Alice Bentinck MBE: How Entrepreneur First will become the biggest creator of European unicorns

Co-founder of the accelerator which has built 100 start-ups including a $150m Twitter acquisition, find out how Young Gun Bentinck is breaking the mould

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Young Gun Alice Bentinck MBE is on a mission. A mission she’s willing to invest the next decade of her life striving to achieve.

This mission? To make Entrepreneur First, the start-up accelerator programme she co-founded back in 2011 with fellow Young Gun Matt Clifford MBE, “the default way to build unicorns for Europe and the rest of the world”.

This may sound like a lofty goal but we have every confidence Bentinck, former winner of the esteemed Veuve Clicquot New Generation award, will achieve this given Entrepreneur First’s impressive track record.

Entrepreneur First finds exceptionally talented individuals, brings them together, and then provides investment, mentoring, office space, and more, to enable co-founders to create brilliant businesses.

Every six months the programme welcomes a new cohort of aspiring entrepreneurs – following a comprehensive vetting process – and then continues to help alumni through Seed and Series A funding rounds.

Focused solely on defensible deep technology (Bentinck isn’t a fan of gig economy start-ups as they’re “hard to defend”), Entrepreneur First has already supported over 100 start-ups, founded by 350 individuals, with a total valuation of over $500m.

One of the programme’s biggest success stories is Magic Pony; the artificial intelligence start-up purchased by Twitter in June last year for a rumoured $150m.

Without Entrepreneur First, Bentinck tells us, there would be no Magic Pony as it was here that founders Rob Bishop and Zehan Wong were introduced: “They were both Imperial graduates but met at EF for the first time and tried different ideas with other founders before coming up with Magic Pony.”

While Bentinck views the Magic Pony exit as proof of concept; “Where else could you produce that kind of innovation and get that outcome within such a short space of time?”, she is now focused on creating more Magic Ponys or rather, magic unicorns…

So, how is Entrepreneur First creating a nucleus from which billion-dollar companies can be made? And how did the business originate? Read our interview with Bentinck to find out…

The ‘lightbulb’ moment

“I always wanted to build my own start-up and when I worked at McKinsey [Bentinck met Clifford while working at the firm], I had a real feeling that if I didn’t do it then, I would never do it.

“It was just as ‘tech city’ was being branded and people were getting more excited about technology. We thought if we did something to support the tech community, it would make a big difference.

“We knew there was a fundamental problem in the industry in that once you had a team or idea, you’d get support and funding. However, if you didn’t have either of those things you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere.

“Entrepreneur First came from wanting to cater for all those people that would make fantastic founders, but didn’t have the team or business idea.”

Overcoming initial objections

“We never thought Entrepreneur First would work and everyone told us it wouldn’t so I suppose that’s why we started as a non-profit and not a commercial entity.

“There was a lot of scepticism about what we were doing and whether you could build teams from scratch; could you take reasonably inexperienced individuals and help them build start-ups?

“In terms of actually finding the solution, it took us a couple of years to work out how to do it properly.”

Moving from corporate sponsorship to a self-contained multi-million-pound fund

“When we launched, the business model was based on corporate sponsorship but it was really hard to get corporate sponsors and it’s not a very scalable business model.

“Matt and I are ambitious and think that Entrepreneur First can become the default way to build unicorns for Europe and the rest of the world.

“However, you need to be able to scale your business and operations with the revenue you’re generating. Corporate sponsors were fantastic –  McKinsey, the City of London, Rackspace and Microsoft were among our initial sponsors – and we were very lucky to get that money in the early days but moving to a fund model (we’re now for-profit) means that we can scale.”

Finding the winning start-up recipe to build unicorns

Creating co-founders

“If you look online, the status quo around finding a co-founder and how you find a business idea is wrong. The process we’ve developed at Entrepreneur First is, in many ways, counter to everything you may read online.

“For finding a co-founder, online you’re often told that you must have known someone for decades, be best-friends, or it be someone you have a deep relationship with. Now, I’m not saying that those relationships can’t work but it means that if you don’t have one of those relationships on tap, your options are limited.

“We’ve found that if you screen people very carefully – we screen about 3,000 people a year – for their skills, founder traits, and technical abilities and then put that screened group together, it leads to really interesting outcomes. Building a start-up is such a bonding process that these co-founders then form very close relationships.

“We’re very good at understanding when the team isn’t working so we proactively break up teams – often before the team even knows they need to be broken up. The most important thing is that there is high founder liquidity so there are lots of potential founders to found with.

“If you look at our portfolio of start-ups, you’ll see we have very few founder disputes and break-ups.

“The one or two nasty ones we’ve had are those co-founders that have come to the programme and knew each other already. I can see why the founder status quo exists but I think it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

“We advise against start-ups run by solo founders as you have to work really hard and the emotional burden for a solo founder is much harder. Your co-founder is someone you can tell everything to and solo founders just don’t have that support. However, we have had examples of solo founders who have built a close founding team around them which has worked.”

Curating great business ideas

“The status quo for coming up with a business idea is to find and solve a problem you know about. Unfortunately, most people experience rather trivial things in their day-to-day life so think about scenarios like ‘I’m hungry’, ‘I want to go out tonight, and ‘I want to live in a better house’, and it means you end up with lots of start-ups focused on consumer areas.

“Because we take on computer scientists and engineers, we look at the competitive advantages they have individually, along with their technical skills and the knowledge, and then use that to build the idea and the start-up. It’s based on the individual.”

Vetting budding entrepreneurs for Entrepreneur First

“There’s no formula but over the last five years we’ve just seen so many people and have developed personas of the kind of people we are looking for. I’ve interviewed over 1,500 people!

“We’re looking for the traits you’d expect like determination, resilience and the technical skills but we’re also looking for things like growth mindset.

“We want to know whether you’re the sort of person that is willing to learn, and willing to learn the things that you aren’t very good at. Our mascot is the honey badger so we look for those individuals that a have sort of scrappy, can-do mentality to things.

“We have enough data now that we know what people’s profiles are like when they apply for the programme. It’s just a pattern matching job.”

Achieving domestic and international growth

“We used to take 50 people a year for our London cohort and we now take 200 people, while we have 50 people in Singapore and we’re scaling there.

“We’re interested in how can we provide the best support possible to build great companies. This requires two things:

  1. “Looking at the programmatic element of the mentoring and support we offer and how we can make that the best for co-founders and the team. There’s no reason why the UK should be worse than the US at producing deep tech companies as we have the same level of talent. Yes, there are different funding structures, eco-systems and legacy systems that mean that isn’t the case yet but, at Entrepreneur First, we think we can change that.
  2. “Making sure we provide the best funding possible. We have an unusual model where we give people money when they don’t have a team, and there’s no start-up to invest in so we give people a little bit of funding just so they can experiment. We’re also moving that funding to a slightly later stage so we now do a £75,000 convertible note at the end of the programme and follow on at Seed and Series A. We’re trying to support our existing companies as much as possible. We also have a funding office based in the US as we see more of our companies taking on US seed funding.”

Code First Girls: Addressing the lack of gender diversity in tech

“We launched Code First Girls in 2012 and the motivation behind it was that we weren’t seeing as many women applying to Entrepreneur First as we’d have liked.

“Code First is focused on two things; teaching women at university to code for free and then highlighting the careers within start-ups and big tech companies that aren’t often talked about; like a being a product manager, junior developer, or a UX designer. University careers services don’t really tout these as options!

“We’re now in 27 different universities across the UK and have helped over 4,000 women to learn to code.

“There are very few companies who are trying to expand the pool of female graduates in tech; all they’re doing is throwing money at the existing women. We’re one of the few organisations which has said ‘right, we’re going to try and change things’.

“We are seeing women that have been through Code First: Girls taking on junior developer roles and that’s super exciting. It shows there’s no reason why, even if you’ve got an arts degree, you can’t be a software developer with the right training.

“The ratio of women to men in Entrepreneur First is now about 15% which is line with the ratio coming out of universities but it does suck, and we’re working to change that. There’s lots of talk about how bad the industry is for female entrepreneurs and it’s important that we understand that so that we can try and make it better.”

Bentinck on Brexit

“Access to talent is our biggest concern.

“We take about 40% of our cohort from Europe and if we can’t easily access that talent then this will have an impact on the type of start-ups we can build.

“Hiring international talent is becoming harder for our portfolio companies because of Brexit and the concerns around that. We now need to think about how we can make sure that London – and the UK – remains the premier European tech hub that it currently is.

Final words of wisdom

To succeed as a start-up founder, you need to work on your edge and have a growth mindset.

“Work out what area it is that you have skills in and think about your advantage compared to other founders in that space.

“Also remember that the best founders are open to learning and learn very fast so make sure that even if it’s the things that you hate, you’re open to learn them.”

This interview was taken from a meeting with Alice Bentinck earlier this year at Entrepreneur First’s London HQ. To find out more about Bentinck and her Young Gun status, click here.

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