Transitioning from Wall Street to Startups

Startup Institute applicants and alumni come from a variety of professional backgrounds. This post is part one of a three-part series about leaving a Wall Street career for a startup job by guest blogger, Rebecca Jackson of @AfterWallSt

With New York City’s tech sector now the second largest behind finance, the exodus from Wall Street to Silicon Alley may be poised to accelerate. Recently, a room full of financiers gathered at Viggle’s HQ in the Flatiron district, hungry to learn from four individuals who have successfully transitioned from finance to the startup world.  

Co-founded and moderated by Sameer Syed, Director of Business Development at Genesis Media, and former JPMorgan investment banking analyst, this was the fifth “Wall Street to Silicon Alley” roundtable. The event featured a blend of startup founders and employees - Danielle Weinblatt, CEO and Founder of Take the Interview, Inc.; David Sinsky, Founder of ZenCap; Eric Satler, Senior Director of Business Development at Viggle; and Will Nathan, Co-Founder of Homepolish.com.

Taking the Plunge

“If you’re tired of building excel models, editing PowerPoint’s and running ‘scenarios’” the event’s marketing blurb states, you may be ripe for a move to a startup. However, before you take the plunge, get clear on the pros and cons.

1. Money is not the primary reason to join a startup. The average employee of a startup that gets to IPO (a rare beast!) gets approximately $350,000. For Danielle, the key reason to leap is because you’re mission driven and want to contribute value to society. Eric cautioned everyone to be sure about the decision because if you exit finance “that door may be closed forever.”

2. Determine the type and size of company you want to join - a ten person company versus a twenty person company; or perhaps a “startup” like Twitter? If growth is part of your decision, David recommends looking at early stage startups, whereas if stability is important a larger, more established company might be a better fit.  Information regarding a company’s maturity, funding round and number of employees is relatively easy to find - sites like Crunchbase and AngelList are good starting points.

Who and What Do You Know?

It’s tough to network when you’re in finance and burning the midnight oil, but there are no shortcuts in a sector without a defined recruiting cycle. David advised attendees not to underestimate the size of their current network as it might be a second or third degree connection that helps you the most.  Certainly, Will can trace 80% of his connections back to about five people and added that learning to code, and building a side project, gave him something valuable to talk about beyond his finance experience.  

Furthermore, do your homework on the companies you’re interested in and the roles they’re hiring for. The old front-office/back-office divide is reversed in tech and you may find yourself battling some less helpful Wall Street stereotypes. That said, most startups are very data-driven meaning a typical finance skillset can come in handy.  David suggested that learning SQL will put you ahead of 99% of other bankers - just don’t call it coding!

Finally, remember that core Wall Street skill - the ability to work your a** off - is also pretty attractive!

Learn more about landing a startup job in part two of this series. 

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Rebecca Jackson is a former Wall St professional who left Investment Banking in December 2011 to undertake a process of career discovery and turn her attention to early stage startups and small businesses. She has since worked as a consultant and advisor on a number of projects including a global women’s week, a peer-to-peer talent marketplace, an events discovery platform, a women’s personal finance website, an executive coaching company and a new venture services firm, among others. Say hello on Twitter @BKLYN_Brummie.