Ideas Pt II: Finding your Edge

By Alice Bentinck, EF Co-Founder
13 September 2018

Article7 Minute Read


In Part I we explored where ideas come from and why we use Edge based ideation, make sure you read that first.

There is an opportunity cost to the startup you build — it’s the other startup you could be building. To ensure you’re building the most valuable startup possible you need to leverage the skills and knowledge you already have. This is your Edge.

Your Edge is your secret weapon. It’s your unfair competitive advantage compared to other founders.

An individual’s Edge is their unfair advantage in solving a problem, compared to other founders.

It takes the form of a technical skill or area of expertise, usually from your academic or corporate career. Ask yourself:

  • What are the things you know about that few others know?
  • What can you build that few others can?
  • What unique or rare insights do you have that others don’t?

An idea should always be solving a problem. But, there are many problems you could work on.

A problem derived from your Edge will give you an unfair advantage compared to other founders and improve your chances of building a globally important company.

This piece will help you work out what kind of Edge you might have.

Types of Edge

There are two types of Edge — Technical and Domain.

Technical Edge

We love funding technologists who want to apply their skills to hard problems — even if they’re not yet sure what problem they want to solve. Most individuals joining EF fall into this category.

Technical Edges have usually worked on a specific technology for a significant period of time. If you have a PhD or a postdoc, you are most likely to be a Tech Edge. You could also have worked in a commercial research lab. Maybe you’re a professor.

As a Tech Edge you are obsessed with a particular technology. You are at the cutting edge of your field and are working with the world’s best researchers and academics. You love your academic career, but you’re frustrated by the amount of impact you can have. You want to see what your work can do in the real world.

Why should you use your Tech Edge to develop an idea?

Having a Tech Edge means you have deep expertise in a technology that very few other people do. It’s your unfair advantage compared to other founders.

You may feel in your lab you’re surrounded by academics who know more about this technology than you do. Ask yourself, how many of them are starting startups? You aren’t comparing your technical ability to your lab-mates, you’re comparing it to the rest of the founder population.

At EF, we like investing in startups that take technical risk. This means we want you to build something that’s on the edge of your ability, that’s on the edge of what’s possible.

Some examples:

Zehan graduated from Imperial with a PhD in Medical Imaging Computing. EF helped him to apply the visual processing skills from his PhD to the problem of helping computers to imagine. Twitter acquired his company Magic Pony Technology for a reported $150m just 18 months after it was founded.

Rostislav left academia to join EF. He holds a PhD in Material Science and Engineering from the National University of Singapore. He started Involt leveraging the expertise from his PhD to develop supercapacitors as the next generation electrical energy storage medium to replace batteries.

Noor was a junior Professor in Deep Learning at the University of Aalborg before she joined EF. Her work had been cited thousands of times, but it wasn’t enough impact for her. She wanted to see what her work could do in the real world and is now building GTN that combines deep learning and quantum physics to find life saving drugs. Read her profile in Wired here.

Danesh holds a PhD in Nanophotonics from the National University of Singapore. Before joining EF, he had designed and built photonic systems for A* STAR and Sumitomo Electric Labs. He had also published 10 papers in top photonic journals. He used his Tech Edge to start Transcelestial which is developing a space laser network that will be able to transfer data 1,000 times faster than current wireless technology. Read more here.

Domain Edge

If you have years of experience within a certain industry, and have an insight on how it could be improved, you are likely to be a Domain Edge.

Your insight should be non-obvious. It should be surprising. Ask yourself, could someone outside of the industry have guessed this? If yes, you need to go back to the drawing board.

As a Domain Edge you are constantly frustrated by how your industry works or by how your vertical operates. You have tried to make changes where you work, but feel this has had insufficient impact — you’re ready to change an entire industry. You might have a technical background (maybe you did maths, physics or engineering at undergrad), but it’s as likely that you don’t. Either way you’re excited about bringing advanced technology to your industry.

If you’re still a student, or straight out of academia, it is unlikely that you are a Domain Edge. Make sure you don’t confuse Edge with passion. If your idea is in music, sport, dating, housing, food or entertainment and you don’t have years of experience in that industry, it’s unlikely you are a Domain Edge.

Some examples:

Julian had 12 years experience as a media executive at Warner Bros and Netflix. He used his experience as Director of Content at Netflix in Japan to start Blockpunk at EF. Blockpunk flips the world of content on its head, giving anime creators more control over digital rights to their work through the use of blockchain technology.

Phoebe worked at Aviva, the insurance company before joining EF. She is now co-founder of Brolly tackling the consumer nightmare of managing insurance products. Phoebe’s experience in the sector gave her a unique insight into the mechanics of the insurance world and the network required to solve this problem. Read more about Brolly here.

Hazel had 10 years of experience in the music industry and was part of companies such as Shazam, Universal Music, Pandora, Guerva and BandLab. She used her Domain Edge to start Musiio at EF. Musiio takes on one of the toughest problems in the music industry — new artist discovery using deep learning and feature extraction. Read more in Techcrunch here.

What if you don’t have an Edge?

If you’re don’t have a clear Edge, you could be a Catalyst founder.

A Catalyst is someone who activates and accelerates their co-founder’s Edge. They have no easily identifiable Edge of their own, but they are highly motivated and have skills that can unlock others’ potential. It’s unlikely they will end up working on one of their own ideas, instead they leverage the expertise of their cofounder.

Catalyst founders have many of the following traits:

  • Strong communicators
  • Good at sales
  • Full stack engineers
  • High energy
  • Product management skills

If you are a Catalyst, it’s likely you are a restless polymath who is constantly seeking out new growth curves. You might have been an early employee in a startup, worked in consulting or had a very broad career dipping in and out of different industries and roles. You’re competitive, hard working and ambitious — you just need the right outlet for your potential.

Rob co-founded Magic Pony Technology with Zehan (above). He is a quintessential Catalyst founder. During his Masters in Electrical and Electronics at Imperial College he interned at Raspberry Pi, the startup not-for-profit. He then became their first engineering employee, before going onto do product evangelism for them around the world. Read about Magic Pony here.

Rohit graduated with a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. There he worked on cutting-edge projects like NTU’s Solar Car, a state-of-the-art Healthcare Droid, next-gen multi-touch HCI systems and represented Singapore in international engineering competitions. He then worked for 4 years in RBS’s FX Electronic Markets Team where he received multiple awards in security, low-latency communication systems and highly scalable distributed software systems thus becoming the youngest Associate in company’s Asia-Pacific history. He started Transcelestial applying his own tech and commercial experience to with Danesh’s Tech Edge.

Aaron was Employee #1 at AppCentral, a mobile startup in Silicon Valley that was the world’s first enterprise app store, APAC CRM lead at Blackrock and VP in Product Management at GIC (Singapore’s Sovereign Wealth Fund). He holds a Bachelors Degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of California, Berkeley. He started Priyvr at EF to empower salespeople with the tools to deliver highly personalised customer experiences and service at scale.

What’s next?

Once you understand your Edge, you understand what problems you are best suited to solve. The problems where you have an unfair competitive advantage compared to other founders.

If you’re ready to get going, apply to Entrepreneur First. We support individuals who have outstanding Edges to build their own deep tech startups from scratch.

We currently run programmes in Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Singapore and London, you can apply here.

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