On my laptop I have a folder with over a thousand downloaded articles that I have collected over the years on various work-related topics. In the “Building a Business” sub-folder the oldest article was saved by me on 24-July-2003 … This is a long-winded way of saying I’ve been interested in entrepreneurship for a long time.
It has also taken me ages to build up the courage and confidence to give founding a company a try for myself. It was Entrepreneur First (EF) which gave me the final push this year, and as we are in the final week of the Team Building phase it is a good time to share the realities of the experience for anyone thinking of starting a business, teetering on the edge, or talking themselves out of (or into) doing it…
When I came across Entrepreneur First in June, its value proposition neatly knocked down all the objections and excuses that had stopped me from trying to launch my own business:
· I didn’t want to do it alone — EF helps you find a co-founder with complimentary skills
· I didn’t have a decent idea — EF gives you the opportunity & funding to develop a novel idea with a cofounder
· The risk felt too high — EF provides a stipend, structure & assistance on business-building, and introductions to VCs if you make it to the Launch phase
I applied and was accepted into the very first Paris cohort, based out of Station F.
What has it been like so far?
We kicked everything off — and got our hoodies — with a day of presentations, speed-intros, stupid-idea hackathons, & general mingling with drinks. Meeting 30 people in 40 minutes was intense, and the shoe-brellas idea from the winning hackathon team was so stupid it could maybe work.
The kick-off day broke the ice, gave us a sense of who we would be working alongside, and I came away with a list of people to arrange getting-to-know-you coffee-dates over the 2 weeks before we all moved into Station F for the start of structured Team Forming.
During the 8-week Team Forming phase, the EF team provides training, templates, feedback & check-ins, and we have to do weekly pitches. Sounds like a lot — and it is helpful — but it is important to know that it is light touch. We are not there to be trained, we are there to start a business so we need to be self-sufficient and self-motivated.
The most counter-intuitive part of the whole process is how you find a co-founder. Entrepreneur First actively encourages you to try out working with someone then break up and move on quickly if your pair is not productive. So we learn if we are a good fit by working together rather than simply talking. We were strongly encouraged to be in pairs by end of the first week to get us going *gulp*…
It takes me a while to get to know and trust people, I don’t like putting myself out there, and uncertainty and change are challenging waves to ride. But I was committed to the process and had a post-it note stuck to my fridge with: “Don’t repeat your dating-life mistakes during EF cofounder hunting” to help me keep my sense of humour. It was super fun and interesting to see how it played out and the tactics that were used: there was secret dating, very intense and targeted wooing, some people went-with-the-flow, others had lists…
During Team Forming I got involved in all sorts of topics: space tech, supply-chain optimisation, health-tech and even a short stint lending a hand on a floating solar-panel idea. That is one of the beauties of Entrepreneur First — you are with a group of very smart people with skills in all sorts of areas, so it is a real opportunity to expand your horizons by doing some fast-learning to test out where you add the most value, what kind of person you work well with, and what really motivates you.
Some of those who arrived with well-formed ideas struggled to find or convince co-founders to join them — mostly because people in the cohort were there to help develop something in a pair, so latching on to a fully-formed idea did not appeal. Those who adjusted, listened and adapted to create a mutual topic had the most success in finding their other half. Many of us arrived with interests or passions, most of us adjusted our thinking in some way to align our business-building with our competencies, aptitudes, and cofounder.
I am now on my 3rd cofounder pairing & have had about 11 days where I was solo. The hardest breakup was the one with a cofounder where we got on really well, but our combination of skills wasn’t aligned to what was needed to get the idea off the ground fast. And in VC-backed startup life — the ability to scale fast is critical. Thankfully we are still friends despite the breakup. Having 50 people all going through the same process together creates a camaraderie which soothes the soul & helps each of us with our hurdles!
There have been low points — as you would expect when doing something this challenging. The EF team “encourage” what is known as the Halloween Massacre by publishing team rankings around week 5 which tell you how likely you are to get investment committee funding. That wake-up call forced a number of difficult conversations and breakups, and put many people under stress since getting through to the next phase depends on being in a pair by end of week 8.
All the solo founders at that point rubbed their hands in glee as they scooped up newly separated people to work with… We also don’t always agree with the feedback we are given by EF, and some pairs have impressed me as they have used negative feedback as a driver to step up a gear and prove the doubters wrong (those are the ones to watch IMHO). Finally, if your team forms later in this phase you have a lot of catching-up to do compared to those who get together in week 1 (in our Paris cohort we have 7 teams out of a potential 25 who managed the feat of finding the right partner in week 1)! Operating under pressure is a key skill for business-building so being tested in this way is not a bad thing.
My overall opinion is that even with my professional experience and all my reading over the years, trying to start a company is a really really really hard thing to do. There are no guarantees, there are no shortcuts, and even if you do everything right you can be unlucky.
However — regardless of how I do — the Entrepreneur First experience is one where I am learning an enormous amount about myself, about the process, and about different industries, backgrounds, and perspectives. By becoming a part of EF you are starting a business in an environment with safety nets and resources to help you along. So why not go for it and take advantage of the opportunity?