I am so thrilled to introduce and interview Alice - the co-founder of Entrepreneur First and Code First: Girls! We met over breakfast at Hej near the EF office in Bermondsey to talk about her philosophy in life, challenging the status quo, being a young CEO and artificial intelligence to name but a few. Alice is half the team that has built one of Europe's most successful accelerators in under five years - the current portfolio of 75 companies is valued at a staggering $350m. She is empowering, forward-thinking, passionate and truly inspirational - her musings are a must read :)
Current Job Co-Founder at Entrepreneur First
First Job I was a cleaner for holiday homes, worked in a bar and at stables.
Education I studied Business at Nottingham University
Favourite book The book that I’m obsessed with at the moment is ‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck, which is an old concept about having a ‘growth mindset’, and how it applies to being a founder. The broad idea is that you can learn anything, its just about whether you have a ‘growth mindset' or a ‘fixed mindset’. You can be both in different parts of your life. You can have parts of your life where you think ‘I’m terrible at Maths, I’ll never be able to code’ and that’s a fixed mindset. Then in another area you’ll be, ‘of course I can run faster’. And that’s the growth mindset. I think as a founder you have to learn so much all the time, and often stuff that you don’t want to learn or are not interested in… like accounting. I think the best founders we invest in have the strongest growth mindsets.
Necessary extravagance Uber
Favourite productivity tool Slack but its on the borderline of being an un-productivity tool. We have something ridiculous like 200 channels for a team of 20. I think you need some Slack rules and some Slack discipline. It is useful, as we’ve stopped emailing completely.
Recent inspiration I recently read ‘Suffragette’ by Emmeline Pankhurst after watching the film. Her autobiography is incredible. An amazing woman who was brought up in a time when nothing much was expected of women. She was beaten up, assaulted, but really believed in what she was going after, and even though it was very radical, and she took radical means, she just went after it. I think her ability to develop followership and develop a tribe of women trying to make the same change happen is hugely inspirational.
Hottest tech startup in the UK right now (apart from EF companies!) Jukedeck
Can you tell us briefly about your background prior to co-founding Entrepreneur First and your biggest learning from these experiences?
Before EF I was at McKinsey as a business analyst and I spent two years there. It was an interesting, prestigious graduate job, but it didn’t necessarily align with what I wanted from my career. I think that’s a common theme or common learning for lots of graduates when they are starting out – they do what is expected of them and not necessarily what they want to do. I think there is a general lack of understanding of what careers are out there. It's only when you start working that you realise that you could be a Food Photographer or a Digital Marketing Strategist and all these things that you never learn about at university. So, I really enjoyed my time at McKinsey and learnt a huge amount but I knew I wanted to start my own thing. I suppose EF was trying to find or create alternative ways for people to do their own thing and build their startups without having to go through a more traditional career path.
What is Entrepreneur First and its philosophy & what was the motivation behind it?
Entrepreneurs First is an early stage investor in technical individuals and we spend a year helping those individuals build their companies from scratch. We help them find their co-founders, develop their ideas; help them find their first customers and we invest and then help them raise their seed rounds. So, we are like a talent organisation – a large part of what we do is finding the very best technical talent. We are an investor, like a VC, because we put money into every company that comes through, but we’re very much company builders, as we provide very close support the whole time that the company is with us, which I think is quite unlike any other investors out there. I suppose our ethos is that the most exciting type of startups are the technical problem solvers or the people that are working on deep tech problems. They are building defensible technology – technology that could be patented - and using it to solve the world’s biggest and hardest problems.
The original motivation was about helping the world’s most talented people and finding them alternative careers, realising their ambitions in alternative ways. I think if you are talented, and super technical, the way you can have the biggest impact is by building a startup. The reach that you can get and the impact you can have as one or two people is unparalleled in terms of career choice.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today?
We have a mantra at EF, which is:
Strong beliefs, weakly held
The idea is that as a founder there are only opinions and very little data at the beginning so it’s hard to know what direction you should go in or what you should do. We find the best way to move forward is to have a very strong belief and be willing to test it. And if it’s the wrong belief, be willing to change and update it.
Who do you surround yourself with for your support network?
I have a very close group of girlfriends from school and university who aren’t connected to entrepreneurship in any way, or tech. They are a useful grounding to remind me that the world doesn’t revolve around tech! Also they’re just great fun.
What would you like to be remembered for?
For changing the way the most ambitious people see their career paths and for changing the status quo of how companies are built and invested in.
What has been the evolution and milestones to date of Entrepreneur First?
We are coming up to our 5th birthday in August, which feels like a massive milestone. When we first started we set out as a not-for-profit community interest company. Nobody believed in us. Everyone said it was a nice thing to do but we couldn’t expect to build any companies from it. What kept us going was that every time we visited universities, students and graduates were saying ‘I really want to work in a startup but I’m not sure if my idea is any good and I don’t know where to find a co-founder’. It wasn’t until 18 months after we started that we had our first demo day and realised this could genuinely be a new way to build an effective company. I think it was the first time that the ecosystem realised it was as well. A big milestone was turning into a VC. A year ago we raised an £8m fund that will allow us to invest in 200 companies over the next 3 years. That was a big moment because all the money is from private individuals. It was an endorsement in a new way to create a company and a new way for talent to enter the ecosystem. It was also a big moment to say actually this does work and it can work as an investment company. There are 75 companies in the portfolio and 36 with us currently - we are scaling up very quickly; the numbers are going to snowball. The total valuation of the portfolio is $350m and they’ve raised $80m of capital.
What are 3 things that have most surprised you about great founders who build great companies?
- The first thing comes back to the growth mindset. The very best founders just learn rapaciously and have the ability to learn huge amounts very, very quickly. The same is true of our technical founders – they are deeply technical and not interested in sales but realise that if they want their company to succeed, they are going to have to learn about customer development. It’s that attitude ‘I will do whatever it takes for this startup to succeed and I will learn whatever needs to be learnt’.
- The second attribute is about naivety. We take anyone of any age and we find that often some of the strongest pairings are a slightly younger founder with a slightly older founder, where the naivety and just pure optimism of the younger founder is really, really important. As you get older, and even as you get to 30, your risk appetite changes and what you have learnt through your career changes your perspective. We often get asked whether we are still going to take grads as they don’t have as much as experience as others. But their pure naivety, optimism and energy make them brilliant founders.
- The third aspect is a concept around ‘edge’ - what is your competitive advantage compared to other founders? What are the skills and knowledge that you have an edge in? The best founders have a really strong edge, either a technical one, a problem edge, or domain edge. So edge is the assets that you have that you can capitalise for your start up, that will lead to a competitive advantage.
However, I think it just comes down to a growth mindset. Will they learn or won’t they learn? That’s the biggest difference. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You can take two intellectually similar people but the one that will win is the one that is open to learning new things.
How do you learn CEO skills as a young founder - any tips?
My co-founder Matt and I got a coach about a year and half ago now and it’s completely transformed us. It’s amazing to have someone there that is dedicated to helping you become a better leader. You can see the step-change and the team sees the improvement as well. The other thing is to read, just read about any kind of leader, read people’s biographies, autobiographies…and they don’t necessarily have to be about startups or tech. It could be about suffragettes or another one I read recently called ‘Extreme Ownership’ was about Navy SEALs and how they worked in Iraq. So read, read, read and learn and borrow from that. The final aspect is working out who you can learn from, what leadership role models you can borrow aspects of. You don’t want to copy one person, just assess what leaders do and see which pieces you appreciate and which ones you want to adopt.
What technology trends excite you right now?
AI both excites and terrifies me. We see so many startups that are using different approaches to AI and its become a bit buzz-wordy. I think startups that not only use the latest techniques within artificial intelligence, but who are determined and aggressive enough to find proprietary data sets and come up with a good business model will be the ones that are most successful. It's not enough to just have the technology as AI in many ways is becoming commoditised. If you look at Google, they are open sourcing a lot of great stuff, so the technology is becoming the enabler and you need the other pieces around data, and particularly how to access data that will feed what you are creating.
What are some of the KPIs that you measure success by for both the business and your team?
It’s different for different parts of the business. On programme, its how many companies get created and how many companies get funding when they leave the programme. We also have a metric on how many companies has a founder where one of them is using their edge, so every company has to have a founder that is using their skill set or asset. On talent, we have KPIs around how many people are contacted, how many people are sourced, how many people we convert and how many accept their offers. On fundraising, its just about how much money is coming in.
We also do pretty in-depth reviews every 6 months, which we use not only to develop individuals but also to develop the team as a whole. From the reviews we’ll do various training sessions on any of the themes that are coming out around what the team as a whole is lacking. So it could be around comms, or management, or any number of different things. But it’s a good catalyst because it means that every 6 months we go through a kind of group learning period.
Can you share some of the future ambitions of EF?
We’re raising a next stage fund at the moment and we’ve just opened our first international business in Singapore. The long-term ambition is that we become the best place in the world for technical companies to start their business and a large part of that is going to be making sure that we can access the best talent in the world, regardless of where they are. So, that’s the plan for the next couple of years!
Women in Tech
Tell us all about Code First: Girls - the inspiration, achievements to date and longer term vision
Code First: Girls is a not-for-profit and the idea behind it is to help young women access careers in tech through up-skilling them. We deliver free coding courses at universities – 27 universities in the UK at the moment. The idea is that young women can change their career paths by learning these skills and then also by being given lots of exposure to different careers in tech and in startups.
It comes back to what we were talking about – that at University you don’t get told what a Product Manager does or what an Engineer does for example. So part of it is de-mystifying career choices. We have had 3000 young women go through our courses and we are seeing a really strong conversion from going on the course and joining and working in a tech startup. More excitingly, becoming a developer full time – so taking on further education and upskilling themselves technically. The reason that I started it was because we’ve always struggled to get women on EF and only 16% of Computer Science graduates are female. There is just this endemic problem and although there are lots of good things happening at primary and secondary school it’s going to take 10 years at least for any of those to trickle through. If we want to have role models in leadership positions by the time that influx happens, we need to convert people who are in their early 20s now, to work in tech and to see tech as the most exciting place they can work.
So many of the brightest graduates continue to go and work for a big bank or consultancy. What would you say to them to cut through that rhetoric and consider joining EF/a startup?
I would ask ‘what are you looking for from your career? And what are you looking for from your life?’ And I think a lot of the traditional rhetoric around having to go to one of the big companies to get the brand, the network, training and experience is as true in startups, if not more true. I also think that the responsibility and level of ownership as an employee or founder that you get in a startup is significantly greater than in a big company. So I think startups in many ways can be a career accelerant in the way that going into banking, or whatever used to be seen. If I look at my team, which is young, lots of them are in their early 20s and they have way more responsibility and ownership than I ever would have had at their age. Which is really cool because they are very able and very capable and they would have just been under utilised anywhere else.
You have written quite extensively on the complex issue of women in tech. In your opinion how can we do better to attract and retain more women in technology?
I wish I had the magic bullet. I think the more that I know about it, the less sure I am about how to fix it. We thought that Code First: Girls would be a way to create female founders, and it is, but only a very small percentage. Everything has been done to some extent. I think role modelling is important but we need more role models. We need to see more women lead the big tech companies to provide inspiration for others. Also get women into fast growth companies and help them understand what’s possible and use that as a way of inspiring their founder instincts. I think it’s a really, really hard problem to solve.
What tips would you share with female founders looking to start their own business and subsequently raise finance?
Think big and be bold in your assertions. A lot of the female founders that we work with are less likely to sell as hard and sell as big as their male counterparts. I suppose they are less likely to bullshit! You need to have that element of storytelling to be able to take people on the journey with you. So I think the main thing is ‘do it’. Not enough women do it. Basically take the landslide, take the plunge, and see how it goes. Get the right support network around you and then think big. Think about your idea 10 times bigger.