Summers in Startups: Differentiating Growth Opportunities for Undergraduates

As the timeline for internship searches slowly advances every school year, students are scrambling for opportunities to gain professional experience. Sophomores and freshmen particularly have difficulty leveraging their limited backgrounds to showcase qualifications for competitive jobs.  Where should they be looking?  All signs are pointing towards the startup space.  Interning at a startup allows students the flexibility to try many different roles and further hone their interests.  Additionally, it provides the unique opportunity to have a concrete impact on a company with high growth potential.  E@D spoke to Eric Hu to learn more about this experience. Eric is a sophomore majoring in Economics and Biology, and he interned at two startups last summer.  Eric will be interning at KKR in leveraged credit this upcoming summer.  

Tell us about the startups you worked at.

Eric Hu, Biology and Economics Major in the College of Arts and Sciences, Class of 2020

This summer I worked at two startups in the finance and fintech industries. I worked full time at Beast Enterprises, a growth equity startup (kind of a combination between venture capital, private equity, and consulting) that focused on seed stage or Series A companies. Most of the work was consulting with clients and then creating deliverables (usually a pitch deck, market research, or some similar report) or helping them with raising capital. When working with these early-stage companies, most of the time they aren’t too sure what help they need.  The consultations are important to identify problems and needs that Beast could help them with. For raising capital, Beast had a number of connections with traditional venture capital firms.  Because many of these companies’ ask for Series A or B was relatively small (ranging from 200k – 2mln), our connections and experience with various angel investors/angel groups (Columbia Angels, MIT Angels, Red Bear Angels), corporate VCs, and various types of crowdfunding really added value. The team was around 10 people.  It was comprised of mostly MBAs along with a person who focused on marketing/brand/graphic design, and another individual who specialized in UX/Website design and creation.

At the same time, I worked at SumZero. This was a platform that is a combination between Facebook and Thomson One or CapIQ, popular tools for financial market analyses.  Essentially, it is a buy-side investor community.  In order to join, one had to apply, pass a screening process, and be active on the buy side (an analyst or higher at a hedge fund, private equity firm, quant firm, asset management, mutual fund, etc.). SumZero contains around a third of the buy-side community, with about 20,000 members. Its appeal is the access to thousands of equity reports written by the members, feedback on ideas/models by the community, and access to a job vault and cap intro. The value add for having access to SumZero is significant; the ability to screen thousands of potential companies with a good amount of fundamental work already done for you. The team at SumZero was large for a startup, around 20 people and composed of a “sales/business” team, many of which came from roles in traditional finance (Goldman, UBS, Credit Suisse)  and a large developer team for the SumZero platform.

Why did you choose to work at a startup?

As a freshman who just finished pledging a business fraternity, I really wanted to gain some real-world experience in finance. But by the time I started looking for summer opportunities I was super late and knew that especially as a freshman, traditional finance jobs weren’t going to work. So instead, I thought about my friend, who was working as a marketing director at a startup during his gap year between high school and college. I’ve always been interested in tech, watched Silicon Valley, and my friend kept talking about his great experience, so I decided to give it a shot. It also seemed like a fantastic way to learn in a more horizontal environment, a laid-back culture, and an opportunity to stay in New York City.

I basically asked everyone I knew of any startups. I searched up around 50 “fintech” startups in New York City, but the real thing that helped was going to Angel List. I didn’t really care if the startups had open positions, but there were around 100 startups doing something in fintech. I essentially cold emailed and Linkedin messaged all of them asking if they were looking for an intern, and attached my resume. It was pretty sick; a lot more responded than I thought (around 15-20). I had a couple of rounds of interviews, and I eventually ended up with 5 offers. I chose Beast because I liked the people there the most, and SumZero because they had Cornell Alums, like COO Nicholas Kapur.  The founder, Divya Narendra, was a great guy who I heard about in the movie The Social Network with the Winklevoss twins.

Eric and the Beast team working hard

What were your hours like?

Working at two startups wasn’t great for hours, but both of the bosses were incredibly flexible with accommodating any conflicts. That’s the thing with startups. It’s a pretty laid-back culture and people understand that things come up, so it’s more important that the work is done than getting to the office. People would call in from home pretty often, or work on weekends.

I worked at Beast on Monday, Wednesday or Friday from around 10:30 am or 11:00 am until 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm. We would get lunch as a team around 2:00 or 3:00 pm. A couple times during the summer we went on retreat at a place in Greenwich, Connecticut which was pretty fun. On Fridays, we would usually go to Happy Hour.

At SumZero, I worked from 9:30 am – 2:30 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I would also get work from both to do over the weekend for a couple hours, but would never need to go to the office. At most, I would have maybe one or two meetings via video conference.  It wasn’t bad at all.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Eric working in the startup’s wework space in NYC

The biggest challenge was really learning on the job.  At a startup, there really isn’t any training. From day one you’re expected to do the work that everyone else at the company has been doing, and you just have to learn along the way. If you’re not doing a project a co-worker is, and so as an intern, you really need to pick up the slack and take initiative. If you don’t know anything, which is pretty normal, you just ask around. For some clients, I pretty much managed entire projects myself, which was a great learning experience. But the competition is fierce – in the startup environment, everyone’s trying to become big. You really need to fight for clients and put in double the effort to get that slight edge, whether it be for reputation or to close the deal. Something that needed to become normal quick was going into something, regardless if I had any idea what to do. I just needed to take initiative, be confident, and learn as much as you could to deliver the best product to the client.

What do you wish you knew before working at a startup?

How fast-paced things were! You hit the ground running and you don’t stop running. You work in sprints and have to juggle multiple projects a week.  It’s important to be able to jump from assignment to assignment, and also tack on work with your peers if there’s a sprint. But it’s really exciting and the environment is incredible; you develop a great sense of camaraderie with everyone and after work, you often spend time with them. Working at a startup is not really a job for most people, it’s a way of life and their passion.

Would you consider working at a startup again?

Absolutely! It’s really incredible being able to work with such passionate people. Really an incredible amount of entrepreneurs in the space that live and breathe their work. The hours are pretty great and the culture at the startups are fantastic – we worked in co-working spaces and so had free coffee, beer on the tap, nap pods, events, competitions, etc. You’re constantly surrounded by innovation, work in these huge sprints and every day is a new challenge. It’s never boring at a startup.