September 7, 2023

6 Reflections from my 6 Months Interning in Venture Capital

Matias Salonen is the newest member of the byFounders investment team. He joined as an intern in January 2023 and recently transitioned into a full-time investor role. In the following, Matias reflects on the lessons learned and shares his path into venture capital and recommendations for prospective VCs.

Matias Salonen
6 Reflections from my 6 Months Interning in Venture Capital

Want to follow in the footsteps of Matias? We’re currently hiring interns for 2024, apply here!

Over to Matias:

Who I am

Originally from Finland, I joined the byFounders investment team as an intern and relocated to Copenhagen following my graduation from Aalto University in Finland in 2022 and a few internships in between. Towards the end of my internship, I was privileged enough to be offered to stay on the investment team in a full-time investor role.

Two months into the “new” role, I am still spending the majority of my time on sourcing and evaluating deals, building our internal theses and helping out our portfolio companies, but now also taking new responsibilities in fund management operations, portfolio and LP reporting, as well as our data-driven VC efforts. While scouting for the next unicorn across the New Nordics, I am also actively working on improving the fund’s presence in my home country, Finland.

Growing up in Finland and Australia, I have always been curious about the world, with a passion for reading and exploring new places. Outside work, you can find me spending time road cycling, running and bouldering, as well as occasionally hiking and surfing.

6 Lessons & Reflections From My First 6 Months in Early-Stage VC

Now, having spent just over seven months at byFounders and in the fascinating world of early-stage venture investing, I can say it's a truly unique industry that's hard to grasp from the outside. No book can prepare you for your first weeks or months in VC: you just need to dive in head first and immerse yourself in it.

1. Starting in VC is hard (but surrounding yourself with great colleagues helps!)

Being a VC is an odd job—everyone does it their way; there’s no blueprint to follow and no set rules to abide by. During the first few weeks, I often felt lost, incompetent and overwhelmed. There is so much to learn about the job, yet most of it you have to figure out yourself. How do you do founder calls? How do you evaluate a deck? How do you write a rejection email? How do you size a market or build a thesis on an industry you know next to nothing about? And countless other questions.

Reflecting back, I am grateful for my amazing colleagues who were always available to help me out or answer my dumb questions. If I were to start over, I would have perhaps spent even more time in the beginning seeking advice from them.

2. Be prepared for the inherent lack of structure—and create your own

Even though I have understood now that byFounders probably has more structure than many other early-stage VC funds, there’s just an inherently high level of chaos in the world of venture. However, you can make process your friend in many aspects of the job. Being process-oriented allows you to focus on what matters: making that “scary jump from messy information to a binary yes-or-no call”, as Sebastian Mallaby puts it in his great book The Power Law. Creating processes and automation around the repetitive and mundane parts of the job allows you to have greater focus and the ability to make decisions.

The time I have spent building out workflows and processes has paid itself back tremendously in the form of a clearer mind and a better decision-making capacity.

3. Feedback loops are long—or non-existent

There’s one thing that differentiates VC from many other industries and asset classes: the extremely long or even non-existent feedback loops inherent to the industry. The decision to invest in a pre-seed or seed-stage startup may not yield tangible results for several years. Being in VC requires you to be comfortable with uncertainty, open to fallibility, and have a willingness to embrace the long feedback loops and learn from both successes and failures.

Reflecting on our decisions is part of how we operate at byFounders: on a quarterly basis we, for example, reflect on the companies we have passed on to learn and refine our decision-making. Seeing a startup you have passed on at the early-stage succeed is one of the best opportunities to learn so you don’t miss out the next time a potential unicorn comes knocking on your door.

4. Being an introvert in VC can be challenging

Despite the advent of the VC tech stack and data-driven tools for many aspects of the job, I would argue early-stage VC is and will be an extremely outward-facing, relationship-driven industry. It’s always about the people: about having genuine discussions with founders, fellow investors and other stakeholders. And about showing up with humility, curiosity and an open mind. Building and maintaining good relationships with founders and fellow investors alike provides access to high-quality dealflow, co-investment opportunities and experts to talk to when evaluating startups—and allows you to build meaningful connections and friendships. Attending tech conferences and showing up at local ecosystem events is also part of the job.

These social interactions take a toll and can make you feel drained. To combat this, I have learned the importance of cultivating deep connections with a select few fellow VCs and founders when it comes naturally; you can not force a friendship. These meaningful connections provide balance to the more superficial encounters. I have also found it helpful to focus on managing my energy rather than my time.

5. VC is all about the power law

One of the first things you need to understand about VC is the power law—the phenomena of unequally distributed wins, as explained in more detail by my colleague Martin in his blog post VC 101 - Cultivating a Venture Mindset. In essence, what you need to be aware of is that the most you can lose is 1x your money, but there is no limit to what you can win or miss out on: the top investment typically outshines the returns of all other investments in the fund. There’s also a power law flywheel effect at play: the winners advance exponentially, further fuelling their opportunities and, thereby, growth.

Thus, there’s a reason why VCs talk about “grand slams”, “moon shots” and “shots on goal”, it is all about backing startups with the potential to become multi-billion dollar, category-defining businesses.

6. Only for the curious mind

Whether deciphering the intricacies of the semiconductor industry, unraveling the complexity of protein engineering or comprehending how satellite constellations operate, being in early-stage VC is a constant effort of curiosity. You have to be excited to jump into the unknown with a determination to make sense of it. You need to have the curiosity to stay on top of the world of tech, VC, and beyond. Staying attuned to global events, new technological breakthroughs and what’s happening at the macro-level becomes paramount—serendipitous connections often arise where least expected.

Curiosity is more than just an asset; it’s the catalyst that enables one to think unconventionally, stay relevant and envision the future visionary founders are building towards. The day you stop being curious about the world as a VC might as well be the day you stop being a VC.

How I Ended up in VC

My path to venture capital started in early 2020 when I joined my university’s entrepreneurship society, Aaltoes (whose alumni includes founders of Wolt, among others), and co-led an in-person hackathon event, Dash, amid the global pandemic, exposing me to a fast-moving startup-like environment—and I loved it. Simultaneously, I joined a summer accelerator with a couple of friends, aiming to democratize access to property investing through fractionalised apartment ownership. Despite not progressing past the idea stage, I learned that ideas are easy, execution is hard. It seems we were onto something: Companies like Arrived Homes have since raised $100m+ in funding.

The following year, I became the Chair at Aalto Investment Club, where we, among other things, organized a VC 101 event with Lifeline and Inventure. I remember vividly when Johannes Tervo (now at The Upright Project) drew on a flip chart how the power law works in venture capital—I was intrigued. I then joined an early-stage energy industry startup, taking charge of business development, but soon left to explore the corporate side at a global real estate consulting firm, where I learned the ins and outs of advising transactions valued in the tens and hundreds of millions amid the 2021 market frenzy.

After an exchange semester at NUS in Singapore, I tried out investment banking at Nordea and consulting at Bain (focused on cybersecurity and private equity) and at a Finnish boutique consultancy (focused on energy). At Bain, I enjoyed making sense of a new industry by talking to industry experts, mapping the competitive landscape and sizing the market. Reflecting on these experiences, I realized venture capital was the ideal path to combine my curiosity about emerging technologies with the practical learnings from my startup and advisory experiences. Thus, joining a sector-agnostic, early-stage fund seemed like the perfect fit—and that is how I ended up at byFounders.

Sectors I’m Covering & What I’m Excited About

As a generalist VC, we actively look at a wide range of sectors and have invested in anything ranging from AI to FemTech, and from DeepTech to vertical SaaS. I have so far been quite generalist in the startups that I have looked at, yet having a natural inclination towards the industries I have experience in or I am most passionate about, including biotechnology, frontier & DeepTech, energy & climate, semiconductors, mobility, property & construction technologies, and space & earth observation technologies.

Recently, I have explored topics ranging from the future of protein engineering (which I will soon be publishing a blog post about) to keeping Moore’s law alive through fundamentally new lithography technology (great article on the importance of lithography on The Generalist), and to the world of animal-free collagen and gelatin (read Our Investment in Jellatech).

Ending Thoughts

Having spent just over seven months in the industry, it’s clear to me that being a VC is an odd, yet thrilling job. As my colleague Casper pointed out in his blog post, VC is a “fascinating game of finding and investing in exceptional founders building transformative businesses in massive markets.” Ultimately, VC is about the power law and the unequally distributed wins: therefore, about backing the most ambitious and visionary founders tackling a big enough market.

If you are passionate about technology, startups and venture capital, or you are building the next unicorn (especially within climate, biotech, energy, semiconductors, mobility, proptech or deeptech)—or just want to have a chat about life or go for a bike ride in Copenhagen—you can always reach out to me at Book recommendations are always welcome as well!

P.S. Book Recommendations

My views on VC and life have been shaped quite extensively by the books (and articles & blog posts) I have read. Below you can find some of my book recommendations on VC, startups and beyond —I would love to hear about yours!

Speed & Scale: A Global Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now by John Doerr

The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Making of the New Future by Sebastian Mallaby

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings

Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It by Scott Kupor

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

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Matias Salonen

As part of the investment team, Matias sources and evaluates investment opportunities, builds our internal investment theses, and supports portfolio companies and fund operations, including data-driven VC efforts.

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