AMA: My journey, from the lab to MMPE

I've been threatening to do one of these for a couple months, and I figured I'd slam it out while I have some downtime in the office. I'm in my early 30s and I work at a middle-market private equity firm in the Southeastern US. I've taken a rather long, circuitous route to get here, and I'd like to share my story for two reasons: (1) show that yes, unicorns exist, you can take a non-traditional path to get into PE; but that (2) so many things had to break my way at the right time that trying to mirror my path would be a colossally bad idea.

Feel free to lob in any questions about my background, experience, choices, or current work, and I'll answer them as well as I can. Fair warning up front: if your question is some variant of "Hi Layne, I'm in high school / college / b-school / the clergy / other and I'm trying to break into PE, and my professional experience is anything other than the classic banking / PE template, what are my chances?", then I will draw on my engineering training and round to the nearest significant digit, which is zero.

Ready? Let's hop in the time machine back to the early 2000s...

--

I went to college to be a scientist. Fully expected to be a researcher in a lab, running experiments, doodling on whiteboards, and advancing the collective scientific field of knowledge. I majored in biomedical engineering at a top-25 non-Ivy and was a 4-year varsity athlete, so I didn't spend much time outside of the library and the locker room. Everything discussed on this site--the entire world of finance, consulting, and other related fields--didn't exist in my mind, and I didn't care. Graduated with a 3.5+ and skipped off to grad school to keep science-ing.

Here's where my plan hit a snag. I had decided, in my head, what working in the lab would be like, without bothering to observe my surroundings during any of my summer internships. Turns out working in the lab wasn't for me. Like, at all. Reading about advances in a scientific field is one thing, and beating your head against the wall for months on end to try and get experiments to turn out the way you want them to is quite another. I decided to cut off grad school at a master's and find a job.

Incredible life development #1:

I found a job. I got hired by a boutique strategy consulting firm for reasons that to this day escape me. Remember, I had never taken a business class up to this point; I just happened to find a firm that operated on a strategy of finding bright kids from any background who communicated well, and then beating the crap out of them until they developed business acumen. This was a small firm, so we did all the things you'd expect from a larger firm but with a fraction of the resources. It was a grind, and after a few years of little sleep and screaming partners, I was looking for something else.

Incredible life development #2:

A block away was a boutique IB firm. I had gone to high school with a guy who was an associate there by that time, and we frequented the same coffee shop. I mentioned I was looking for something new, and it just so happened that they were looking for an analyst with something other than a classic finance background, who could provide a different perspective on their advisory projects and in positioning their middle-market sell-side clients. You know, like a strategy consulting background. I got an interview, completely off-cycle, and got a job. I spent the first six months trying to catch up on all the finance & accounting I'd never learned in the first place, and ended up staying for two years and developing more of a classic IB toolbox.

By this time I wasn't sure that I wanted to stay in that city my entire life, and I was running out of options for landing somewhere new. I decided to pull the b-school ripcord as a way into a new recruiting pool that I otherwise wouldn't have access to. I went to a top-15, but not M7 fulltime program and recruited mainly for consulting. I was interested in private equity by this point, but as I was not at H/S/W, everyone I talked to gently informed me that I would not be finding a position in private equity, and it was best to set my sights elsewhere. So I did, got a summer internship at a major consulting firm, landed a return offer, and came back to school for my second year intending to head back into the strategy consulting world.

Incredible life development #3:

Back at school, I learned through a friend about a local middle-market PE firm. They flew under the radar and hadn't had a presence on campus, and hadn't had a real recruiting push for a few years. But they were caught in a weird spot: recent close of a fund, lots of work to be done, but awkward timing as new MBA hires wouldn't be available until springtime. They were short-staffed and looking for warm bodies.

It just so happened that I had front-loaded my credits, so I was going to be finished with my degree requirements in a year and a half. I reached out to the firm, expressed my interest, and inquired about working as an intern to help them bridge their staffing needs. They took me up on it and as my fellow classmates went back for their second-year spring, I went to work as an hourly contractor for not much more than minimum wage.

It ended up being a great fit. My experience in previous boutiques helped me with the small office environment, and my science background came in handy more than once looking at opportunities. I hustled as much as I could hustle, spent late nights, took on extra projects, and tried to work myself into a job. A few months in, the partners offered me a full-time position to stick around.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Looking back, I don't want to chalk it all up to luck. I worked hard, at a lot of places, and made choices about how to spend my time that weren't the most fun. But if any one of the "incredible life developments" breaks a different way, then I don't end up in this office.

Thanks for reading and happy to answer questions.

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Comments (24)

Jul 26, 2017

Interesting story, and well written. Congrats

As someone who's also an engineering grad with a circuitous background, I'm always pleased to see similar folks

What do you want to do next? You make it sound like you're all done, but the journey never ends

Jul 26, 2017

Thanks. You're right, the journey never ends. But I've dragged my wife around the country enough times that at least for now, we'd like to settle.

I could see a couple pathways, but the option set resides on the buy-side. There's headroom at my firm, so growing into an eventual partner role is possible if I perform; I also think there's a fairly robust market for VP-level PE guys, so if things go south, a transfer is my safety option.

I say that now, but I'm on my ~5th completely different 5-year plan in the last decade, so time will tell.

    • 1
Jul 27, 2017

"Turns out working in the lab wasn't for me. Like, at all. Reading about advances in a scientific field is one thing, and beating your head against the wall for months on end to try and get experiments to turn out the way you want them to is quite another. I decided to cut off grad school at a master's and find a job."

This. I thought I read my story in it. Thank you for sharing.

@Layne Staley : Sorry if this is off-limit, but what did your wife do while moving around the country with you? I am a recent-wed and I am trying to figure out how to arrange for my wife to keep pace with me and my future career.

Jul 26, 2017

So what is the next step? Similar experience as you.; tried consulting, IBD, PE. What is your thought process in evaluating for the next step? Would like to hear.

Jul 26, 2017

Put simply, I don't like clients. My ideal would be if I was the head of a family office, and it was my family, so I didn't have to answer to other LPs or partners or clients or anything of the like. Sadly, my family won't be seeding a family office anytime soon, so the next best thing would be a leadership position at a mid-sized PE firm with (relatively) hands-off LPs.

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Jul 26, 2017

have you considered setting up a blank-check company (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blankcheckcomp...) . i have seen a few people raised a fund (US$30-50MM) on a small board (AIM on LSE, catalist on SGX) with a pretty board mandate to invest without having a proper deal pipeline set up.

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Jul 27, 2017

To a fellow engineer in PE, I say, Kudos and FUCK THE LAB.
Spent a good two years in that shitshop and have had enough of it.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."

Jul 26, 2017
My Name is Jeff:

Spent a good two years in that shitshop and have had enough of it.

Just wasn't for me. I remember being in the cell culture hood at 3 in the morning trying to harvest enough cells to take a time point, and thinking "what the hell am I doing?"

Best part is, when I started looking for other non-scientific work, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Lots of people trying to convince me not to go "do business." I still remember one PhD telling me, "if you want to do something else, just understand that you'll never make as much money or advance as far as you would if you stuck it out and continued on this path." He was breathtakingly wrong.

    • 1
Jul 27, 2017

When they talk about money, they're always wrong. Sure, you're making 200k$ (tops) working 9-5 everyday (after engaging in paltry-pay slavery for half a decade), but nothing beats the feeling of buying mega real estate like groceries.

One of my professors understood my background very well, and although he failed to convince me to go the research path, once he realized it, he stopped pursuing. Nonetheless, he encouraged me to continue pursuing my interests in his field, and connected me with a ton of his former college friends in VC.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."

    • 1
Jul 27, 2017

Thanks for doing the AMA and great story. I have to ask - can you speak to comp at your current firm at all?

Jul 26, 2017

...maybe? Could you give me a little more context as to what you're looking for? I'm not going to say numbers, but maybe there's something else I can address (comparison to something else, base/bonus/carry structure, comparison between levels within the firm, etc.).

Jul 27, 2017

Hmmm if you (understandably) don't want to share comp ranges, maybe you could share (1) how much did all-in comp increase from your full time pay post MBA to now (or perhaps your comp's CAGR) and (2) when you first joined and now, what is your bonus as a % of your salary?

Jul 30, 2017

Want to read but too hung over for so many words.

    • 3
Jul 30, 2017

Hangover nectar is seeping through the pores of the sentence.

"I'm into, uh, well, murders and executions, mostly."

Jul 30, 2017

Yeah. My wife and I had a party for two couples we know that're getting married soon. I, of course, power drank vodka all night since it's like my spinach with social events. I've never met a stranger when I'm drunk. My brain still isn't recovered, but it was a nice time.

    • 1
May 11, 2018

Dude, you're a tank.

Jul 26, 2017

Ha. As noted, I've put forth a lot of effort...but so have a lot of other people, and I've been on the right side of some great breaks.

The next 5-10 years will be interesting, where I'll find out if my judgment and acumen developed through my non-traditional career path sets me up to compete against the real tanks. It's a little bit like getting a starting spot in the NFL after playing for an FCS school and going undrafted. Sure, the origin story is fun, but it doesn't matter unless you can ball.

    • 1
May 30, 2018

Awesome story. Hard work does pay off.

How did you like your MBA experience? Any tips/advice on how to get the most out of the MBA experience? I'm coming from a similar background, UG in engineering and heading to a Top-15 MBA program this fall and I am currently exploring post-MBA career options including consulting/banking/and the far fetched world of PE.

Most Helpful
Jul 26, 2017
imthelord:

How did you like your MBA experience? Any tips/advice on how to get the most out of the MBA experience?

I could go on a long diatribe about my MBA experience, but it's not going to be very informative for you, since my experience was wholly a function of my own expectations and prior experiences. As is everyone else's MBA experience. A classic YMMV.

For you, getting the most out of the experience depends on what your work experience has been like between undergrad and now and where you're trying to go. The advice I'd give someone who's sponsored and sure to go back to their old firm (travel, make tons of friends, take interesting classes, don't stress one bit about grades, join clubs) differs from someone who's changing careers and trying to break into a competitive industry (creatively recruit off campus and teach yourself how to build a god damn industry-standard LBO model).

Happy to comment more specifically, feel free to shoot over a PM.

    • 3
May 30, 2018

delete

May 30, 2018

PMed you

Jun 11, 2018

This gives me so much hope! I'm a fresh graduate who has just finished an International Relations degree, and somehow landed a PE internship (with no finance knowledge)