IV. A MEETING OF STRANGERS
EF9 officially began on October 2nd, 2017. Conversations had continued amongst ourselves in the six weeks since the away weekend. I’d been working full-time on my idea, prototyping some code, and even doing some preliminary customer discovery interviews, gathering insights from friends and contacts who worked in financial services and the law. Some teams had already begun to form, but most people were yet to firmly commit.
For me, the pivotal moment on the first day was a session where all 85 of us stood before the group to talk for 30 seconds on what they wanted to build, and what they were looking for in a co-founder.
I was particularly impressed by the conviction of Jiameng and Ross. I’d known them both for months now, having met up on previous small-scale get-togethers. Their convictions never wavered, both were absolutely certain what they wanted to do, and could now express their vision with a compelling clarity. It was no surprise to me that both were to found tremendous teams.
For others, describing what they were looking for was more difficult, but the sharing culture within the cohort meant it was never an insurmountable problem. Uncertainty was embraced, and experimentation encouraged. Many of those who were initially hazy on what they wanted to achieve ultimately went on to form awesome teams, honing their vision in a succession of deep conversations with some absurdly talented people.
My advice to future cohorts is to at least have an idea of what you want to achieve. It’s fine if you don’t yet quite know how you’ll actually achieve it. That’s why you have a co-founder.
As for me, I knew what I wanted to say, having scribbled it down in my notebook a few days earlier.
“Hi! I’m Jaron, I’m an AI PhD. And I passionately believe work is for machines.”
“I believe that people work too much, and waste their time on mundane, unfulfilling tasks.”
“I want to change that. To put AI at the service of the many, and create an on-demand agent workforce. Just imagine what you could achieve if there were 10 of you. Or 100…”
“If you believe in creating an automation revolution too, we should talk!”
And that was it, I sat down to listen to the other pitches. A few minutes later, Camille addressed the room, and began talking about how the financial services world she’d come from was a painful struggle to find the right information. My ears pricked up when she mentioned the word ‘automation’. I scribbled her name down in my notebook, adding her to my shortlist of those who seemed most aligned with my own intentions.
I hadn’t previously talked to Camille, a late admission to the cohort, part of a surge of new entrants who applied late following the high-profile announcement that Reid Hoffman was joining EF’s board. As a result, she hadn’t attended the away weekend, but by chance, we ended up standing beside each other later that afternoon as we waited for dinner to start. We started chatting, and it was soon very clear that we each held the missing piece of the other’s puzzle.
So much success in life is due to little quirks of serendipity. The gap between events allowed us time to talk, and then we walked over to where the group dinner was taking place. It was natural to continue talking, so we sat in adjacent seats and our conversation took up the rest of the evening. By the time we’d finished dessert, it was clear that Camille knew all about the problem, who’d pay for it and how to create a viable business, and I knew the technology that would enable us to build a solution.
We agreed to continue working on the plan the following day. We’d made such good progress that by Wednesday, we were confident enough to be among the first pairs to found a team. In a company’s lifetime, you’ll never make a more important decision than your choice of co-founder. It was easily the best decision I made during my time in the cohort.
V. STRONG OPINIONS, WEAKLY HELD
Yet forming a team with Camille came as a surprise to me, because I’d always assumed I’d establish a team with a fellow technical co-founder. A Page and Brin style dream team to share the burden of building something complex. But in retrospect, that was rather naive. Even in a deep-tech startup, only half of the complexity is in the technology. You must also create a viable business. Customers, contracts, commercials, capital — just because they don’t have an API doesn’t mean they’re any less complicated, or any less important.
One of you needs to be able to speak your customers’ language, to understand their world, why it works that way now, and how it might be bettered. You can’t just expect a couple of PhDs to waltz into a client’s offices to a round of applause. Real life isn’t Ghostbusters.
Keeping an open mind, and being aware there’s more to a successful startup than technology expertise is the best piece of advice I could give to a founder with a technical background. Resist the temptation to find the best engineer or the most brilliant scientific mind. That’s your role to fill. Or your first hire. Find instead someone who has the skills you lack, and which you won’t have time to develop. Form a team that will be insanely productive from day one. Complementary skills characterise every successful startup I know.
We spent the next 3 months working at a crazy, intense pace. Not just refining our proposition, but building a product and securing our first paying customer. A month after founding the team we incorporated our company. And Plural AI was born.
Looking back on our original vision, I can now appreciate how much it was continually refined and polished through customer feedback and some superbly insightful conversations with EF’s in-house experts. Programme director Alex Diaz had warned us as much in his very first presentation. Your brilliant idea is wrong. It will change. He was right. But in its place will be something far, far better.
Have strong opinions, but weakly held. Be aware enough to adapt and evolve in the light of new evidence. Feynman put it most brilliantly: nature cannot be fooled. If you’re wrong, you’ll never succeed by insisting you’re right.
We went before EF’s investment committee early in the new year, confident we had the ingredients to be a investable business. We’d secured good traction, and proof the problem we’d identified was both real and immensely valuable. We had an exceptional team with every capability we needed already in-house. And we could present a credible vision of how big our company could grow.
But you’ll forgive me if I keep some secrets under our hat.
EF decided to invest in us, and ever since we’ve been working feverishly to deliver our vision. Rapidly moving from proof-of-concept to what can be a truly scalable product, and engineering solutions to challenging problems few others seem to have ever attempted.
On the 22nd of March, 2018, one year to the day of my first encounter with EF. Camille presented our vision at demo day, skillfully distilling the essence of six months of intensely hard work into three and a half marvelous minutes.
VI. The Call to Adventure
I wrote this article for several reasons.
I wanted to commit my memories of EF9 to writing, before they faded, or were overwritten by vivid sparkle of new experiences. As the faintest ink outlives even the strongest memories.
I also wanted to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone on the EF team, who really are a wonderful bunch. To recruit, orchestrate and guide a group of so many highly ambitious individuals must be remarkably hard. But they manage it through skill, patience and good humour. Their hard work did not go unnoticed, and I’m profoundly grateful to every one of you.
And finally, I also wanted to write a call to adventure for anyone reading this who’s ever found themselves pondering that timeless existential question of purpose: why am I here? How do I best use my talents?
Put simply: if you want to change the world, there’s no better way of doing it than starting a company. Publishing papers on rocket engines won’t, by itself, get you to Mars. Real impact comes from executing ideas.
Matt Clifford is right when he says the world is missing out on its best founders. They’re hoovered up by big corporations — how tragic that our generation’s smartest minds spend their days working out how to sell more display advertising.
Yet the world is full of difficult, potentially life-changing problems. It yearns for the audacity of modern day Argonauts. Those with the skill and courage to build a new ship, bring together a crew and embark on an uncertain voyage.
Each of us possesses an extraordinary gift. An imagination of stunning power and subtlety. Spend your existence making things of beauty and ingenuity. In whatever medium your talents lie, be it in words, or paint, or sound, or code. Or in the people you surround yourself with, the communities you build.
Create, and encourage others to create.
Because creation is the true meaning of life.