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Inside View: Foursquare

Charles Birnbaum, Head of Mobile Business Development at Foursquare, on quitting Wall Street for the tech industry and putting his Wharton MBA to work!

Foursquare is the addictive location-based networking app that folks use to keep their friends in the know about what bar, club or restaurant they're at, among other things!
 
Launch in 2009 by internet entrepreneurs Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai, the addictive app has attracted over two billion check-ins to date! The firm has raised over $70 million in funding from Union Square Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures.
 
Charles Birnbaum, a former investment banker who was a Vice President at Bank of America, joined Foursquare in 2010. He tells us what it takes to land a role at a top tech firm, why he left Wall Street, and how his MBA helped him make the career switch. 
 
Hi Charles, so you’ve just got back from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. How was that?
Really interesting- you can definitely see increased fragmentation of the Android ecosystem, along with a few new Operating Systems popping up. This means new battlegrounds in areas once considered to be Google monopolies, particularly search and maps.
 
In terms of ‘new battlegrounds’, this whole conference started out primarily for the carriers and each year they are playing a smaller and smaller part. As for the winners, it’s pretty clear the big data firms are in a good spot.
 
So tell us about your background, how you made the switch from banking into tech and how the Wharton MBA helped you here
I worked in Wall Street for six years, in and around the tech sector, mainly in investment banking and equity capital markets. I got to see a lot of interesting businesses and worked on a number of deals and I really loved the space.
 
Having said that, I did feel that what I was doing was essentially a commodity service. Deals were awarded on relationships and brand, not talent or ability to execute.
 
I wanted to try something new and going to an interesting tech start-up looked like a challenge.
 
Getting the MBA made sense as it gave me the time to re-educate myself and make new connections and contacts. I thought it was important to go to a top school, especially considering the long term networking opportunities. I was fortunate enough to get into Wharton and started even before school with the search for the Summer internship. 
 
So would you advise anyone looking to move into tech to go down the internship route?
Making a full-time hire is a huge commitment for a startup. However, a part-time three- or four-month project is far more manageable. Often innovative tech companies find it difficult to understand what someone with a finance background can offer. In fairness, this might not be the case with more established blue chip tech firms though.
 
I joined Foursquare as employee #21. I continued to work throughout my second year as I didn’t want to lose the opportunity. So I was doing both Wharton and FourSquare full time! It was interesting to watch it grow from a million to thirty million users in that time.
 
What does FourSquare look for in employees?
Jobs exist, they’re just rarer. When they come up, there are a lot of people to choose from. Competition will be fierce. When Facebook. Google or Twitter come to campus, it’s not like they are recruiting, no one is looking for you - it’s you recruiting them nowadays!
 
What kind of career progression does a successful start-up offer?
Very flat really - until we hit about 60, people didn’t feel the weight of the structure getting in the way at all. But you need some structure at 100 employees, at which point people with traditional finance backgrounds can get more involved. That’s where you can shine as an MBA: you can draw on what you’ve learned about HR, negotiation and public speaking for example.
 
What advice would you have for someone looking to get into the tech sector from a finance background?
My advice is to get an internship. Start with a wide net, try and take a look at a lot of companies with decent funding and substantial backers. Take a look at the most successful VC firms and go through their portfolios. When it comes down to it, startups are not an industry and it’s important that you find them fascinating as you’re likely have to do things beneath your paygrade!
 
Then focus on a couple you would invest in yourself. In terms of getting in touch, you have to network. This means going for coffee, asking for a 15 minute call to introduce yourself, and thoughtful questions about the business. 

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