This interview is with Avish Bhama, founder of Vaurum, a finance / precious metals startup. (Download the audio recording of this interview.)
- Michigan State undergrad
- TransMarket Group
- Founded Vaurum
Q. Tell us about your background.
A. Sure. I’m 26, I went to college at Michigan State and graduated in 2008. I then worked as a fixed-income trader in Chicago at a proprietary fund called TransMarket Group. After that, I moved to the Bay Area and worked as an analyst at Apple Computer. Last year, I left Apple to co-found my startup, Vaurum.
Q. Tell us how your career path has taken you to your current role.
A. Coming out of college, I knew I wanted to be successful in business. The only way I thought it was possible to do that was to work in finance at a bank or a fund, so I thought I wanted to go work on Wall Street for the next ten years.
My thought process was to apply to the major Wall Street banks, and when I graduated I had actually signed an offer to join the investment bank Bear Stearns. But a couple months before I graduated, just as the financial crisis was really beginning, Bear collapsed and I lost my offer. I really, really wanted to get out to Wall Street and I was hell-bent on going to a bank.
So I decided to take an internship at a hedge fund-of-funds in Michigan; I went back to school for an extra semester to re-recruit for the next fall recruiting class for full-time jobs on Wall Street. But during that fall, Lehman Brothers collapsed, too.
So I set up a spreadsheet of every contact I had that had a connection to a bank or a fund or finance — it had all my contacts, all the people I talked to recently, when I had talked to them, notes about our conversation — and worked that spreadsheet to tell people how interested I was in a finance career. And I found that when you focus like that and you rule the other options out and commit yourself to one outcome, that outcome might not necessarily work out exactly how you planned, but good things happen when you have very dedicated focus.
For example, I spent several hours a day typing e-mails or making cold calls to banks and admins (I found creative ways of getting by admins), and I would have a certain response rate, and from that you figure out how to tweak your “sales pitch” and e-mails. I ended up getting some interviews and, through a grueling process, I got a few offers in the fall. I accepted an offer in Chicago at a fund called TransMarket Group, where I was a fixed-income trader.
Q. What were some creative ways you used to get around executive assistants and get your e-mails read?
A. From an e-mail perspective, I actually found that if you have a very formal e-mail, you tend to have a lower response rate than if you have a more casual but very respectful e-mail that is concise, casual, and to-the-point.
One small trick I learned involved e-mail subject lines. For example, one of my standard subject lines originally was “Getting Acquainted” or “Touching Base” or some very formal phrase. I ended up changing these. For example, if the person’s name was David, I would write that person’s name in the subject line, and it would say something like, “Hi David – our call?”
This immediately increases the rate that people open the message because when they see something that has their name or a question in the subject line, they’re kind of thrown by it. They’re thinking, “Well, do we actually have a call set up?” And they end up reading the message, and once you get beyond that point, if the message is quick and concise, most people are willing to help. And I wasn’t necessarily asking for a job right off the bat, but I would say something like, “I came across your background and I did a CNBC search of you and I saw that you did this interview, and I was very intrigued by it. I would love to spend 15 minutes on the phone picking your brain about the markets.”
And if you dig deep into their industry and paint a picture of you wanting to learn more about what they do, that goes over better than just saying, “I’m interviewing for jobs and I really want you to give me an interview at your firm.” People generally like talking, and if you e-mail someone and ask them for advice or stroke their ego a bit and say, “I’d love to get your input on what’s happening in the world and your industry,” usually they’re more than happy to offer it.
But you don’t want to ask very elementary questions like, “How does your interview process work?” That’s something an HR representative can answer, but a Managing Director probably isn’t too interested in responding to. Usually, I’ve found that if you’re charismatic and you’re willing to learn a little bit about what they do, and you are willing to express your view and offer them context on who you are — as long as you can communicate and articulate that you’re a smart person and you want to learn, that’s what they like to hear.
Q. Tell us how you transitioned to Apple, and what was it like working there?
A. Apple was an amazing experience. I got the job through a friend. At the time, I was working in trading in Chicago, but I didn’t really like my job, and I was really fascinated with tech and entrepreneurship. I knew I wanted to move out to Silicon Valley to start a company. And I gave it so much thought that one day I just decided to take a leap of faith and I left my job in Chicago and relocated to the Valley, all within a matter of 72 hours. I had some money saved up and I got a really cheap place in Palo Alto.
I worked initially on a startup with a co-founder I met here and, although it didn’t ultimately go anywhere, I learned a lot of skills but was running out of money. So my options were to get a full-time job, or try to raise funding for a company that had very little traction at that point. I decided to recruit for jobs and pinged my contacts in the Valley to ask if they knew of any opportunities.
One of the people I knew at Apple was a girl I met on a flight in 2008 as we were flying out to interview at Bear Stearns together. She went to the University of Michigan; I went to Michigan State. And she had a Wall Street Journal at the airport, and I asked her, “Are you flying out for an interview?” And she said yes, I said I was too, and we got to talking and we ended up keeping in touch over the years, which goes to show that you should always be willing to network and talk to people, because you never know how it will change your life in a positive way.
We kept in touch, and I pinged her when I was out in the Bay, and I told her about a job opening I saw at Apple and how I would love to learn more about it. I asked her if she could help direct me to the right person to learn more about the role. She was super cool about it — she forwarded my resume to Apple’s HR director, who sent it to the hiring manager. At that point, I actually had an offer to go to another company in the Valley, but I really, really wanted this job at Apple. So I turned down the job just to interview at Apple. And through a long series of interviews, I finally got the job.
In terms of my experience working at Apple, it was a time when they had already been in skyrocket growth for the last three years. And I had always admired Steve Jobs from afar and seen all his interviews on TV or the conferences he spoke at; I would try to listen to investor calls; I was a big fan of his speech at Stanford. I was just a big fan of his, like most entrepreneurs in the Valley. And working at Apple, you get to witness how they do marketing, how they do recruiting, how they view products and design. I was in a finance function, but just being part of the organization and getting to learn how the company puts everything together was very fascinating.
The one thing I learned was Apple does not hire generalists. Apple hires experts. For example, take packaging. If you’ve ever opened an Apple product, it’s a very special moment for the customer — it feels great. And the way they view packaging is they’ll hire packaging engineers that are experts and all they know is packaging. And the way they view innovation is that these experts will make incremental changes in the way packaging should be done at Apple. And these incremental innovations add up to very large innovations in the overall business.
So Apple does packaging just a little bit differently than other companies. They do marketing just a little bit differently. But these little differences add up to Apple being Apple, which is a very different company than all the other companies in the Valley. I learned a tremendous amount there.
Q. What advice do you have for people who might be interested in transitioning to a role you’ve had?
A. The one thing that has always worked for me is focus and commitment. It’s really important to think through your options and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, not just doing it because everyone else is doing it. That will help you to commit yourself to one goal.
In looking for jobs, for instance, I would focus on one specific industry. People would ask, “What kind of job are you interested in?” And I would say, “I want to be a trader at a fund or a bank trading interest rates or something macro-related or foreign exchange.” Rather than just saying, “I want a career in finance.” You need to focus on one goal and commit yourself to that, eliminating all other options. I’ve found that when you commit yourself like that, you generally put on blinders and you work better, and you get better results and outcomes.
You may be interested in…
How to Nail Your Private Equity Interview (whether you have finance training or not)
This career transition guide teaches you step-by-step strategy, technique, and mindset of the distinctive private equity / venture capital job interview candidate. (Through our partner website InterviewPE)
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