How to be a Founder
Turning Entrepreneurial Ideas into Reality
While starting a company is a typical career move for people in major tech hubs like Silicon Valley, the risks can seem much higher in other parts of the world. Many talented would-be founders are impeded by factors such as a lack of network, difficulty accessing capital, and a simple unfamiliarity with the process by which entrepreneurial instincts can be translated into the tactics needed to ideate, found, and build a company.
That’s why Entrepreneur First set out to normalize the concept of entrepreneurship as the highest-impact career path an ambitious person can have, no matter where they are in the world. The U.K.-based “talent investor” gathers a highly selective cohort of prospective founders across Europe, Asia, and more recently Toronto to participate in a rigorous program where they can try out ideas and experiment with working together before committing to the full company journey. Greylock has been a proud partner to Entrepreneur First since 2017.
Now in its 11th year, the organization has helped build some 500 companies and has a portfolio valued at about $10 billion. Along the way, they’ve built something much different than many other founder programs. By focusing on connecting individuals rather than defined teams, they’ve gained a unique perspective into what makes good ideas, and how the right co-founder dynamics can bring it into reality.
Those insights can now be found in a new book written by Entrepreneur First co-founders Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford, entitled How to be a Founder: How Entreprenuers Can Identify, Fund, and Launch Their Best Ideas.
Alice and Matt joined me on the latest episode of Greymatter to discuss some of the key insights from the book, as well as why they believe the world needs entrepreneurship more than ever. You can listen to the conversation at the link below or wherever you get your podcasts.
Hi everyone, welcome to Greymatter, the podcast from Greylock where we share stories from company builders and business leaders. I’m Reid Hoffman, a general partner at Greylock.
My guests today are Alice Bentinck and Matt Clifford, who are the co-founders and co-CEOs of Entrepreneur First. The “talent investor,” as they are known, was created with a mission to connect founders no matter where they are in the world, and recruits and backs them at the very earliest stages. They’ve been going strong since 2011, and Greylock is proud to have been partnered with them since 2017.
While the world (and especially tech hubs like Silicon Valley) are awash with incubators and accelerators, Entrepreneur First has built something very different. By focusing on connecting individuals rather than defined teams, they’ve gained a unique perspective into what makes good ideas, and how the right co-founder dynamics can bring it into reality.
Now everyone has the opportunity to learn more about their strategy and insights through their new book, How to Be a Founder, which was just published last week. It’s a great resource for any entrepreneur. The co-founder topic is extremely important, because we have generally found that while there’s amazing solo founders, many successful startups are done by two or three co-founders. That right chemistry; that right way of putting them together is extremely important for success.
So we’re very fortunate to have Alice and Matt to discuss it with us. Alice, Matt, thank you so much for joining me today.
Thanks for having us.
Great to be here.
And of course, thank you for writing this book. You can never have too many resources as entrepreneurs, as we all know. And this one is a very valuable one. Before we get into specifics, can you give a brief overview for those who may not know how Entrepreneur First operates?
Sure. So I suppose the starting point for EF is the idea that the world’s missing out on some of its best founders. Why is it missing out? Well, largely for two big reasons: one, Entrepreneur First tends to operate in countries where starting a company is not yet the obvious thing for smart, ambitious people to do. And so a big part of what we do is really normalize the idea that this is probably the highest impact path for an ambitious person.
But the second part of what we do (and you sort of already hinted at this), is within the other big barrier that stops great companies being built – it’s not obvious in a lot of the world who you would start a company with. I feel one of the many benefits from Silicon Valley is if approximately everyone is thinking about startups, then your chance of knowing someone who would be a good co-founder for you is pretty high. In a lot of the world, that’s not true.
And so what EF does is twice a year in six cities around the world, we curate really high-quality cohorts of around 50 people. The value proposition is common for joining one of these cohorts and we’ve designed a methodology, a culture, and a system for helping people find a co-founder within their community and taking them right through from pre-company to having a seed-funded company six months later.
So over the last 10 years, we’ve built about 500 businesses, many of which are still in the very early stages, but the portfolio is now worth about $10 billion. And I suppose what we’ve seen is actually there are some real similarities between building a company at the earliest stages in Europe and Asia (and more recently, Toronto) and all these native ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley.
What we wanted to do with the book was distill many of the frameworks and learnings that we use day-to-day at Entrepreneur First and give entrepreneurs all over the world access to that. Partly to increase their chance of success, but largely just to encourage them to get going.
One of our favorite phrases is, “Most people won’t.” Lots of people want to be a founder, lots of people are trapped in the status quo. And even though they have this aspiration, they just never get round to it. I hope what the book does is both help them understand the Why behind getting started, but also the How, and gives them practical steps on finding a co-founder, developing an idea. And there’s a lot of startup advice that starts from the point where you have those two things. Well, “How to Be a Founder” tries to do is start from the point where you suddenly think, “Huh, actually, can I do this? And if I do, how do I get started?”
One of the things that we’ve all been in dialogue with, the various commentators around the book – and I think the book has been very well received – has been this question of, “Well, that’s all great and good about how to have really strong dynamics that work for starting a great company with co-founders, but how do you find a co-founder?” And obviously this is one of the things that Entrepreneur First has been years in helping. Describe a little bit of the process by which you have people come and join your cohorts, what the classes look like, and why this is an optimized path for finding a co-founder.
I think one way to answer this question is to think about what you would look for in a co-founder, even if you knew everyone in the world. And I think you would screen for this: you want to start a company with someone really smart, you want to start a company with someone very skilled, that’s going to bring something obviously useful to the table. You want someone who’s very determined and resilient. Hopefully you want someone very ambitious, because hopefully you’re setting out to do something big. And you want to start with someone who’s super committed, at least as committed as you are to go in the distance.
Now the hard thing is you don’t know everybody in the world, and even among the people you do, once you filter by those things, you usually land with a very small group. Now because EF has been around for a very long time, and because we spend millions of dollars a year searching the world for great aspiring entrepreneurs, what we can provide inorganically, if you like, is the network that you wish you had when you were starting that process of screening.
So we would probably, in a typical year, get around 20,000 applications from people that want to start companies and we’re whittling that down to a few hundred across our sites. So we are doing all that screening that we think you should do as a baseline, so you know that when you join a cohort and you meet everyone from the first day, you know they’ve been through a highly competitive, really selective process. You know that they’re not tourists who are just kind of intrigued by entrepreneurship. They’ve given up something to be there. And most of them are not going to be the right co-founder for you. But we believe strongly that if you join a cohort of 50, 60, 70 people who’ve been through that process, the chances are that one of them really could be. And so we take that very seriously, we’re very lucky that EF is so competitive to get into today, but it means that for the people that get in, we really think that they’re starting with pretty good arms.