Q&A with General Catalyst's Denali Tietjen

Updated: Nov 17, 2018

Denali Tietjen is an early stage investor with General Catalyst and Rough Draft, based in New York City. Prior to GC, she wrote for the investing desk at Forbes.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

I don’t think there is a conventional path to VC, but mine was definitely unconventional. Most people in venture have some experience in tech at a startup or come from a finance background. As an Econ/journalism double major in college, I was initially pursuing a career in business journalism: I wrote for NPR, The Boston Globe, and going into my senior year, for the investing desk at Forbes.

That last internship serendipitously led to Venture Capital: I was sitting in on a planning meeting for the magazine (at that time, interns wrote for Forbes online and not magazine) and one of the editors was talking about this music app that all of his son’s friends were using and proposed we break the story. The company had actually started at Tufts. so I offered to make the introduction but was actually asked to write the piece. I became the first intern ever published in the magazine.

The company had raised capital from Rough Draft, so I was introduced to the General Catalyst team while getting sources for my piece. That was really my first exposure to venture capital. The more I learned about VC and startups, the more fascinated I became. I even started applying some principles of the business in how I evaluated and wrote about startups. For example, I recognized that the Tufts’ music startup was a great product with smart technical founders, but that they could use help on their messaging. I ended up moonlighting for the company and loved working with them more than writing about them.

My relationship with General Catalyst grew in the meantime. They initially reached out to build a relationship so I’d cover more Rough Draft startups in Forbes. Eventually I had to tell them I was only 20-years-old and was going back to school. That fall, I started as a Rough Draft Fellow (RGC’s university-focused program backing founders at the student level)) before joining General Catalyst full-time. The fellow program was a great place to start - a third of our fellows go into venture, especially many of our female fellows.

Several eminent VCs have backgrounds in journalism. Is there something about journalism that makes it a strong foundation for investing?

Absolutely. I’d say the skills I picked up from journalism apply more to the early stage than late stage investing (which requires more of a quantitative instinct). In most partner meetings, when we’re evaluating companies, VCs will reference articles as a point of validation. Profiles in TechCrunch, Forbes 30 Under 30… these are all early stage data points. That’s leaving a critical part of venture capital to the journalist; they are sourcing before the earliest stage investors.

Journalists go through inboxes filled with pitches from founders and discern the most interesting narratives. Journalism is like an anthropological study where you have to find a company, see the macro trend, and what’s going to resonate with the audience. Then, of course, you meet the company and their founders. The questions you are asking as a journalist aren’t generic - you need to probe and understand what motivates founders. It’s the same method for early stage investing. Without relying on transactional data (which you rarely have at that point), due diligence focuses on the human side: the founders, their team, and product vision.

And why did you decide that Rough Draft and General Catalyst was the best fit for you?

General Catalyst was looking to expand its Rough Draft footprint in New York which is where I wanted to go after college. I’m most excited by the seed and early stage, which fit with Rough Draft’s investment priorities as well. So the timing and focus were right. But what made me stay was the way Rough Draft and General Catalyst really care about young people. It shows in our investment thesis and in our portfolio. Some of our most successful investments have come from student founders and people under 30 like the founder of Stripe and Warby Parker. The partners at General Catalyst are uniquely dedicated to making young people’s careers through mentorship. And as a young person, it’s a great environment to be in.

I’m also bullish on the NY tech scene. It aligns with what I care about - the future of media and consumer finance that addresses underserved communities. Personal consumer finance is still for people with disposable income who can use Robinhood and Wealthfront. There are so many untouched individuals that could really benefit from access to capital. People in New York care about these issues and the team at GC are investing more into these opportunities. If I had joined another vc firm, I don’t think I would have been a meaningful part of that story.

How would you describe an average day in your role?

60% of my time is dedicated to Rough Draft, which I find to be really fulfilling. The students involved in Rough Draft are unique, genuine, and passionate. While their friends are hanging out and partying, these students are dedicating the most fun years of their life to starting a company. They’re all in. It’s different than working with an older founder because students don’t have to worry about supporting a family. But it comes with major disadvantages for accessing capital and accessing a network.

Rough Draft checks bring the institutional funding, but we also spend a lot of our time building companies with the student founders. I work with them to understand investment trends, create their advisory board, and tap the NY tech scene. I spend about 3 hours in my inbox giving feedback on decks and websites; supporting talent and hiring processes; and making introductions to lawyers. Another hour is talking to other investors and helping our startups fundraise. I’m also mentoring our 12 venture fellows as they review student founder pitches and host events.

The other 40% of my job is sourcing for General Catalyst. I take coffee with founders to talk about their startup. I conduct research, due diligence, and work with partners to evaluate investment opportunities.

What kind of guidance and support do you receive from female associates, partners, and mentors?

There are definitely women in venture that I look up to. I’ve found that my peer group has provided the best community and resources. A lot of us get together on our own and at events organized by firms. These meetups are great for practicing personal pitches, getting feedback, and exchanging deals. The NY community is so friendly even for new, young investors.

There are several women I really respect: Hayley Barna at First Round, Soraya Darabi at Trailmix, Alexia Bonatsos of TechCrunch and Dream Machine, to name a few. What I really value about these women is that they have enriching lives outside of work. That’s an important representation of your success because you need to be able to remove the vc hat and observe what’s going on in the world. What’s culturally significant? How are people spending their leisure time? What are they watching on television?

All 3 of these women are kickass at their job and able to relate to founders because of their lives outside the job. It’s an under-appreciated asset that all investors should have.

Have you faced major challenges in the space - be it imposter syndrome or something else - and how did you overcome it?

Being young has been a bigger challenge than being a woman though the two are interconnected. There are times that I know I’m in the room because the partners value the young person’s opinion and they want me to speak up. But other times, I’m with older, successful people like the founders of Kayak and Getty Images… and I’m 23. Knowing when to contribute and when to listen and learn is an art that I’m still balancing.

Another challenge is that I am the only young person. Most people graduate and work alongside young colleagues. They might be segmented into a ‘younger people’ group but that’s how most 20-somethings make friends in the workplace. I’ve been at General Catalyst for 3 years and I’m still the most junior employee - that’s very different from other industries where you hire people every few months. Being less experienced, I have to own and demonstrate confidence in my abilities.

Any advice for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

I know this is advice that everyone gives but you should develop a unique point of view on where the world is going. If you’re interested in CPGs - what do you think are the ingredients to a successful consumer brand and why? Is it creating community where it didn’t exist? Or are you interested in the future of offline media because Millennials are reacting to a generation oversaturated with technology? If you can develop an opinion and write about it, that’s ideal. But it’s not always possible if you have a busy job.

So what I would really encourage is for people to have a personality in tech. That’s very important. It’s a network-heavy industry and you need to be able to carry a conversation. Be smart, have a strong thesis, and show that you have a personality to go with it.