Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford founded Entrepreneur First in 2011 with a mission to expand the global network of entrepreneurs and investors – so that one’s geographical location doesn’t make or break whether they have the opportunity to participate in the startup ecosystem. The “talent investor” organization recruits and backs individuals at the very earliest stage: before they have a team, or often even an idea.
In addition to providing the network for prospective founders around the world to connect with one another, Entrepreneur First creates an environment where participants feel free to try out working relationships within their cohort before committing to the full company journey.
“The most important first thing is having the ingredients: getting the right people and the right composition of individuals,” says Bentinck. “Secondly, it’s not about pure matching. It’s about creating social norms that allow individuals to try out different co-founders.”
Greylock general partner and Entrepreneur First board member Reid Hoffman sat down with Alice and Matt to discuss how the organization has evolved over the years, the surprisingly positive impacts of the pandemic on company-building, and what they see for 2021 and beyond.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Reid Hoffman: Today, we’ll be discussing the critical relationships between entrepreneurs that form the basis of any company: co-founders and the investors who partner with them. Joining us today are Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford, two people who play a unique role in helping to form those relationships around the world.
Alice and Matt are the co-founders of Entrepreneur First, an organization that fuels company building by recruiting and investing in individuals at the very earliest stages: before they have a team, or often even an idea. I’ve been a board member at Entrepreneur First since Greylock invested in 2017, and we’ve seen the organization grow significantly in the past few years. The core mission of the organization is to continue to expand the global network of entrepreneurs and investors, so that one’s geographical location doesn’t make or break whether they have the opportunity to participate in the startup ecosystem.
Let’s hear more about Entrepreneur First straight from the source in London. Alice, Matt, welcome to Greymatter.
Matt Clifford and Alice Bentinck: Thank you. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having us.
Reid: Anytime. As you guys know, I’m a huge fan not just because of the amazing work you do, but also because of the mission. I’m a fan of the fact that you guys are not only both great investors, great community-builders, and great talent finders of entrepreneurs, but also great participants in society. That’s essentially the mission of entrepreneurship – helping society.
Why don’t you give us a brief history of how the two of you met and began working together. How did you align on the mission to create a global “talent investor” amplifier network?
Matt: Alice and I met over 11 years ago now in our first jobs. We both graduated from university in the middle of the financial crisis and we were fortunate to both get jobs in McKinsey, the management consultancy. We met there and had a great experience there, but in many ways it felt to us a little bit like fighting the last battle. There was a joke in London, at the time when I graduated university, that goes, “You can be a banker or a management consultant, or you can be a failure. Which one do you want?” And we were sort of sucked into that. Although we had a really great experience at McKinsey, it still felt for some reason like ambitious people in London were missing out on this whole world of technology (that Alice and I both felt was actually going to define the 21st century).
We had the idea that there were probably many people who felt like that – people all over the world, actually, who could be great founders, but who were just not in an ecosystem that normalized and encouraged that. We really aligned over that idea.
Alice: Right, and the idea that the world is missing out on some of its best founders purely because of where they’re located. For example,[one of EF’s offices] is in Singapore, and here, if you’re an ambitious, highly talented individual, you want to join the government.
We had this feeling that there were individuals (primarily in the U.K., at the start of EF) all over the world outside of Silicon Valley, who wanted to be in startups but weren’t making that career choice just because they weren’t exposed to what it means to be a founder, or exposed to technology on a daily basis. To your point, Reid, about the impact that entrepreneurs have on society: what happens when your most ambitious and talented individuals go into banking rather than founding your startup? There are consequences of that.
As far as our founding relationship, Matt and I had a very traditional co-founder meeting. We met at work, we worked on projects together, but there was a challenge connected to that in the mastermind. We have reasonably similar backgrounds, and that did constrain the kind of startup that we could create. So sometimes we look back and we say, well, of all the startups we could create, Entrepreneur First was kind of the only one that we could do with our skillset. What drove this idea was that there was something about talented individuals being in silos. There are tons of technologists who aren’t necessarily able to meet the people that can catalyze them, or even meet other technologists from different disciplines. What would it take to bring individuals together who aren’t naturally meeting? What ideas could come out of that?
Reid: You guys are obviously great as the co-founders of Entrepreneur First. Although now having had years of working with you, I actually have confidence that you could have done other startups as well. I really love working with founders who are what I call infinite learners. People who essentially are like, “How are we doing this? How can we do this better? How do we learn to take this to the next level? How do we move faster? And how do we create something that’s magical?”
Along the journey with you guys, I’ve participated in some of these learnings. How is Entrepreneur First different from the other programs that aim to build networks, like accelerators? What are the things that you’ve learned? For founders who are prospectively thinking about going into programs, what should they be considering about Entrepreneur First?
Alice: The core idea at the heart of EF is we start with the unit as the individual – not the company, not the startup. That might sound really counterintuitive. Organizations like Y Combinator have been phenomenally successful at taking very early stage companies and getting them ready for the next stage. But we start a whole stage further back. We don’t say whether there is a company here, but actually, is this individual someone who could be a great founder if paired with the right person – If given the right mentoring, if put into the right networks? That actually is a very different discipline from trying to decide if a seed company is investible, but you’re answering a lot more hypothetical questions.
Matt: You’re really saying, might there be something in this founder’s background that makes a great idea? You’re looking for a seed of something, asking if they have the characteristics and personality types that we associate with great founders. And so I think that that’s pretty unusual.
Ninety-nine percent of investment programs globally are looking at people at the company level. One thing that makes EF really special is we’ve now spent nine years and literally tens of thousands of individuals who’ve applied. So we’ve developed a really, really strong competence around seeing potential.
It’s very easy to look at a CV or a LinkedIn profile and say, “Oh, you know, this woman has 10 years at Google. She must be really smart.” Typically what we’re doing is actually looking at people very early in their career and saying, does this person have the seed of what it takes? Why is it different if you feel that actually you’ve got that extraordinary potential, but maybe you don’t yet have the badges to prove it ? EF is the place that will believe in you from the beginning and put you in the network that allows you to fully maximize and realize that potential,
Alice: This network point is so important. Yes, we are a talent investor. Yes, we invest in individuals. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t believe in co-founders out to the core. Part of the EF is helping these individuals find their co-founder. When they join the program, they are part of the network. A network of individuals who are very carefully screened by us for the traits, abilities and behaviors we see that make individuals most successful. Most importantly, they’re part of a group of individuals where everyone is ready to co-found right now – they’ve quit their job. They are all in. They are all part of this interesting atmosphere where there’s this urgency and this kind of impatience to begin getting into teams.
I think one of the questions that we get asked a lot is, okay, well, how do you do co-founder matching? How do you connect the people together? The most important thing is, firstly, the ingredients: getting the right people and the right composition of individuals. Secondly, it’s not about matching. It’s about creating social norms that allow individuals to try out different co-founders. If you imagine organic co-founder relationships in the wild, you might try someone and you think it’s going to take, but it takes a couple of months to work out. Or it’s not working, by which time you’ve got a prototype. Suddenly you’ve got to pick. This can be a really nasty, difficult thing in the wild. But at EF, you’ve got either between 49 or 99 other individuals in your cohort who you can experiment with. So within 48 hours, you can try somebody out and work out whether it’s going to be a good fit or not. And if it isn’t, there’s still 98 other individuals to co-found with.
What we see during the eight week period that people have to find a cofounder is that people test out about two and a half co-founders, and 80% of the people that join do find a co-founder through this process.There are these kind of magic ingredients of selecting the right people in the right composition, then you give you these social norms where it’s okay to turn around to someone and say, “Actually, this isn’t working. Let’s break up.”
Matt: I think one of the most rewarding parts of this job is that we’re operating in ecosystems where the density of talent networks around starting companies is not great. So often people come to EF, they start on their first day, they see the other people in the cohort and they say, “These are my people.” It’s that feeling of belonging that maybe has been lacking before. Sometimes we talk about creating a little bubble of Silicon Valley in cities around the world that don’t have that in the wild, as Alice says.
Reid: So there’s a bunch of different, interesting questions that come up from this. First, what kind of principles have you learned? Because one of the things that I investors who are experienced and smart believe in is that having co-founders gives you a much higher shot-on- goal percentage, generally speaking. Even though we have iconic folks like Jeff Bezos who is a solo founder, most often – even at the highest levels like Larry and Sergei and Bill and Paul, et cetera – co-founders are really important. What principles have you guys found around what co-founders should look for in each other? How do you facilitate and help find the right co-founders that then provide the very first important foundation to this difficult but amazing journey that is entrepreneurship?
Alice: One of the most important things that we do when people join the EF is we help them to firstly understand who they are. As a cofounder, you need somebody who is complementary to you. That idea is well known, but actually one of the things that we’ve learned is that individuals are often pretty bad at understanding, broadly, who would be a good complementary co-founder to them.
When we build a cohort, we’re looking at two kinds of different individuals. About 60% of people that join us have what we call a technical edge. They have some sort of competitive advantage in a certain technology – they know something or they can build something that very few other people can build. The kind of people we need to match those with or help connect are not CEOs (I think this is often a kind of a misunderstanding). What we need to match them with are these individuals we call catalysts. The reason we call them catalysts is because they often have a technical background as well. It’s not that they’re an engineer and MBA off the shelf, but they’re these individuals who have these often quite unusual, quite impatient, almost fidgety backgrounds where maybe they did a CS degree at university, but then they went on to be maybe did a year in consultancy, then year as a product manager and a startup then maybe tried to found something. They’ve got this sort of impatience and frustration. And what we’ve found has worked really well is when you bring these two types of individuals together, the catalysts are running around trying to work out who the individual is in the cohort that they can capitalize and help take to market. I suppose in some ways that may be simplifying what is, in many ways, a process of combining two individuals – their ideas, their skills, their expertise – and seeing what comes from that.
Matt: One thing that’s really surprising to us (and maybe surprising to people that haven’t been intimately involved with the EF process) is that it’s much less about how we do upfront matching and much more about how we give these individuals the tools to test their co-founding relationship. We always say to people, this is not a marriage on day one. Don’t worry so much about making the right choice the first time. Make sure that you’re constantly testing and evaluating the choice. When Alice talks about being able to get a good read in 48 hours, that’s not because we make people take a personality test that spits out yay or nay. It’s because one of our core beliefs at EF is that a good co-founder makes you more productive and equally, if you’re a good co-founder for someone, you’ll make them more productive.
That’s why a really good test is to spend 48 hours working together. Set yourself an ambitious goal and see what comes out of it. What we find is that when we give people that goal, it’s extraordinary what the best teams can get done in 48 hours, and certainly what they can get done in a week. And so what we’re constantly saying to people is to test yourself; don’t assume you’re in the right team. Ask, “Is this person making me my best self? If the answer to that is constantly “yes,” that’s a pretty good sign that you’re on something special.
Reid: Yup, absolutely. I think what you really should highlight for all the folks interested (entrepreneurs, obviously, the prospective founders, and investors) is the ecosystems that they’re in is this approach to networks. There’s two parts of the network. One is the network of founders themselves. Not just within one class, but between classes. And how that creates additional strength and opportunity for these entrepreneurial efforts. And then the next one is the ecosystem around the founders.
Alice: Yes. Being part of EF is getting access, as you say, to not just the immediate network – not just the cohort where you’ll find your co-founder – but now the two and a half thousand alumni who have been through EF over the last decade. They aren’t just based in the same city as you, they’re based all around the world.
There are two really interesting things that we see: One is that actually more and more individuals find out about EF and get referred to by our alumni network. Our alumni are now doing more and more of the legwork, where they say they meet these interesting outlier individuals that just have so much potential and get them to join EF. One of the reasons they do this though (and this is the second reason why our network is so useful) is that one of the most common exit routes out of EF if you don’t build a startup with us to join one of our companies.
So actually individuals know when they join the EF that they’re gunning to go and build a company. They are gunning to be a founder. But if that doesn’t work out, the next best option is they become a very early employee in one of our alumni companies. We see our companies growing very fast because they have the opportunity to hire two or three machine learning PhDs out of the EF network very, very quickly from the most recent cohort that’s gone through. And so it both lowers the time taken to hire and the cost of hiring.
Matt: This network effect increasingly spills over onto the investment side as well. There are now at least 700 different investors around the world who’ve invested in EF companies. Some of them know EF because they’re located with us in one of our sites. But some of them take a more circuitous route to find us. What’s really exciting is once someone has invested in an EF company, the chances of them investing in a secondary company just goes up so much because the alumni go to bat for each other.
Literally in the last week, I was talking to a company out of our Paris cohort that was getting the warmest of warm intros into some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley seed funds, who would go on to lead an alum’s seed round. That’s so powerful. That ability of founders to refer founders is really, really valuable. Even more excitingly, there have been several substantial exits from EF. There are now founders who have the capital to invest themselves, so we see founders recycling capital back into the ecosystem. We have several alumni LPs in our fund, we have alums who angel invested in EF companies. And I think once that flywheel starts to turn, you get this very, very powerful effect that founders can make things happen for other founders.
Reid: Classically as an investor, you have a mindset about your portfolio companies like, all of your children are beautiful. But talk about a couple of the companies that were the most startling, or perhaps different, or interesting.
Alice: I have one really good example of a team coming together built up of somebody with a deep technical domain alongside a catalyst-type individual. We’ve got a company in Berlin called Nostos Genomics. I remember doing the interview for the CEO, David and in my interview notes, at the end, it says,” I can’t work out if what you’re saying is true, because if it is, it’s just so unbelievable that he has achieved this much before turning 25.” He had been at university in Switzerland and was doing a non-technical degree. Yet he ended up building not just the largest computer science hackathon in Europe, but he also founded the first Hyperloop in Europe and got funding for it. He’d just achieved an enormous amount, and was still desperate to start a company and came to EF trying to find a co-founder. Very quickly, within the first five days, he found Rocio. Rocio had been a medical doctor, but then re-trained and had gone into academia and ended up doing her postdoc at the Max Planck Institute, where she’d done a PhD in genetic disease. I think this is a really nice combination because they ended up working on Nostos Genomics, which speeds up the diagnosis of genetic diseases. This is a case where David’s drive to achieve was his outlier behavior. His willingness to challenge convention drove everything forward, and Rocio has a technical background and created something that neither one really could have created by themselves.
Matt: One of the early companies that gave us real confidence that we were on to something was a company from the first cohort in London that we ran in the current model (where we backed individuals before they had companies and pay them a stipend). We had these two guys join us who’d never met before. There was one guy called Alex Dalyac who had done a machine learning degree at Imperial, had a little bit of work experience but still pretty early in his career. And then there was a very, very promising researcher in computer vision out of Cambridge (who was referred to us by a professor) called Rasvan Ranca. This was quite early on in the evolution of deep learning, around 2014, and they had this vision that deep learning was just going to change everything.
They set out looking for a really important problem to apply their research to, and they eventually came up with insurance. Millions of people, sadly, have traffic accidents every year or there’s something wrong with their cars. And yet it takes so long to get a repair done because there’s so many humans involved in that process. What they ended up building was a company called Tractable, which uses computer vision basically to do disaster recovery for insurance companies. They evaluate the damage to a car in real time better than a human. It sounded a little bit crazy back in 2015 when they graduated from EF. Today, that company does tens of millions of dollars of revenue all over the world. They work with most of the world’s leading insurers and are an extremely fast-growing company. They just had a great profile in the New York Times, if listeners are interested. That’s a company that was built from nothing by two people who never met out their shared edge. It gave us so much faith early on that there was something here.
To use a more recent example, there’s a company that is totally wowing us at the moment out of Singapore called See Mode. It was started by two amazing PhD graduates out of the National University of Singapore who are actually both from Iran named Milad and Sadaf. They applied their research to building what seems to be one of the world’s leading pieces of software for predicting and preventing strokes. It uses a mix of computer vision and computational fluid dynamics to predict strokes. This is a company that is less than three years old, and I think it’s the fastest company to go through medical regulation that I’ve ever seen yet. They’ve made just astonishing progress, and the product is already being paid for and used in hospitals around the world. It’s an incredible company.
Reid: I frequently find that the companies themselves are the things that show what really interesting things are happening with an investor or with an incubator or with our network. But now let’s zoom out: Where is EF today?
Matt: When we first met you, Reid, it was in your office at LinkedIn back in 2017. We were still pretty small and had been running in London for a little while. But it’s taken us quite a long time to experiment with the model to get to the right version. So really we’d only been running with the current model in London for really a couple of years, and we just opened up in Singapore. Our vision that we pitched to you was, “Give us a little bit of money and we’ll be able to take this global. We really believed in this idea that the problem we’ve identified is not just a UK one or a Singapore one, it’s around the world.”
Since Greylock invested in 2017, we’ve expanded EF. We’re now in six locations around the world – London, Paris, Berlin, Singapore, Bangalore, and most recently Toronto. I think at the time that we met, there were about 300 individuals a year going through EF. That’s now 800. We were graduating probably fewer than 30 companies a year at that time. It’s now well over a hundred. There are now two and a half thousand individuals that have gone through EF. And I think we’re up to about 200-plus companies that have gone on to raise follow-on financing, for a total of close to a billion dollars.
So, there are companies around the world and it’s growing pretty quickly. But we feel – particularly for non-software products – that we are just getting started. It strikes us that the big macro trends that make entrepreneurship attractive today just keep growing stronger and stronger. A big part of our mission is being accessible to talent globally, and one of the interesting things that we’ve learned during the pandemic is how powerful [being] remote actually is. We suddenly had to run all of these programs remotely, and although we still massively believe in the power of face-to-face interaction, we’ve definitely learned a lot about how we can be even more accessible by using software to reach more people.
Alice: When we expanded, one of the big questions for us was what talent would be like in these different locations. Would we be dealing with very different types of talent and different aspirations? We would often get the same type of feedback when we were going into a new country. People would hear X country and say, “Oh, they’re not very entrepreneurial.” I think what’s been really interesting for us is to see that we’re not looking for the majority of the population to be entrepreneurial. But in all the countries that we’ve gone to, there is this small minority of outlier individuals who are so frustrated with the status quo; who are so fed up with the career options and opportunities in front of them. So they are shaking the railings, desperate to find an alternative career path that allows them to fulfill that potential. The messaging and the product has remained pretty consistent in all sites.
As Matt said, remote has been really interesting for us. During lockdown, our Singapore cohort had a team formed with one person in New York who was never able to actually get to Singapore. But the team was still formed and got funding. And we’re beginning to hear more and more of these stories where actually it’s not just unlocking a local set of talent, but it’s really unlocking regional, global entrepreneurial talent as well.
Reid: One of the things you just said, Alice, is extremely important: Entrepreneurship is not for everybody. Entrepreneurship is for a person who is willing to leave the beaten path to take intelligent risk and – as I’ve usually described it – jump off a cliff and assemble an airplane on the way down. And that’s only for a very small, select subset of any population, including in more entrepreneurial areas. Say a little bit about which characteristics of founders that you have found are the right ones to apply the EF. Obviously some baselines are to be driven and have grit and learning and intelligence, but what are some of the characteristics that may not be as immediately obvious as those?
Alice: Sure. So this is something that we are fanatical about. We get thousands and thousands of applications each year that we need to whittle down to a couple of hundred. So getting the right couple of hundred really, really matters. And we’ve learned a huge amount over the last almost decade. There are four things that we look for, some of which are obvious, some maybe less so. So first of all, you have to be smart. What we’re not talking about here is getting all the academic badges. It’s not going to the best university necessarily. It’s about your point, Reid, about being an infinite learner, somebody who has that pace and speed of learning that they can take on the challenge of being a founder. They can really patiently learn.
When I think about one of the examples we’ve had in the past, we had a guy who had a patent pending on this brain computer interface.He was working with four different universities. But he was 18 – he hadn’t even been to university yet. Yet he had this desire to learn and to achieve.
Secondly, we do like people with a skill and, and largely a technical skill. As I was saying before, we like our CEO and our catalyst types to have a technical background, even if it’s just a very light technical background. Because when you think about team building, it’s actually much easier to build that co-founding path when you have a shared language and shared understanding about how to work together. Those are the kinds of compatibility pieces that we look for.
Then, there are two key behavior pieces that we look for. First, you need to be an outlier.
You need to be willing to challenge convention, and you need to be willing to push back on the status quo, make unpopular decisions, and take an alternative path. And that’s particularly important in these ecosystems where being a founder is often something that your parents disapprove of and your peers disapprove of.
The final thing we look for is you need to be a leader. You need to have this drive to achieve, to win, to have an inner competitiveness. I remember interviewing a guy when he was just taking me through to his achievements in his life. He’d been on the Great British athletics team as a kid, preparing for the Olympics. He’d done his physics degree at Imperial and had come up top of his class. He’d also become an electronic dance musician and had his track sampled by one of the world’s leading electronic musicians. He just couldn’t stop achieving, even across this very broad range of examples. But you can’t just do that. You also have to take people on that journey. You have to build followership. And so, yes, there’s always the kind of professor, the eccentric person building stuff in the garage. But those don’t necessarily become the scale entrepreneurs we’re looking for. People can build scalable globally important companies. So you have to take people on that journey. You have to be a leader who can develop fellowship as well.
Reid: Are there any misconceptions about founders or co-founders that you particularly need to help new founders overcome in order to be successful?
Matt: One thing that’s unusual about Entrepreneur First is in many ways that the core thesis goes against a lot of conventional wisdom from venture capital. If you just look at a classic piece of advice that people say,”Start a company with someone you’ve worked with before. Start a company with someone you’ve known for years.” And I understand why that advice is out there. If you’re in Silicon Valley and you’re in this very dense network of potential co-founders, I can see that you would definitely reduce your risk by going with someone that you already know. I think that the way we see the world – by operating in six ecosystems that are much less dense – it’s very likely you don’t know the best co-founder for you. They’re not in your network. So that’s very risky advice. It often means settling for a suboptimal partner, someone who can’t make you succeed. And we actually think that’s much riskier than actually going through a program that can really help you find someone who’s really exceptional at what they do, and help you build trust, rapport and proof points about your ability to succeed together very quickly. So then that’s like one misconception that has come about, and rightly so because Silicon Valley has just been so phenomenally successful in building companies. Most of the advice out there is very Silicon Valley centric. For a lot of things, it’s absolutely right. You know, a lot of things are invariant across the world. But I actually think that things that are about that very first step – that really come down to whether you are living in one of these very founder and investor dense places, or somewhere where it’s unusual. I think if you’re in that second category, the advice has to be a little bit different. That’s what we specialize in.
Alice: Just to build on that first point: EF is basically eharmony, not Tinder. I think lots of people who’ve tried to solve this problem of how to help co-founders find each other think of it like Tinder: match someone, see if it works out very quickly. But when you look at eharmony’s figures, it’s an amazing marriage platform. It’s not a dating path. It’s a marriage platform where 4% of U S marriages now come through. It’s an interesting general shift towards individuals now finding their partner online. It used to be the workplace, or through religious organizations, through friends, at bars, and now there’s been a significant rise. I think online is now the most common way to meet your partner. If you take that idea and apply it to inorganic co-founding relationships, you realize that it’s not about Tinder. It’s about eharmony and about having individuals who’ve been carefully screened. It’s a very careful process that enables people to test each other because you set a bunch of social norms about how committed you are to the process of finding your co-founder. Individuals who come to EF have quit their jobs. They’re all in. There’s a real opportunity cost to coming to EF, but it means that it enables these very longterm co-founder relationships to be built.
I remember a really proud moment for me and Matt many years ago when we were first starting EF. We had a demo day and the investors came to all of the teams. One of the bits of feedback we kept on getting was, “Oh, so you take teams now. Have you changed your thesis?” No, we actually hadn’t, it was just that the teams that we were building behaved like and seemed as experienced as teams that had worked together for many, many years. That effect largely came down to the process that we put the teams through.
If you look at our data – almost a decade’s worth of now – our teams are more likely to survive than teams that were built organically in the wild. That’s that’s because of the norms that we set very early on around feedback and finding the right co-founder for you, and understanding yourself as an individual and who might compliment you.
Reid: Yeah. I think the points that both of you have made are critical to understand, which is look, obviously, if you happen to know the right co-founder yourself personally, then that can be a great thing. You’ve got a decade or whatever depth of relationship, but having the right co-founder is extremely important. The thing is that you have to be as deliberate about it as possible. Alice, you referenced eharmony and said this is the equivalent of an economic marriage, so make sure you are doing it right.
As far as I can see from my position here in Silicon Valley and looking at programs for entrepreneurs, YC and EF have done the best of this compared to everywhere in the world. The ability to facilitate organic and trusted relationships that lead to very good co-founding partnerships is extremely important.
Let’s shift to another part of the network node. I get asked by a lot of investors about EF. They see all these great technical founders that are part of the program, building these deep technical companies, and they want to know how to participate. What’s some of the advice that you give to investors on how to connect with and participate in the EF in the way that would help them be most successful?
Matt: The first thing I would say is that they should come in and join the party. One of the really gratifying things that we’ve seen at EF over the last three years in particular is the internationalization of the investor base. It really felt like a few years ago, seed was very much a local game. People only wanted to invest in companies that they could get an Uber to. We’ve just seen that dramatically change over the last few years. We now see a large proportion of our companies raise money from the U S in their very first round. We’re really excited to continue to expand that.
Reid: Do you think it’s something that the pandemic has only helped accelerate?
Matt: In each of our sites, we have a team that is dedicated to getting the companies funded. They are network nodes. Their job is to signpost and triage and act as matchmakers between companies and investors. As you can imagine, just given the scale of the EF, the diversity of what we’ve got in the portfolio at any one time is really enormous. So it does take a bit of navigation. If anyone is interested, I would encourage them to email us. You can email me mattjoinef.dot com and I can put you in touch with the right person. We also now have quite a lot of self-serve info on the website. You can see all the pitch videos from our demo days online now – partly because of coronavirus. We also have investor matchmaking tools online.
We see this as a huge part of the growth of EF going forward, particularly at our least developed ecosystems (the ones that have not yet been through a full cycle). The quality of talent available relative to the supply of capital in those places locally is pretty extraordinary. I think there’s really an opportunity for game-changing investments, and at prices that by Silicon Valley standards will seem very reasonable. We’re excited to continue to accelerate that trend.
Reid: Yeah. Given the scale of EF across a number of different geographies, one of the things I get is a lens of who the quality investors and geographies are outside of Silicon Valley. There’s obviously this suddenly weird time, with people sheltering in place. One of the things that has been central to EF and will be modified in various ways – because we’re always learning in the future – is the in-person connections. What are some surprising learnings from the pandemic?
Alice: We were very, very worried at the beginning of this year about what would happen to team building outcomes when individuals couldn’t be in person. We’d never tried anything like that before. And yeah, things would have been pretty worrying if team-building outcomes had crashed. Interestingly, they seem to be at about 90% and of the levels that we would see during normal times. And the companies that are coming through are just as good, and, interestingly, have as much traction as we would see in non-pandemic times. That’s something you really hear a lot about entrepreneurs: they are highly adaptable, infinite learners and the best entrepreneurs will just learn their way out of pandemic. And we’ll work out how to edit and adapt their ideas and their companies to be able to make the most of the opportunity.
One of the things we were also worried about was that applications would fall off. Who is going to quit their job during this period of great uncertainty? Interestingly, at every location, applications have risen. Even more interestingly, in London, for example, applications have risen by 8% from women; they’re now making up 37% of applications. So we’re seeing real drive and applications coming through where people say, “Yeah, I get a pandemic is going on, but I have the risk appetite and I’m adaptable. I’m an infinite learner and I want to be able to capture this opportunity.”
There are so many great examples of globally important companies that were built – not normally during pandemics – but often during global recessions or times of economic hardship. But it’s really interesting to see so many individuals applying to EF and recognizing the opportunity that comes from the very weird situation we were in.
Matt: On the investor side, a similar thing is true. At the start of the pandemic we were asking, “Will anyone invest in companies this year? We are going to graduate all these companies. What will happen?” There was a slow period at the start where people were just figuring this out. It really did feel like a once-in-a-generation shock to the system. But I was amazed how quickly that changed. Actually, what we’ve seen is not only have our best companies succeeded in raising money, but they’ve succeeded in raising from a much more international audience than they might have done before. We see many more Silicon Valley firms look into Europe and into Asia because as you know, if you’re doing everything over Zoom, it doesn’t really matter if they’re a mile away or 10,000 miles away, it’s all the same.I think that’s a big thing that we hope we’ll be able to continue to capitalize on.
Maybe even more importantly, we’ve seen that our best companies in the portfolio have been able to embrace the change that the pandemic has caused. We’ve seen them really ride that wave, hopefully both in a way that’s economically valuable for the company and socially really valuable. For example, we have this company called AccuRx, which was founded in London four years ago. They provide software to primary care doctors, allowing them to schedule appointments and communicate with patients during the pandemic. Over a weekend, they built a video consultation feature, which ended up having a million uses in its first month. That took AccuRx’s market share from around 40% at the start of the pandemic to 98.5% of UK doctors using it by where we are now in the pandemic. It’s just pretty striking to see how adaptable entrepreneurs have been in really seeing what the world needs in this moment.
We find it really inspiring. I think the pandemic probably punched up applications. There’s a lot of change in the world right now, and that means there’s a lot of need and a lot of opportunities to build for that need.
Reid: So Alice, one of the things that you were mentioning – and this is one of the things that I’ve also had the pleasure of witnessing by being on the board of the EF – is noting how diversity and inclusion naturally falls out how Entrepreneur First looks for amazing talent. Say a little bit about the diversity of the entrepreneurs and the co-founding basin. What have you found there, and what are the trajectories there?
Alice: The key thing about looking for potential rather than looking for experience is that, often, experienced individuals have come through institutions and systems that are biased against underrepresented groups. One of the key things about looking for potential is identifying what potential looks like for different underrepresented groups at the point where they apply to EF. We’re looking for individuals who have less than six years of experience somewhere. Hands up, we could still do a much better job on diversity. When we first started, Matt and I naively thought we’d solve the problem overnight, so much so that we actually started up a not-for-profit called Code First Girls, which has been wildly successful, but hasn’t necessarily shifted the diversity starts within the EF because we were just assigning that to Code First Girls. We set this up seven years ago with the idea of teaching them to code for free in university. We’ve now just hit 20,000 women whom we have taught to code for free, 50% of which come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
So we’re very, very proud of that. But if you look at EF, it was still significantly underrepresented with women. We were about 20% in terms of all the kinds of underrepresented groups. We try to reflect the diversity of the cities that we’re in, and we’re doing a pretty good job. But I think for any investor in the space who is investing in technology, this has to be front of mind. It has to be something you’re always paranoid about because it’s really hard to change, and you can only make change if it’s front of mind and it’s something that you are actively investing in. For example, we invest extra time and extra resources in sourcing individuals from underrepresented groups rather than just assuming they’re going to come to us.
Reid: For our last question: 2021. What lens do you see on it?
Matt: It’s going to be a very big year for EF for a lot of reasons. One, we’re going out to raise a new fund, which is always exciting. Two, we’ll be seeing the results of our first Toronto program, which will be the culmination of the first wave of expansion that we did over the last few years. And three, 2021 is a year where we will really start to look at the next phase of growth for our mission to transform the lives of the world’s most impactful people through entrepreneurship. One of the big lenses we put on that is accessibility – who can reach us and how they reach us. We’ve got big, big plans about how we ensure that we can be accessible to even more of the world’s best talent.
We’re thinking about this not only in terms of geographic sites where we have feet on the ground, but in terms of how we use software. How do we use the capital that our investors have entrusted us with as tools to make sure that we’re reaching the best talent? I think there are ways that we could expand by 10X our reach at the top of the funnel. Hopefully that will have a huge impact in terms of the caliber and the reach of the companies that we’ve produced to the bottom.
Alice: I feel very lucky that almost a decade into founding EF I still feel so inspired by our mission. It’s transforming the lives of the most impactful people and it’s really, really hard to do. And we’re just getting started. We want to build a globally important institution that unlocks talent, and there’s much more to come.
Reid: Absolutely. And as we’ve been talking throughout this, the fundamental characteristic of great founders is that they are infinite learners. Both of you are, as I know from personal experience, and I hope our listeners in the podcast have derived some things from what I have learned from you guys along this journey.
Matt, Alice, thank you for this podcast from across the pond. I look forward to our next conversation.
Matt and Alice: Thanks so much, Reid.