Bring Back Apprenticeship

About a month ago, I had dinner with Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures. During dinner Fred shared with me how he got into Venture Capital. He started in 1986 with Euclid Partners. He knew a lot about computers and the computer industry, they didn’t. So they brought him on. Fred worked 10 years with that firm, 10 years! He worked on a lot of good deals and made them a lot of money. What I found most interesting about his story, is Fred never became a partner with the firm. Fred didn’t benefit from any of the exists, he was strictly an employee. What Fred did get from his 10 year investment was the education of a lifetime. He got an apprenticeship. A very valuable one.

Fred is now Sr. Partner and founder of Union Square Ventures (His second Firm, as he founded Flatiron Ventures in 1996.) Union Square has an impressive portfolio that includes Twitter, FourSquare, Disqus and Fred has also had some impressive exists, including Geocities. If you follow Fred on Twitter you know he has over 30,000 followers. His blog has over 50,000 subscribers and he blogs often about his experiences at Euclid and how they have helped him today. Fred has been quoted or referenced in a number of mainstream media including; Time Magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times. Fred has become somewhat of a celebrity in the VC and Social Media world. Yet, all this didn’t just happen because Fred put up a V.C. shingle. It happened because of his apprenticeship.

Apprenticeship seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. A right of passage for many skilled laborer positions, the apprenticeship was the way many became experts in their craft. They would spend years studying under Masters and come out the other side Journeymen and then become Masters themselves. I love this practice. We need more of it. I would love to see apprenticeships for Venture Capital. I think many of the finance professions would benefit including, hedge-fund management, Private Equity firms and others. I would like to see technology apprenticeship for certain verticals, like medical, bio-tech, and communications. As our world becomes more and more complex, and more and more specialized, apprenticeships can add tremendous value.

Apprenticeships do more than teach a craft. They provide real world experience to the ups and downs of an industry. They allow industry secrets and nuances to be passed on. They create life lessons for the apprentice. They establish relationships. Principles, values and experiences are kept alive, as each generation gives to the next. Apprenticeships create entree into complex worlds.

Unfortunately, few seem to have the patience for an apprenticeship. The experienced don’t have the time to mentor and teach. The up and comers are too impatient and short sighted to “pay their dues.” I can’t imagine too many young people who would be willing to work for ten years for salary only, as Fred did, without becoming a partner. It’s unfortunate. There is a lot to be gained by both parties.

Becoming great at something takes time. It takes failure. It takes experience. It takes mentors. It takes support. It takes mistakes. Apprenticeship allows all this to happen and more. An apprenticeship is an investment on both sides and if done well, it’s one with huge returns for everyone. The apprenticeship needs a second wind. It needs new life. Like investment in companies, investment in people has just as big returns, and sometimes even bigger.

Fred’s first start-up investment was Fred Wilson Inc. He invested the first 10 years of his career in that property. I would say it is one of his best investments to date.

Are there some great apprentice programs you know about? I would love to hear about them. Share in the comments and I will update this post and help spread the word.

If you’re a VC reading this and have an apprenticeship program, I know a highly skilled Sr. Executive Sales Leader willing to make a change. 🙂

CORRECTION: Fred did eventually become partner, but left before a big payday.