This article is taken from D/srupt issue 3 (2020-21). View the full magazine here.
Founder fall outs are all too common. We’ve all seen The Social Network and Mark Zuckerberg’s spectacular million-dollar fall-out with best friend and co-founder Eduardo Saverin, so finding the right co-founder to share your entrepreneurial journey is vital. Talent investor Entrepreneur First, have found the formula …
Founded in 2011, Entrepreneur First has turned the standard accelerator model on its head, investing in people with ‘the edge’ rather than big ideas. They bring together cohorts of the world’s brightest future founders and allow them time to develop co-founding relationships, and a business idea, whilst on the cohort. This ‘inorganic’ founder relationship building, was the brainchild of Entrepreneur First co- founders Alice Bentinck MBE and Matt Clifford, and it has successfully nurtured over 2,000 people to create more than 300 companies worth over a combined $2 billion.
Alice Bentinck definitely has ‘the edge’. She quit her job as a management consultant at McKinsey and turned down a role at Google to start Entrepreneur First, challenging the investment status quo, and has gone on to receive numerous accolades including a place in the Top 50 Most Inspiring Women in European Tech, an MBE for services to business and was named one of London’s most Influential People by the Evening Standard.
D/srupt spoke to Alice about finding people with ‘the edge’, striving for diversity in tech and why founder break-ups aren’t necessarily a bad thing …
Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
The thing that really cemented it for me was doing Young Enterprise in sixth form. My family weren’t particularly businessy, having military and medical backgrounds, and I didn’t really know anyone who was in business, but doing Enterprise in sixth form, suddenly I was like: oh wow! This is really interesting
and being able to create something from scratch that’s creative and new and exciting, and having the opportunity to sell it and make money from it really opened my eyes. I think that was probably the moment where I realised that I wanted a career, not just in business, but in doing my own thing.
Where did the idea come from?
After a couple of years working at McKinsey, Matt and I both realised that we weren’t going to be lifelong management consultants. At the time, around 2008/2009, there really wasn’t much infrastructure around starting a startup, and the new Silicon Roundabout was being heralded by the government. McKinsey did a piece of work on how to build Tech City and one of the footnotes said it would be great to have a graduate scheme for entrepreneurs. We took that, having recently been graduates ourselves, and thought: okay, how do we turn that into a business?
How do we bring this to life? And that was the original idea for EF.
One of the things that EF really challenged in the early days was this idea that you needed a team, an idea and a company to be able to get any investment or support. We flipped that on its head –andwehadalotofpush back – to say, actually, you can take amazing individuals and teach them how to develop an idea, you can help them find a co-founder, it doesn’t have to be somebody that you’ve known since kindergarten or your best friends.
Actually, that doesn’t necessarily always work and this model of inorganic team building that we’ve created has now become the default in many ways. In the same way that the dating world has moved from being about meeting somebody through friends or at a party to now online dating, where you have a much bigger selection of potential partners and I suppose what EF does is very similar.
What’s the success rate of inorganic team building?
I think this is one of the things that was really difficult for people to get their heads around when we first started. Co-founding relationships are stronger than organic relationships. Largely because when somebody joins EF they have the opportunity to pick from 99 other individuals who are all committed and ready to start a startup at the same time as them. We then do a bunch of training, provide loads of support around how to find the best co-founder for you and how to build the right dynamic. So after we invest, we see very few co-founder break-ups.
What do you mean by breaking up with a co- founder and how do you manage those difficult discussions at such an early stage?
The first part of the programme is all about experimentation and I think this is one of the unique things you can do at EF that you can’t do in the wild, where most people come into founding a startup with a preconceived idea about the kind of person they want to found with. We find often people end up co-founding with somebody who is the complete opposite to what they were expecting. So really, the first eight weeks of the programme is just an opportunity to experiment with different individuals. You have the opportunity to spend two weeks working together, see what it’s like, and then you can break
up. You can have an honest conversation with each other and say, actually, this isn’t working and then, amazingly, there’s someone else for you to test with. It’s the difference between, out in the wild or, in organic team building, maybe there’s one person, maybe two people if you’re lucky that you could co-found with, so you’ve really got to make it work. Whereas at EF, you can have a very honest and real conversation about whether this is the right co-founder for you because you have other options. So key people go to about two and a half people during that eight-week period before they find the right co-founder for them.
What makes the perfect founder?
The two things that we look for are somebody’s ability relative to their peers, and somebody’s skills relative to their peers. And skills, in many ways, is the easier one to assess; you either have the skills or you don’t. The ability stuff, which is more around personality, is where it gets really interesting. So we like individuals who have a very strong rise to action. We want to see individuals who, in the past, have made things happen. They have usually set up stuff in the past, maybe an organisation, a society, but they have that personality where they are willing to drive something forward even if there’s no one pushing them forward.
One of the other characteristics we look for is somebody who is an outlier, we want somebody who has done things and taken decisions that are different compared with their peers. It could be turning down a traditional career path or that they’ve challenged within their career some dearly held status quo and pushed for an alternative. The final bit is the idea of followership; so not only are you an outlier, not only are you somebody who is driving towards action, you take people on that journey, you can make people follow you, you can lead people.
Having the idea’s almost the hardest bit, how do you encourage that?
It’s something we’ve spent a long time developing frameworks around. If you go online and read about where to find an idea, lots of people talk about solving a problem that you have in your day-to-day life. Now, the challenge with that is that most people have the same problems and you end up with very crowded spaces. So what we say to our founders is, what is the problem that you have a unique edge in solving? We’re asking them to think about what skills, expertise and knowledge they have that is different, unique and valuable compared with other people. We call this their edge. We’re looking for individuals who have an
edge in solving a problem compared to others.
How do you know if you’re ready to jump in and start a business?
You’re never ready. You’ll never have enough experience, enough cash, enough network, enough proof that your idea is going to work, but one of the things that I used to think about whether I should startEFornot–Ihadajob at Google, and was sort of choosing between doing EF and doing Google, and Jeff Bezos has this thing called the Regret Minimization Framework, which is why he established Amazon, and basically, the idea is you should do the stuff that you’re going to regret not having done when you’re 70, and I think there are a lot of people out there who talk about founding a startup and most people won’t. So, if it’s something that you’ll regret, take the plunge, the best way to learn how to doitistodoit.Istillthink the biggest thing stopping people from starting startups is themselves. They won’t let themselves take that risk.
Actually, the nice thing about starting a company in 2020 is that the downside is so low, even if you fail and it doesn’t work out, the contribution to your CV will make you more employable and the skills and the mindsets that you develop, having gone through the founder process, will make you more attractive as an employee.
What do you see happening for the startup ecosphere in the next ten years?
Globally, the speed that startup ecosystems are changing and developing is just insane, it’s fantastic. I think this idea of people changing their career aspirations globally to see founding a startup as the number one thing they can do, is one of the most important global trends at the moment. One of the knock-on effects of this is that for the last decade Silicon Valley has been the undisputed king, or queen, of startups. All the talent, all the money, in a very tightly concentrated area.
Now, even Silicon Valley is beginning to acknowledge that the next wave of unicorns are probably going to come from outside the Valley, and that it’s unlikely that any other hub is going to become an equivalent size. There’s going to be lots of smaller, denser, distributed hubs across the world that different talent pools can access.
Many Imperial graduates go on to join EF. What is it about Imperial graduates that makes them successful?
Two things that combine beautifully. One is the quality of the education, the students we work with are leaders in their field and are incredibly talented. What makes Imperial students different and really stand out is their level of commerciality and willingness to step out of academia and apply what they’re doing and turn that into something that can impact millions of people across the world. Imperial students seem to have that level of ambition, risk-seeking and willingness to take that kind of leap.
What are your top tips for going from an academic or technologist into a founder?
We get very excited about CEOs who have a technical background. If you look at many of the best CEOs of startups and scaleups in the world, they have technical backgrounds, whether it’s Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. The UK is becoming so good at building these deep tech companies that have defensible, cutting-edge technology at their core, actually, to be the leader of a company like that you do need to understand what’s being developed, what’s being created, and we find that individuals who have technical backgrounds do make excellent CEOsfor those kinds of companies. One of the things we do at EF is a lot of training on how to be commercial and how to communicate, and I think that’s often invaluable for the technologists that join us.
You also set up Code First Girls. Was that because of the lack of diversity in tech?
Oh, yes, when we first started, I was really appalled by the lack of diversity. The tech world really struggles with this and it starts at university level, unfortunately, where it’s about 16 per cent female at the undergraduate computer science level and, unfortunately, that just continues the whole way through. We’ve alwaysseen a very poor gender ratio at EF and it’s something that we’ve been trying to tackle for many years. Code First Girls was our first attempt to help young women, at the point where they’re making decisions about their career, upskill themselves so they can have a career in technology.
Over the last six/seven years, we’ve had almost 20,000 women go through Code First Girls. It’s our contribution to try and address
the gender imbalance within the technology space. There’s still a huge amount of work that we need to do at EF to encourage more women to consider being a founder an attractive career path. And as a female founder myself, it is the most exciting, challenging, flexible in many ways, career path, but I think often women hold themselves back from considering it as an option because it’s perceived to be
If you could recommend one book to aspiring entrepreneurs, what would it be?
I think it would have to be Reid Hoffman, The Start-up of You, which helps you understand how to take that plunge and how to frame your life in an entrepreneurial way. But I think if you’re just at that very beginning stage, it’s a really good read.
Is there a standout piece of advice that you’ve been given along the way in your entrepreneurial career?
Plan to succeed, don’t plan to fail. It’s really interesting watching who does well on the programme, and it’s often the individuals who don’t allocate any brain space to mitigating downside risk. They put all their energy and effort into succeeding and only thinking about the future and what’s ahead of them, they’re not second guessing and protecting their back just in they failed.
This article is taken from D/srupt issue 3 (2020-21). View the full magazine here.