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 (www.entrepreneurfirst.org.uk):

“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