Meet Venture Capital's Teenage Analyst

Tiffany Zhong has a job at venture-capital firm Binary Capital that is usually reserved for an M.B.A. ENLARGE
Tiffany Zhong has a job at venture-capital firm Binary Capital that is usually reserved for an M.B.A. Photo: Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal

In Silicon Valley, a place where the college-dropout startup founder—think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg—is lionized, it is hard to stand out on account of precociousness or youth. But as she takes me on a tour of Binary Capital, the venture-capital firm where she is an analyst and an associate, Tiffany Zhong manages to.

That’s because Ms. Zhong, or Tiff as everyone calls her, is 18 years old.

Ms. Zhong has a job at venture-capital firm Binary Capital that is usually reserved for a startup founder or an M.B.A. And yet, if you spend enough time with her, you discover that she seems no less ready to step into her new role than people a decade older and with many years more hands-on experience.

In a business in which relationships are all-important, Ms. Zhong has already managed to accumulate a set of contacts that would be the envy of anyone charged with finding the next hot consumer-tech startup—the only kind in which Binary Capital invests. Her mentors include Stewart Butterfield, chief executive of Slack, and Steve Sinofsky, former head of Windows at Microsoft Corp. MSFT 0.65 % and a board partner at venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

But even more important for Ms. Zhong’s “deal flow”—the startups she finds that Binary Capital, which manages $ 125 million, will invest in—are the young entrepreneurs with whom she is connected. One of her advantages with the freshest crop of startup founders in the Bay Area is that many of them are the same age as she is, or even younger.

“I’d show you where I live, but they don’t allow journalists there any more,” says Ms. Zhong, as she finishes her dinner at Mau, a noodle shop in San Francisco’s hip, rapidly gentrifying Mission district. Her abode, called Mission Control, is just across the street, and as a sort of high-price commune for extremely young hackers—the oldest resident is 22, she estimates—it has been the subject of many profiles.

Before Binary Capital, Ms. Zhong was an intern at Product Hunt, the hot startup that crowdsources a daily digest of the latest apps and tech gewgaws. While her classmates were worrying about what college they would get into (Ms. Zhong was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley, but deferred) she spent every spare moment helping manage the site. Before that, she was involved in various hackathons and their corresponding Facebook Groups, where she met many of the people who formed the nucleus of her personal and professional network.

Ryan Hoover, founder of Startup Hunt, thinks of Ms. Zhong as being in the same cohort as many of the young entrepreneurs he sees announcing products on his site.

“There’s a lot of similarities between artists and musicians from 20 years ago and entrepreneurship today,” says Mr. Hoover, who repeats the same thing everyone in tech says nowadays—that it is easier than ever to build a product. “They can launch things the same way someone would once be playing guitar when they were 13 or 14.”

Which is not to say that getting into venture capitalism, which is still very much an old boys’ club, is any easier than it once was. But being the daughter of a tech CEO and growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley, where she attended the prestigious Menlo School, Ms. Zhong from a young age had access to the peer group necessary to stitch together the network of peers she needed to teach herself all she could about the current landscape of tech.

“Tiff has done all of this by herself, it was all on her own volition,” says Larry Zhong, Ms. Zhong’s older brother, who also describes his sister as “intense.”

As we sit at a giant table in the meeting room of Binary Capital, Northern California sunshine pouring across a tasteful but slightly alien centerpiece of tendrilled air plants, Ms. Zhong explains her investment philosophy. One plank is that startups must have a natural “network effect,” which she explains as: “the platform is so useful that you literally force your friends to download it—like Snapchat.”

Ms. Zhong is sincere in a way few adults can manage, yet she also projects confidence in a way few people ever master. When I interview her best friend, Nikhil Srinivasan, he tells me, in a coffee shop populated by geeks and tattoo-sporting hipsters, that he only slept three hours last night because he was up late writing code.

“I don’t know what day of the week it is or what time and I eat lots of Soylent and crash co-working spaces,” he says, sounding confident but looking slightly abashed. “Everyone schedules time on my calendar, even my friends.”

It is people like Mr. Srinivasan—brainy and ready to do whatever it takes—whom Ms. Zhong is tasked with finding and befriending, says Jonathan Teo, co-founder of Binary Capital. With Ms. Zhong representing his firm among those most likely to create the next breakout hit before bigger firms are willing to invest, Binary can maintain focus in its flow of deals, which is key to the firm’s strategy, he adds.

To say that Ms. Zhong’s generation—the first post-Millennial cohort—is different even from other, slightly older young people is possibly an understatement. Ms. Zhong was on Facebook in the seventh grade, and had her first iPhone at 15. For people like her, consciousness is synonymous with connectivity.

But even she finds the current rate of change in tech bewildering at times. “It’s mind blowing looking back and seeing how much technology has improved since then,” she says, looking at me very directly while speaking nostalgically of a time in her youth that most of us remember as approximately yesterday.

Write to Christopher Mims at [email protected]

Corrections & Amplifications

An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Nikhil Srinivasan’s last name as Shrinivasan. US Business

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