By HUGO GIBSON.
“BEING A FOUNDER today is easier than it’s ever been. We take away the risk and empower you to change the world through tech. You are all the best technical talent in the world. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t…EF is a fantastic opportunity for you to realise your potential.”
It’s only 2pm and this is at least the third time I’ve been told I’m one of the best technical people in the world so I’m starting to believe it. I’m in a room with a group of other wannabe entrepreneurs, listening to this talk which serves as an introduction to Entrepreneur First (EF), a Deep Tech accelerator. This is the kick-off weekend, the formal starting point for EF7 (the iteration of the accelerator I’ve been chosen to take part in). It’s an activity-based weekend in Sheringham in East Anglia. I’ve just spent four hours on a couch getting to know my fellow cohort members, and now we’re having a couple of talks to explain how EF works, why we were chosen for EF, and how to make the most of this weekend. The rest of the weekend will be spent bonding and socialising, all facilitated by the EF staff who seem to have limitless energy and never stop smiling.
WHILE SOME OF the talks feel a little staged, and some of the descriptions are a little fake, I feel enthusiastic about EF and my opportunity to escape corporate life. I joined EF because the corporate grind had become too much for me. I’d been working for the Guardian and realised that weeks and months were going by without me noticing. The job was easy and I could do my work without thinking. I knew it was time for a change; otherwise I’d watch my life slip by in a terrible cliché of drudgery and routine.
The EF programme promised to take me away from all that. While most technology accelerators want you to join the programme with a pre-formed team and idea to work on, EF selects individuals based on their potential to be a startup founder. They base their selection purely on technical talent, believing they can transform people into competent business owners within six months. The first three months are spent forming teams (EF encourages teams of two), and rapidly iterating on ideas. You’re encouraged to form a team, iterate on ideas, and break up quickly. At the end of month three, your team is invited to Investment Committee 1 where EF’s internal investment team will decide to invest in your idea or not. If yes, you get £10,000 and access to the next three months of the programme. At the end of month six they decide if you can raise external funds and if yes, give you a £70,000 convertible note, and invite you to Demo Day.
Demo Day is the culmination of EF. It’s when founders present their business to investors and initiate the fundraising process. The day consists of all the surviving businesses doing their pitches, and then setting up stalls and inviting investors to visit stalls and get to know the founders.
After Demo Day, businesses get further support from EF to help them raise money and scale up their business. Slowly EF stops supporting the business and becomes just an investor.
The first and most important step in this process is to find a co-founder and form a team. The purpose of Kick-Off Weekend is to start this team-forming.
AFTER THE INTRODUCTORY talks, we check into our rooms, and then go exploring Sheringham. So far the weekend feels like a cross between a stag weekend and a school trip. The conversations are about technology with the odd bit of banter mixed in, reminding me of Fresher’s Week at university.
We walk around Sheringham, getting to know each other and talking about what we’re interested in working on during EF. With the sun out, the cry of seagulls, and the cooling breeze coming off the North Sea, I feel optimistic about EF. I really feel like I’ll be able to start a startup and finally make enough money to retire to the hills and live out the rest of my days reading books.
The rest of the day is spent milling around the town and then we head back to the hostel for drinks and supper. Then, after supper, when I have a conversation with a young Oxford graduate from the Czech Republic, and I have my first doubts about EF.
He arrives later than everyone else and introduces himself as keen on politics, political science, and Deep Learning. He studied PPE at Oxford and I’m hopeful he’ll share the same interest in Wittgenstein as me — I’m keen for a break from the tech chat. I slip down next to him as the after-dinner revelry is just getting started and begin with an opener to segue into a chat about language.
“Do you think it’s possible to apply a system of moral prerogatives to human actions?”
He gives me a sideways look, clearly expecting a conversation about Artificial Intelligence, and says in his opinion human beings are little more than a web of neural networks thrown together to create intelligence, and that morality doesn’t exist in animals so why should it exist in humans? We talk for a while, with me trying to keep things moving, but it’s clear he’s not interested. So clear, in fact, that after ten minutes he stands up and leaves without even bothering to excuse himself.
Defeated, I decide to spend the rest of the weekend conforming and talking about technology. I have 20 conversations about the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning, and how both technologies are going to make a lot of people’s jobs redundant and change the world. The general attitude is that technology is moving us closer and closer to full automation, and making human labour redundant. No one seems that interested in energy – which I told everyone I was interested in – and I start to doubt if I’ll be able to find a co-founder.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, we go on a Totally Random Unsupervised Walk — as it’s labelled by the EF staff — which involves navigating around Sheringham and completing a series of team-building exercises. Things like building and completing an assault course on the beach, or climbing a tree and taking a picture.
We’re split into groups of around six. My group is five men (including the PPE graduate), and one woman (Flora). The skies are overcast, and a soft sea drizzle is pushing onto the town as we set about doing the challenges.
Our group quickly separates into two groups: the men, and Flora. I seem to be the only one who finds this awkward. I make attempts to chat to Flora, so she isn’t left lagging behind the group like an alien. But the other five make zero effort to talk to her or even walk at the same pace as her. This only makes things worse and I start to feel even more awkward. Should I just ditch her and give up the pretence? Or do I carry on and pretend this is all as expected?
I tell myself they aren’t ignoring her deliberately. It’s just that years of tech misogyny have made them think that she’d be unable to hold a conversation with them about Neural Networks and Deep Learning. The irony is that Flora just finished a PhD at Cambridge, using Deep Learning. Not only is she more than capable of talking in depth about Deep Learning, she’s a world-renowned expert, and far better at the topic than any of us are.
After the walk, the rest of the weekend is just banter and alcohol. There are more conversations about AI and Deep Learning, along with some extreme libertarian worldviews. I’m struck that money and financial independence are not the main reasons people joined EF. Unlike me, they’re more interested in using tech to create a utopia than they are in making lots of money.
Kick-Off Weekend ends with us returning to Hammersmith and all going to the pub. I’ve had enough socialising for one weekend so I skip the pub and return by tube to Brixton. As I’m walking home up Brixton Hill, I can’t help but look around at everyone and think how empty their lives are compared to mine. I’m one of the best technical people in the world, selected to join EF, and start a world-beating business. What’s strange is that I know EF were just boosting my ego to make me commit to their programme, but it’s worked. I really do feel like the amazing person they’ve been telling me I am.
AFTER KICK-OFF WEEKEND, the next event in the EF calendar is Demo Day for EF6 (the previous iteration of the accelerator). It’s a livestream, filmed straight from Facebook HQ in Central London, and we’re invited to watch from the EF offices in Bermondsey. Their offices are in a converted factory (the Biscuit Factory) right in the middle of some Bermondsey council estates. In the office complex, there’s a gym, a climbing wall, a music studio, and several media companies. EF’s offices are laid out over three floors with a roof terrace, exposed ironwork and pipes running up and down the walls.
When I arrive, I’m reunited with some fellow wannabe entrepreneurs from Kick-Off Weekend. There’s pizza, mounds of Doritoes, and Diet Coke to keep us sated while we watch the livestream. The banter from Kick-Off Weekend resumes. We talk about our ambitions for EF, who we’re looking to team up with, and what skills we need from other founders. There’s friendly competition as we compete for different teammates. Everyone is excited about the start of the core EF programme.
The livestream begins with the two founders of EF, Matthew Clifford and Alice Bentinck, giving a talk about startups and how much better it is to take a risk and start a technology startup, than it is suffer the corporate grind of modern life. They tell us they’ve got 21 teams pitching, introduce the first speaker, and walk off.
“Who here knows what I mean by rotating machines?” He says with a smile and holds both hands out to the room.
He continues, talking a bit about his background and the progress they’ve made, all the while using his arms to elaborate his points. Sometimes he points both hands up to the ceiling. Sometimes he uses them to make large circles, as if inviting the audience to join him on his startup adventure. He talks slowly, each sentence measured and paced, following on in perfect rhythm from the previous one. It feels a little staged but I imagine that, to combat nerves, EF coached Jamie to work to a script.
After Jamie, Giacomo comes on stage and introduces his business with the same hand motions as Jamie. Even the intonations in his voice are the same. After Giacomo, another 19 people come on stage and go through the exact same motions, all giving variants of the same pitch. The similarities don’t stop at the way they deliver their pitches. Their clothes, their hairstyles, their educational backgrounds, all feel very similar. Amidst all the nerves, EF seems to have coached away their personalities.
When the livestream is over, we all go for more pizza and Doritoes and talk about our impressions of it. The general impression is the same as mine. It felt like they were all a bit similar.
“I hope when I do my pitch I don’t make the same hand gestures,” says a Serbian woman with a PhD in Natural Language Processing as we’re leaving, “I don’t know what impression you give to investors if you do that. Everyone seemed the same.”
I’m inclined to agree with her.
TWO WEEKS LATER the EF7 Core Programme begins. The first week follows on from Kick-Off Weekend as Kick-Off Week. There are various talks about what to do now, specifically what the steps are to get through EF and raise investment. Basically we need to find a co-founder and then combine our deep technical expertise to solve real-world problems. If we do this, we don’t need to worry as we’ll sail through.
To begin we need to find our “edge”, the skill that distinguishes us from the competition. Alice gives a talk about how EF culture helps create an “edge triangle”, and how to use this triangle to find the perfect co-founder.
There are three possible “edges” any one person can have:
- Technical Edge – Deep technical knowledge in one area, usually someone with a PhD.
- Domain Edge – Deep domain knowledge in one industry, usually worked in an industry for several years.
- Smart Generalist – General technology expertise, usually good communication skills.
We make our “edge triangle” by picking one of these as our primary edge and then arranging the other two below as our secondary and tertiary edges. With this triangle, we can see what we’re missing and then find a co-founder with complementary skills.
Finding my “edge” proves challenging. I’m convinced I don’t have one and have to settle for being a generalist.
At an “edge” workshop on the roof terrace, late September sun beating down, I tell the programme leader I’m a generalist, and she replies that you can’t pick generalist as your primary edge, and I have to pick something else. Confused, I struggle for another couple of hours before deciding I’m a Domain Edge in the Internet of Things (IoT), because I spent 6 months working for a seismology company in Panama. It’s tenuous but it will have to do.
Edges don’t really matter it turns out. At the end of the day, we all stand up and present ourselves and our edges. I tell everyone I’m interested in IoT and energy, and that’s enough to get me my first co-founder. He’s a Frenchman called Dimitry with a PhD in Fluid Mechanics. I’m pretty pleased I managed to nab him as he was being courted by several others, and somehow I beat them to him.
Once Kick-Off Week ends, we set out to find problems in the energy sector that can be solved with Dimitry’s edge in optimisation and my edge in IoT.
EF encourages us to use our personal networks to reach out to people and have conversations with them to see what problems we can solve. Between us, Dimitry and I know about five people who work in, or around, the energy sector. We meet them near their offices and have coffee with them; but nothing jumps out from the conversations.
Still, we persist. Our first idea is to use smart plugs to modulate electricity in fridges, then we say we’re doing solar production forecasting, then algorithmic trading on the energy market, then back to fridge optimisation. We never actually build any of these things; we just speculate as to how much better than everyone else we’d be if we actually did it.
Soon it becomes clear we’re not going anywhere and we have to break up. EF happily facilitates the break up. The programme leader takes us into a tiny meeting room and goes through what we’ve learnt, what we’d do differently next time, what to do next, and assures us that we’re much better off now that we’ve made the decision to break up.
“Don’t worry about being a sole founder. You can come to the sole founder meetup on Monday and chat to other sole founders about what they’re working on. The important thing is you’ve realised this relationship isn’t working and you’ve moved on.”
Dimitry offers a typical piece of French cynicism as we leave, “I’m sorry, Hugo, I never loved you.”
AFTER BREAKING UP with Dimitry, I’m about ready to drop out of EF and accept I’m not cut out to start a technology business. But Instead I decide to give it one last push and team up with David — a Czech security expert and former Google employee — to solve security for the IoT. Our progress is not much different from mine and Dimitry’s, but we don’t change direction every week and David starts building things.
For a while everything goes well. Our EF-assigned mentor is happy with our progress, and while David and I aren’t best friends, we get along well enough.
My illusions with EF, however, really fall apart when Matt gives a talk to reassure everyone after Donald Trump is elected President.
I wake up on the morning of November 8, 2016, to an email from Matt as follows:
Many of you will be waking up to the unexpected and disorienting news that Donald Trump looks almost certain to have won the US Presidential election.
I know that some of you will be feeling frightened or uncertain about the future. I’ll therefore be holding an (optional) session Wednesday at 12 noon on the ground floor to discuss the fallout from a startup and an EF perspective.
Speaking personally and – I believe – on behalf of the EF team, this feels like a very dark and worrying turn of events. Nevertheless, I have been encouraged overnight by discussions that demonstrate the great optimism and determination in our team and our community to build a better future, whatever happens in politics. I’d love to share our ideas and to try to answer any questions you have.
Hope to see many of you later,
The session is attended by everyone. Matt goes over the details of the election and how it’s not the end of the world, because we can still use startups to influence political policy and the world. Startups, he says, are the future and are a fantastic way to influence society in the way we want to. Artificial Intelligence and Deep Learning are changing the world in ways previously thought impossible, and even with Donald Trump in power, nothing can stop the inexorable march of progress. A few people offer some reassuring opinions and then we go back to working.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. Should politics and startup accelerators mix? I realise now that I’m only here to make as much money as possible and retire. Changing the world, for better or worse, is not my aim.
I KEEP GOING. David and I fly through Investment Committee 1, and are told we were one of the top teams that got through. This does nothing to assuage my doubts and we go away for the Christmas Break.
The doubts turn to outright despair over Christmas. I know that this is not the life for me. Something about the whole experience has been soured as the programme has worn on. I also don’t care enough about IoT security to put in the time required to succeed. Maybe I just have to accept I’m a failure.
AFTER A COUPLE more weeks into the New Year, I finally decide I have to leave.
The catalyst is a talk given by Alice about urgency and finding our “spike”. The “spike” is the part of our team, that will prove most attractive to investors. So if we’ve already signed up 1000 users then customer traction is our spike. Or if we’ve filed a patent, then technical expertise is our spike. While I’m watching the talk and listening to Alice tell me how I need to establish my spike and start working 16 hours a day to succeed, I decide enough’s enough. I’m not cut out to start a startup.
The following morning, I take David for a walk, and tell him I’m leaving. He asks me to think about it over the weekend, and when I come in Monday and tell him my decision stands, he doesn’t react well.
“You realise everything we’ve been working for the last four months has been a complete waste of time, don’t you?” He says.
“Do you want me to leave now or in six months, after we’ve raised money?” I reply.
He relents and we go to have meetings with the EF team to talk about what we’ve learnt and what we’d do differently. I don’t know what I’d do differently. I don’t know what I learnt. I say my farewells.
EF and the startup dream is over.
STARTUP ACCELERATORS, VENTURE capitalists, and the whole Silicon Valley subculture have created a new American Dream. Where once the American Dream was confined to US shores, the Internet and the Information Age have allowed it to go global. This new globalised American Dream is the technology startup, and anyone anywhere can take part in it. No other modern dream offers such a rapid path to riches. The story of the Google founders programming away in their neighbour’s garage, or Mark Zuckerberg starting Facebook in his college dorm room, are so embedded in the modern psyche that everyone believes they too can achieve such outlandish success. Nevermind that you’re more likely to become a Hollywood star than you are to make a billion dollars from a tech startup.
Startup accelerators use this dream to create a language and culture.
Language is the starting point. Business owners are founders, managing directors are CEOs. It’s about finding “urgency”, using your “edge”, having the right “mindset”. Even EF’s website is joinef.com, a call to action to get people signing up. After just a few weeks in EF, I could tell you what CAC, MVP, LTV, and PoC all stand for, the benefits of viral mechanics, how to run your startup in stealth mode, and when the right time to pivot is. To stand in a room with other people infected with this dream is to hear a whole different language. And with this language comes a new culture.
That culture is to work as hard as you can to build your billion dollar business. Everything that’s not focusing on getting customers and perfecting your product is time wasted. Optimisation is king.
On EF, people skipped lunch and drank Huel or Soylent. They lived within walking distance of the offices. Their social lives were with other EF people. They read books like The Lean Startup by Eric Ries or Zero to One by Peter Thiel. They watched the latest Elon Musk press conference with zeal, setting up their laptop displays with YouTube and Musk on the left, and lines of code on the right.
This obsession with the dream is pervasive. Six months after I left EF, I went to a talk by Sam Altman — the president of prestigious accelerator Y Combinator — in Shoreditch Town Hall, and listened to him use many of the same buzzwords used in EF. The room was so overflowing that people were standing 5 metres into the corridor, keen to get a glimpse of the scion of Y Combinator, and imbibe some of his wisdom.
ACCELERATORS USED THIS dream and culture to recruit new founders and businesses onto their programs, while not really offering much in return.
The reason for this is that the accelerator business model does not align with the business model of their portfolio companies.
EF, like many investment funds, follow a 2-and-20 model. They take 2 percent of what they raise upfront and 20 percent of whatever they make from the investments. So if they raise £40 million for a 10-year fund (the length of time before they give the money back to their investors), they take 2 percent of £40 million (so 800,000) before they start investing. (Some will take this 2 percent yearly so £8 million, before they start investing.) If you then assume that 99 percent of the companies they invest in fail, and many will not return a meaningful profit, it’s clear it’s unlikely they’ll make much profit on the remaining £32 million. So their 20 percent profit share becomes worthless. What they really want is that 2 percent to be higher.
To raise money they need to be able to tell potential investors their portfolio is worth a lot of money, but the value of their businesses is completely arbitrary. Valuing startups is as simple as choosing an amount to raise, say £1 million, estimating at 25 percent dilution, and then multiplying the amount you want to raise by the total dilution. So £1 million for 25 percent of a business means the business is worth £4 million. With ten of these companies, the fund partners will then go off and tell potential investors that their companies are worth £40 million, so they’re clearly great investors and deserve more money.
It’s not that EF don’t want to help their companies. It’s just that once the company has raised money and left the programme, EF wants to get new companies in with new valuations, which pushes their total portfolio value up, meaning they can raise more money. The more money they raise, the more that 2 percent is worth.
ACCELERATORS MEASURE THEIR success on how much money they have under management and how much their startups raise when they’re out of the program. as Matt explains in an EF video clip, “We only succeed if you succeed.” They need investors to invest in their startups, so they cultivate a network of investors accordingly. Different investors look for different types of companies. Deep Tech investors will want Deep Tech businesses. Retail investors will want retail businesses. Accelerators will cultivate their startups to match the whims of their investors.
They do this through vigourous data collection. Once they know what type of founder and business is most likely to secure further investment they can start tailoring their startups accordingly. As Matt explains in an EF video clip, “We only succeed if you succeed.”
It’s not just the companies that get tailored to the VCs preferences. Founders have to be moulded too. Different VCs like different traits in their founders as much as they like specific traits in their businesses. They have a specific idea of what a founder should be like and the accelerators know this, so they shape their cohort members to match whatever their investors desire. This is one of the reasons EF uses corporate language to manipulate the way that their founders behave.
And so, the companies going through become more and more homogenised – as I witnessed with EF’s companies all being pretty much the same come Demo Day.
It’s a common call when building a tech business to say: “build something people want.” In the same way the startups are doing this, so are the accelerators.
ALL THIS LEADS to cultural homogenisation, which is no different from the corporate life myself and my fellow entrepreneurs sought to escape.
Not that long ago, starting a business was seen as an act of rebellion. But rebellion is not a popular life choice. Throwing off the bourgeois chains and embracing a life of potential poverty is a hard choice to make, one that few people do. With such slim odds of success why would you? Better to spend a life of comfort and morning lattes than one of poverty and devoid of comfort. This is why not everyone is a famous actor or actress, or rock star, or writer, or painter. This is also why not everyone starts a business.
Startup accelerators have removed the risk and corporatised the whole experience but tried to keep the glamour of rebellion alive. They need product to push on their investors. By removing the risk of starting a startup, and making it an extension of corporate life, they’re able to lure more people towards their programmes, have more companies in their portfolio, and thus be able to raise more money. They promote rebellion and rejecting corporate life but in a safe, accessible way, so that no one feels they can’t rebel and start a business. But, of course, they’ve made the whole process an extension of corporate life. How different are corporate pep talks from all EF’s chats about “edge” and “urgency”?
The entrepreneur used to be regarded as a swashbuckling adventurer who rejects corporate life, and the pull of the masses, to do their own thing, shaping their own destiny through their business. It was seen as a way to escape the humdrum of corporate life. This might still be the case for business owners outside of the tech sector, but it’s certainly not the case in the startup world. Starting a startup and joining an accelerator feels like just another step in the corporate ladder.
Hugo Gibson is a writer and technology consultant living in London. He is currently working on a biography of Major-General Stan Sosabowski.