Today is a big day.
This was the first line of N26’s blog post on 19th March, when they announced the closing of a $160 million Series C funding round. That day, the company revealed its exceptional growth to 850,000 users, which was a remarkable feat of tripling customers within two years. Yet, I knew this was the end. Not for the company but for my journey with N26. So you may be wondering, why did I leave the company at such a peak time?
It’s important to first understand a little more about me. I grew up in Lyon and studied executive engineering at the nearby École Centrale de Lyon. Since childhood, I have always been curious about technology and had the desire to work in startups. When I graduated, my decision tree was either to stay in France and work in the growing French ecosystem, or look for something more international. My ambition has always been more global, so I took a risk and moved to Berlin.
I joined N26 for two main reasons (i) I needed to get some quality startup experience and (ii) I was an early adopter of what is an excellent product. N26 helped me learn what it takes to build a disruptive FinTech product for a newer generation and I was fortunate enough to have made a number of really close friends there. I take pride from having helped adding products such as Insurance, yet one thing still bothered me. The product direction never felt like mine. I craved my own freedom to explore and wanted to have ownership of my destiny. I knew I had to go it alone, so I made the big call and left.
I QUIT MY JOB. WHAT NEXT?
I left N26 along with a colleague to work on an idea that we had in the FinTech space. We both had the same commitment to creating a meaningful business for people of our generation and we decided to look for a suitable accelerator to provide guidance and a community of entrepreneurs with a similar ambition.
We had heard about Entrepreneur First (“EF”), often dubbed as the ‘European Y Combinator’, thanks to its fantastic record of company building (see thisarticle about Magic Pony which sold to Twitter for $150m). It’s important to note that Entrepreneur First is not an accelerator, it’s a VC company builder. They invest in individuals pre-team, pre-idea and provide a framework to find a co-founder and build a company over a period of six months. The stars seemed to align as EF announced that they were launching a cohort in Berlin. Although we had a team and a loose idea, we knew that needed the EF badge and applied to join the programme.
ENTREPRENEUR FIRST AND MY KEY LEARNINGS
The early days of Entrepreneur First were tough. I still remember the day I introduced myself and felt a slight imposter syndrome at the impressive array of repeat entrepreneurs, developers, academics and exceptional commercial minds. I perhaps did not engage with the programme as much as I should have in the early days, given I had entered EF with a team.
I am now 8 weeks into the programme and the experience has been revolutionary. I thought it makes sense to outline my four key learnings from the process — so here goes:
FOUR KEY LEARNINGS FOR ASPIRING FOUNDERS
1. “WE ARE TWO TECHNICAL CO-FOUNDERS AND DON’T NEED A BUSINESS CO-FOUNDER”
One of the biggest learnings I’ve had from EF is the requirement to pair yourself with someone who has a complementary skillset to you. Building a company is more than building a product. In order to validate your idea, you will need to do extensive customer development which involves going out of your comfort zone and speaking to random people in cafes, at events etc.
Further, raising money is a full time job for one of the cofounders and the experience is harsh. The default outcome of raising money is to fail, it takes dedication and endless hustle to successfully make it.
This does not come natural for technical co-founders. I had to separate from my fellow ex-colleague as we were too similar in our DNA. This was hard and you need to be able to have tough conversations if you want to create a successful business. If driving sales, writing endless PowerPoint presentations for investors or directing commercial strategy does not come natural to you, pair yourself with someone with whom it does. You will notice the difference, trust me.
2.“BILLION DOLLAR IDEAS DO NOT COME UP OVER LUNCH”
Ideas are cheap. If you think that you have a billion dollar idea, then you probably do not. Sitting in a cafe and ideating with your friends is unlikely to help this cause. Good ideas come out of relentless hustle and commitment to mastering a space. Identify a problem area you believe in and spend time working out where the real customer pain points are. Talk to customers, customers and more customers. Avoid calling your friends.
3.“YOU ARE A CHIEF LEARNING OFFICER MORE THAN A CTO OR CEO”
One thing you should not underestimate is the requirement to continually go outside of your knowledge domain. Whilst it’s easy to stick to writing code and building products, you will need to develop new skills rapidly as a founder.
I’m a backend developer by trade but I would say my new job title is “frontend backend developer designer co-marketer”. I have been required to learn front-end development, design and marketing within the space of two weeks and spend my weekends watching videos to learn. If you are not comfortable with doing this, don’t start a company.
4.“I’M GOING TO START A COMPANY BY BUILDING PRODUCT FROM DAY ONE”
It’s natural for an engineer to focus on a solution rather than a problem. Diving in head first and writing code can often be a waste of time in the early company formation days, especially if you do not take the time to understand your problem space. Engineers typically want to build the solution first so be aware of this when taking your first steps.
WHAT AM I WORKING ON NOW?
In closing, I wanted to update you all on the problem that I am currently working on now. I have a new co-founder with great pedigree in the investment space and together we stumbled upon a trend that we just do not understand. Millennials sit with money in low interest rate bank accounts and do not invest in the stock market, but are happy to associate themselves with newer asset classes such as cryptocurrency and tokens.
To put this colloquially, there is “an elephant in the room” (for my non-native friends, this means an obvious problem that no one wants to talk about). If I had told you that a portfolio of Amazon, Netflix, Google, Nvidia and eBay would have generated you a 70%+ return over the last year, would you have liked to invest your spare cash in equities? So why do millennials not invest?
The problem can be divided into an accessibility and education issue. Our mission is to inspire a new generation of investors by simplifying the steps to create a portfolio of equities and crypto assets, whilst helping users understand a little more about what they are investing in. We want to be a forward thinking brand that people in our generation can relate with and use terminology they understand. The investment landscape is changing drastically since the introduction of tokens and we want to create a new product that makes having a portfolio of equities and crypto the new normal.
Our new brand is called Elephant and I built a little simulator tool here to illustrate what we are doing at. Check us out and sign up if you can relate to this problem, you wouldn’t want to be the Elephant in the room now would you?