Monthly Archives: March 2014

Entrepreneur First

Have you ever thought about what a fun challenge it might be to start your own company, but not known where to begin? Are you waiting to dream up the next Facebook, but have a growing sense that your eureka moment will never come? Or just eager to use your technical skills to really make a difference, rather than being absorbed into the machine of some large financial company in the city?

As a final-year compsci at Queens’ I was very much in this position – not quite confident enough with any idea to commit to it full time, but equally unsure about what I might move onto next year.

So, let me introduce Entrepreneur First, a unique graduate programme which takes top tech talent and helps them build exciting new companies. To quote directly from their website (

“Entrepreneur First is the only seed investment programme in the world that selects purely on the basis of talent. We take only the best technical students and recent graduates, often pre-team and pre-idea, and support them to build world changing startups in London.”

In just its second year running, Entrepreneur First (EF) proudly boasts that its first cohort have now created 11 companies with a combined value of over $50m. The second cohort recently pitched for their first round of investment, and they are expected to do extremely well. I’m very pleased to say I recently received an offer to join the third cohort and be one of the 50 or so members who will start building companies in September 2014. Stay posted for news of our dramatic success/failure…!

You can read more about EF in Fortune, on their news page, in the Telegraph and on the BBC.

So how does the programme work, and how do you go about applying?

The first thing, if you’re in Cambridge (or several other universities – see their web page), is to look out for dates when the EF team are visiting. The talks given by Matt and Alice (the EF cofounders) are extremely interesting and give a clear picture of the realities of building a startup. I can also highly recommend “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, which is an invaluable read for anyone looking to build innovative products in a startup or not. It sets out many of the principles used at EF and in many new startup companies around the world.

If you decide this could be an option for you after leaving university, just head over to the EF website and fill in the application form by the end of the December before the year you’d want to join. The application procedure varies year by year, so I’ll just give you an idea of the process I went through when I applied:

  1. First off, you have the application form. You probably won’t need a CV to upload, but there are a number of questions requiring considered answers, and it’s very handy if you can give them links to your profiles on sites like LinkedIn and GitHub. There is no time pressure or “test questions”, but you may find it helpful to have read around about the process of creating startups, and the experiences of well known founders (e.g. the Dropbox story).
  2. If you’re successful after round 1, you’ll be invited to a brief (10 minute) phone or Skype interview with one of the main EF team. This isn’t as scary as it sounds, but some of the questions will challenge how you think about the qualities required in a startup founder, and what you’ve done in the past which was unique and impressive.
  3. After this, you may be invited for an in-person interview in London. These are held at their central London Bridge offices (a shared office space called “Club Workspace”), and last a couple of hours. There is an interview with one of the team (similar to the phone interview), and another interview where you can show off a project you’ve worked on in the past. There is also an infamous 1 hour online coding test – but the results are only used to help inform their decisions, and everyone comes out having found it equally tough. See my previous post on this blog for a taster of some of the questions we faced.
  4. Finally, once most of the selection decisions have been made, the potential cohort are invited to a weekend in London to meet the other applicants and take part in a short hackathon event. The weekend involves lots of introductions, lots of pizza and beer, and lots of frantic coding – great fun all-round. There is also an unconference which is a good opportunity to discuss anything you find interesting in the tech scene with like-minded people. In fact, meeting so many like-minded people with so many complementary skills was probably the highlight of the whole process for me.

This might sound like a tough and drawn-out process, but it only lasts around a month or two, and trust me: just go for it! You receive plenty of help and information along the way, and the EF team are an extremely friendly bunch.

If you make it through the whole process and receive an offer, EF kicks off in style with a reception at 10 Downing Street. High publicity seems to be a theme in EF, but it’s what allows the organisation (which is a non-profit) to get high profile funding to allow them to support the startup teams before they have any investment of their own.

EF starts over the summer (don’t worry – it won’t interfere with your final term at uni) with a series of hackathon weekends, somewhat similar to the final selection weekend. These events help to test and build teams and allow people to bounce ideas around, the motive being that you shouldn’t dive into a startup unless you’ve actually worked on a real project with your cofounders in the past.

The weekend events continue until early September, when it’s time to go all-in with a startup and move to work in the London offices full-time. EF is structured to give basic funding to everyone who starts a company at this stage to help them with living costs until March, when the companies pitch to investors in a big “Demo Day”. For this EF takes an 8% cut in each company – a very small price to pay for the extensive help and support provided by the organisation (including the free office space, of course).

After demo day, the companies are mostly on their own, but the benefits of EF don’t stop there. The network of investors and EF alumni continues to be available, with help, advice and a group of incredible people never far away.

So what are you waiting for? I look forward to seeing all your successful new companies in the near future!

Entrepreneur First

Preparing for the Easter Vacation

With the Easter vacation fast approaching and exams following closely behind, it’s time to start thinking about revision. The breadth of material in the courses can often be daunting so a clear revision plan is an important tool to get the most out of the vacation. Without a strategy, the time is easily wasted.

In this week’s Wednesday meeting, we all had a chance to talk to the students from other year groups so that we could share our knowledge and learn from the experience of everyone else. The Part 1A students are of course new to Cambridge exams so they had plenty of questions that could be answered by everyone else. We also had James, the only Part III CompSci at Queens’, who could share his wisdom with everybody.

Since every year group is in a different stage of the Tripos, we all had different questions. Below is a summary of the best advice heard from the point of view of each year group.

Part 1A

The Part IBs and James (Part III) talked to the first years about their up and coming exams. Seeing as this will be the first time we sit any Cambridge examinations, the discussion was particularly useful and gave us a good insight in to what to expect and how to prepare for them. Finding a balance between revising all of the modules in both computer science and our bench subject will be extremely important over Easter vacation, but it was nice to be told we’ll also have some time after the vacation to finish off revising if we need the time. We also learned that practising using past Tripos questions is just as important as making lots of notes, and so we should ensure we leave time to do that too.

Part 1B

The third years talked to the Part 1Bs about importance and relevance of some courses over others. They told us that Mathematical Methods, one of the Part 1B courses, is very useful for Part II, so even if it isn’t one of our favourite courses, we shouldn’t give up. Each year builds on the foundations and the knowledge laid down the year before so it’s always important to understand concepts fully and not merely memorise for the sake of exams. They also talked to us about choosing Part II projects. It’s important to start thinking about we’d like to do now and eventually choose something that we’re interested in because we’ll be investing a lot of time into it next year.

Part II

James (part III) discussed with the part IIs about the importance of balancing our revision and dissertation workload correctly. Although tempting to focus on perfecting the dissertation, as it is only worth 25% of our final grade, it makes more sense to focus on revising for the exams. Similar advice likely also applies to the part IAs who need to balance their revision for their bench-subjects, as well as Computer Science revision.

Group project presentations

Today was the day for all second year students in the Computer Lab to present their group projects. First we had a demonstration session to give everyone a chance to break the software, then we had 5 minute presentations from each group about what they’d done.

Sam and Eduards in front of their group project (which I failed to break)

Sam and Eduard in front of their group project (which I failed to break)

Mistral pitching the finer points of 'abandonment prediction' to Daniel (also known as Ticker A)

Mistral pitching the finer points of ‘abandonment prediction’ to Daniel (also known as Ticker A)

Holly with the occulus rift which her group used for visualising trading data

Holly with the occulus rift which her group used for visualising trading data

Jake was presenter of his group’s Sound Garden project.  He orchestrated (pun) a live demonstration: this involved the rest of the group strategically walking round the lecture theatre. Jake was also one of the few presenters who opened with a good attention grabbing opening line about turning people into musical instruments. Another notable mention goes to Eduard who proudly presented Prof. Ian Leslie with a Kit Kat as a reward for audience participation.

Also, there was some stuff done by students at other colleges too…