Talent: the emerging frontier of investing

Posted 20 September 2023
Alice Bentinck & Matt Clifford - headshots
By Alice Bentinck & Matt Clifford

Entrepreneur First’s mission has been consistent since we founded it: we believe that the world’s most ambitious people should be founders, and we’re here to back them to make great companies happen that otherwise wouldn’t.

The concept of ‘talent investing’ didn’t exist when EF was launched, but over the years, we’ve learned a lot about the sort of people we want to fund, and the kinds of companies we want to help build. The sum of that knowledge and experience has culminated in the concept of talent investing; the craft of identifying and amplifying exceptional people early in their careers, and catalyzing them toward the most impact they can create. 

In the last year we have put new focus on the people behind the craft, the talent investors, and how we can build a natural home for the world’s most ambitious people, both in our team and in the founders we back, that will last for generations to come. Being a Talent Investor combines a broad set of skills. It is rooted in becoming a trusted counselor, dedicated coach, an advisor, a supporter. It requires building genuine relationships with exceptional people as early as possible to have the opportunity to guide them on their journeys towards extraordinary outcomes. Our work is not venture capital. It is not recruitment.

Our most fundamental belief is that human agency really matters. We are determined to push people towards greatness in the right way for them as an individual. We carry that belief past the program and into the community of EF alumni, including founders of our portfolio companies. Our goal is to be their partner throughout their founder careers, not for a specific financial transaction. Only by continually maximizing their outcomes can we win the right to work with the world’s best people. Talent investing is about balancing a clear-eyed commercial view of who can be a great founder of a great company against the extremely important empathetic view that there is a person standing in front of you who has agency in the world. 

While it’s true that talent investing is not the same as venture capital, we believe there is a lot to be learned from the history of VC. From the 2023 perspective, the structure of venture seems so obvious. But reading stories from its early days reveals how little people knew what they were doing. The concept didn’t even have a name for the first ten years (we wish they’d run with ‘adventure’ capital…) Just like then, the work we are doing now is the frontier of a new category: talent investing. 

As much as we have done to define talent investing in the last twelve years, we know that there will be others who come after us that will shape the category in completely unpredictable ways. Just as Mike Moritz defined venture capital with his investments, the person who will come to define talent investing is still out there, finding their way towards a career that will change their life, and the lives of all the founders they form relationships with. 

One key learning we have borrowed from venture capital is our belief in the power law. Just as the most successful VC isn’t the one that makes the most investments, we know that a small number of truly exceptional founders will generate the vast majority of the impact from our portfolio. As an organization, we have always been extraordinarily ambitious about what EF could become. It has taken time to realize that while the ambition for most of the startups on our programs is ‘scale’, scale is the wrong measure of our value as talent investors. Investing in more future founders won’t drive exceptional companies, only investing in the right ones. 

Our upcoming cohorts are some of our smallest in many years. But we believe that they are our best yet, filled with truly exceptional potential founders at the very start of extraordinary careers. We’ve held ourselves to a new bar for selecting talent for the W23 cohorts, only backing people we believe have the real potential to build generation-defining companies. 

Redefining the role of our Talent Investors has allowed us to bring these people together, from all over the world, investing time in building relationships with them and a deep understanding of the strengths they will bring to founding. We paused applications for six months in most of our sites this year, creating space for our team to focus entirely on meeting with and identifying exceptional founders, including many earlier in their careers as we built our first dedicated Graduate cohorts. 

We are so excited to see what these founders build at EF, and the future we build for talent investing alongside them. We strongly believe that there has never been a better time to build a company, and hope that future founders will do that with Entrepreneur First.