Full Disclosure: We're both alumni of Goldman Sachs & Co. We drank the Kool-Aid as they say...and we still do. We don't think that's a bad thing, but some may say otherwise.
Much of what we learned post-college was our "MBA from Wall Street" skills picked up while working long hours. But it's not the things you may think. Excel models (aka spreadsheets with complex modeling) now scare one of us (Courtney) while the other (Carter) can still build a DCF (Discounted Cash Flow) in several hours. Having said that, we both agree that this knowledge isn't directly applicable to what we do now and, more importantly what we plan to do in the future. However, we'll always be grateful for the underlying building blocks we learned at Goldman and barely a day passes where one of these isn't reinforced.
Here are 5 key things we learned at Goldman that have helped us immeasurably as we continue to evolve as entrepreneurs and leaders:
1) Culture--cliche, yes, but it's easy to talk about yet tough to implement. We lost our culture several years ago along the way at our first venture VEEV Spirits and have had to work twice as hard to regain it. We can honestly say that there was a palpable culture in the early 2000s at Goldman that permeated from the junior analysts like us up to Hank Paulsen, who was the CEO (before he became Secretary of the Treasury). It remains literally one of the most amazing things either of us have witnessed in our careers.
Bringing this back to an entrepreneurial comparison, culture is obviously key but having it among 10 people is very different than 10,000 people. Neither are easy, but trust us, you learn a lot more about culture when it has to scale at that kind of level.
2) People--we would argue that Columbia (where we both went to undergrad) was the most diverse pool of humans we had ever been a part of in terms of unique interests and talents. However, Goldman was easily the most talented group of people (albeit with similar skill sets) we have ever been exposed to. Healthy competition and discussion in a setting where 99 percent of the people seem more qualified than we were helps push you beyond your limits early in your career.
3) Process--in terms of more tangible skills, this is probably the biggest learning we had. Goldman, not unlike other Fortune 100 and White Glove firms, had an intense training program, but it was really the stuff that happened in the line of fire (aka on the job) that teaches you analytical processes. How you manage your time, how you work with and through others (both up and down the food chain), mentoring and an insane attention to detail are at the top of the laundry list of things we still utilize daily. Processes and systems are key to scaling. Build the company expecting it to have to scale to be a billion dollar company.
As a tangential point, understanding finance and being able to read financial statements is an enduring skill. Many great startups fail because they are undercapitalized and they don't have a good grasp of finance.
4) Credibility--although we think the landscape could be changing dramatically for the next generation, it's still a "name brand" sort of world out there for anyone Millennial age and up. We can't tell you the number of doors we opened with investors based on our background and it's hard to imagine what other means we would have used to break through the clutter and get meetings as 24-year-olds. We realize that we were incredibly lucky to have a strong brand name to put on our resumes but even if that doesn't apply, having field experience and training from a large company very rarely goes unnoticed by prospective employers.
5) Network--humbly, there may be no more powerful fraternity (we mean that as a gender neutral term) than Goldman Sachs (with respect to HBS, McKinsey, and whomever else might think that they have a claim on that title (especially Courtney's college days as a Sigma Chi!). We feel very fortunate to be alumni of it and know that there are many strong "Tribes" out there, but we have stayed in touch with dozens of former colleagues and met many current ones that have benefitted us. Regardless of the company or industry, a corporate job will naturally allow you to get exposure to a wider sample set of people in your field more than likely.
We don't claim that any of these points haven't been made and aren't reiterated regularly but often times the best lessons are the ones worth repeating.
We'll leave you with this: a contemporary of our dad who is in his 70's and had a substantial career by all accounts (impact, monetary, relationships, etc) had a bio that started as follows: "Mr. X spent the first two highly formative years of his career at Goldman Sachs.." This man had an ~50 year career with all kinds of highlights but this is how he chose to start his bio.
There could be worse things than spending a few years getting some, if not all, of the above experiences from the right company. There's still plenty of time to innovate and be an entrepreneur. We promise.