Entrepreneur First Toronto: 1 month in

Rachel Zimmer
28 October, 2020

Rachel, our Toronto General Manager, reflects on why she took on the challenge of spearheading our Toronto office, the journey to launch, and how our cohort is progressing so far.

Five months ago, I joined Entrepreneur First to lead the launch of our Toronto programme. From the get-go, I knew EF was a pretty special place.

My background is in entrepreneurship. I left my job 3 and a half years after graduating from Queen’s University to build my own company, 5Crowd. I understand the impatience that many people feel at the start of their careers. They want to make a difference now, but having the courage to break away from the status quo, even for those with the most innovative mindsets, takes a lot. 

I was ready to take the leap into a new adventure for the better part of a year. I know the bittersweet feeling of leaving a great company and job, and understand the fear – and the thrill – of a calculated risk.

What ultimately gave me the courage to take the leap was when a mentor shared the advice: “the riskiest thing you can do is actually stay in your role. If you start something and fail, you can always go back to industry. However, leaving industry just gets harder and harder.”

Building my own company was the most valuable and rewarding experience of my life. My co-founder Bram and I were very fortunate to have many individuals mentor us, give us tough love and, ultimately, believe in us.

When I stumbled upon Entrepreneur First, I was enamoured by the idea that I could play a small part in many other Canadians’ entrepreneurial journeys – just as those individuals had helped me.

The Road to Launching EF in Canada

EF has already helped over 2500 individuals build over 300 companies. Toronto has come to the global stage as a force to be reckoned with over the last 10 years. With our world-class universities and a thriving venture capital ecosystem, our country is filled with untapped potential. It was the perfect location for EF to launch its next cohort.

So we opened shop and built our team. We brought together experts from the Canadian startup and talent eco-systems, like myself, Milad, Alex and Maja, and EF veterans like Donald and Francois, who understood exactly what it took to make the programme a success.

We took in nearly 1,000 applications, conducted 250 interviews and finally, we had our first cohort of founders-to-be ready to take the leap. 

Our 56 cohort members are from 20 countries around the world (15 of them relocated to Toronto). They have joined us from the best academic and research institutions such as Mila Technical Institute, Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute, University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, University of Oxford, Queen’s University, Ivey Business School at Western University amongst many others. Many left their impressive jobs to join us from companies such as Google, Facebook, Huawei, BCG, Borealis, ElementAI and League to name a few.

On Sept 12, we opened the doors to them at our (covid-compliant) Kick-Off Weekend – an opportunity for our founders-to-be to meet, work and talk about their vision of changing the world, together. 

At the end of the event, we were told by cohort members that they had never seen so much potential in one room- and while maybe it was a little intimidating, it was also invigorating. They’d found their people.

Making and Breaking

Within one week, 70% of our cohort had already formed co-founding teams. But don’t be mistaken – these will not be the final teams we see pitching companies in a few weeks.

We know that finding a co-founder is hard. The EF philosophy is that the best way to identify the right co-founder is to test the relationship; try it out for a few days, and see what you create together. If it works, great. If you’re getting nowhere, or not moving fast enough, move on. There’s another 50+ brilliant people you can trial partnering with.

Not only do we create an environment where team break ups are normal – we celebrate them. You need a co-founder with a complimentary skillset, with whom you can build a productive working relationship and share responsibility. That may not be the first person you partner with, and that’s okay.

Recognising the value in breakups and inorganically forming teams removes the ‘social pressure’ to stay in a partnership that isn’t working, meaning that everyone can find the best outcome for them. And it works. As one cohort member said: 

“We raced through validation with a bunch of our hunches/ideas, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to find an idea that stuck. He will make an awesome CEO, as he’s exceptionally driven, focussed and knowledgeable… We had a terrific working relationship, and I wouldn’t hesitate to work with him again, despite not being right as co-founders.”

Adapting and Innovating

When we decided to launch in Toronto, we of course didn’t expect the global situation to be as it is. And we are missing some things –  the celebratory dinners; the office buzzing as our founders turn ideas to reality; the excitement of an in-person demo day.

But our core plan – supporting exceptional talent from Canada and around the world to realise their potential – hasn’t changed. In fact, we had such a great response to our launch that our first cohort is actually over subscribed. We intended to have 50 founders-to-be and were blown away by the market that we went with 56. 

We’re moving with the times, and as we’ve seen in other EF locations, our talent will find a solution. They don’t just adapt, but they innovate. They see opportunity and build what people need.

As our co-founder Alice said in one of our early conversations, “the best entrepreneurs are infinite learners. They will learn their way out of a pandemic.” 

No matter what the situation or how things change, I know the next 6 months are going to be an amazing adventure; for me, for our in-house team, for our cohort. 

EFTO1 – I can’t wait to see what you all build.

Do you have the potential to build a globally important company?

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