” Facebook group, which is now over 6,500 members. Working alongside Nathan, was a once in a life-time opportunity, and I’m extremely grateful that he was so willing to take a bet on me.
March 2014 (Solidified my summer internship for Jr. Year):
I had started my summer internship search right around January, and began to narrow down a list of potential companies that I was targeting.
It was a relatively short list: Uber, Dropbox, Nest, Google, etc.
I applied to all online, and none had gotten back to me by March. Thus, I had to take matters into my own hands. I found the recruiter for Nest on Twitter and tweeted to her asking if they were still looking for interns. Shockingly she responded extremely quickly, and we continued the conversation over e-mail. Within a week, I had my first round interview. Within two weeks, I had an offer to join the Reverse Logistics team for the summer.
Again, if I didn’t have a unique perspective, and skill-set — I don’t think I would have been able to intern for Nest. When I reached out to the recruiter, they mentioned that the Reverse Logistics team needed some help. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was actually just a team of one. They were looking for interns; however, it’s very rare that college students would have a thorough understanding of supply chain (and reverse logistics). During my final round interview at Nest, I mentioned my ability to create and pull SQL reports. I could almost hear my manager smile through the phone, as it was clearly something that he was looking for in a potential intern. Several weeks later, I received an offer to join the Nest team for the summer.
May 2014 — August 2014 (Interned at Nest + Silicon Valley):
I’ve wrote extensively about interning at Nest, but it was an extremely eye-opening experience.
What is it like to intern at Nest?This past summer, I spent three incredible months interning at Nest alongside 60+ of the best and brightest students in…medium.com
For the first time ever, I was based in Silicon Valley. I got to see a startup experience hyper growth as they went through the M&A process with Google.
When I wasn’t at the office, I was networking constantly. I hadn’t forgotten about my dream of becoming a VC. Instead, I decided to take full advantage of being in the Valley. To start, I reached out to literally every investor that was on the cap table for Nest, and leveraged the fact that I was an intern at one of their portfolio companies — as an opportunity to chat with them. Almost all of them immediately responded.
In each of these meetings, I hinted at the fact that I wanted to be a VC one day. Most of them chuckled, and said something to the extent of: “Get in line.”
Senior Year (2014–2015)
August 2014 (Met with Jonathon Triest — Ludlow Ventures):
Throughout college, and while attending local meet-ups in Michigan, I regularly heard whispers about a VC firm in Detroit, Ludlow Ventures. When I heard about Ludlow, I was immediately intrigued as I’ve always wanted to stay close to my family in Michigan. Truthfully, Ludlow was (and still is) my dream job.
While interning at Nest, I decided to cold tweet Jonathon, the Managing Partner of Ludlow Ventures, to see if there was any thing that I could do to help out.
Thankfully, Ryan Hoover from Product Hunt (a portfolio company of Ludlow) jumped in on the thread to vouch for me — Thanks Ryan! For those wondering, at this point I had been interacting with Ryan for well over a year. His blog has always been insanely helpful to me, so when I was out in the Valley for the summer — we finally got a chance to grab coffee and meet in person. I guess he enjoyed it as much as I did.
In August of 2014, Jonathon and I finally sat down to chat. It was pretty clear that they weren’t looking for interns, but I wanted to be involved.
I left that day without an offer to join the team, but…an opportunity to show how I can provide value. We discussed in our meeting how I could help or provide value. When I got home that night I drafted up an e-mail about how I can help. I guess they liked what I wrote, because not too long after I was brought on board as their first intern.
September 2014 — July 2015 (Proving my worth at Ludlow):
This was my time to shine, I was finally given a chance to prove myself in front of a few VCs. Over the next 10 months, I did everything I possibly could to provide value. I worked roughly 20–25hrs a week remotely, while attending classes during the day.
The moment I got a “@ludlowventures.com” e-mail, I went on offense. Like all opportunities I was given to this point — I was determined to make sure I was worth taking a bet on.
I met with hundreds of founders, and ended up successfully sourcing several deals while interning at Ludlow.
March 2015 (Applied to Google):
I started looking for full-time jobs, but decided I only wanted to work for two places: Ludlow Ventures OR Google.
Google was the only company that I formally applied to. The role was for sales — the business skill I felt that I lacked the most. I really wanted to fine tune this my sales skills and have the ability to do it at the expense of a large corporation.
As mentioned earlier in the post, Google was literally my dream employer. I applied to intern at Google 6 times (4x for summer, 2x for spring). I was rejected every single time. Given the large chip on my shoulder, I was determined to work there.
I decided to apply a final time, and finally got an offer. To be honest, I wish I knew what changed between each of these times. I never received an interview for the 6 times I applied prior, so I’m assuming my grades, experience, etc. were not good enough for whatever screener they were using. Thankfully, I received an offer and made decision to work there full-time.
Real Life — Year 1:
July 2015 — February 2016 (Sales at Google):
I spent 6 months working at Google on selling AdWords, Analytics, YouTube ads, etc. directly to small and medium-sized businesses across the United States.
I learned a shit ton. Mainly, just how difficult it is to close deals with small and medium-sized businesses that are typically non-technical. Over the 6 months, it became increasingly clear that the Sales teams in organizations often have the greatest insights into product flaws and customer needs.
I was extended an offer to join Ludlow while interning with them; however, I wanted to fulfill my childhood dream of working at Google. After a few months at Google, I realized that Ludlow was my dream job. Thankfully, they were super receptive to the idea of coming back to join them full-time and I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t pass up on this amazing opportunity again.
February 2016 — Present (Joined the Wolfpack):
My story at Ludlow Ventures has just begun, and I can’t wait to reflect on how much I learn over the next couple of years. Since I’ve been back at Ludlow, I’m happy to share that I’ve sourced a couple more deals. I’m forever grateful for the opportunities and autonomy that Jonathon and Brett have given me.
Excited to see what my next chapter holds in store.
The main reason I wrote this is to show that I didn’t get to this position on my own.
There are countless people that have been instrumental throughout my short career, and I know there will be countless more over my lifetime. If there are three things that you take away from my story — I hope it’s that:
Don’t forget those that took early bets on you.
When given opportunities to prove yourself, always give it 110%.
If you want to get into VC, you need to forge your own path.
I’ve said it before, but…
There are too many people that have taken early bets on me, for me to have too large of an ego to speak with you. Please…if you are ever interested in chatting more about venture, startups, etc. — feel free to reach out!