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2015

2014 was a fantastic year.

I met some great people, graduated from Cambridge with a decent degree, visited Ireland, San Francisco and Holland, moved to London, and, along with my co-founder James, dedicated the last four months of my life to building Encore from a mere idea into a thriving network of over 700 musicians. Hearing from musicians who had been invited to play in concerts through our service was immensely gratifying, and “I’ve never been this visible as a musician” was definitely my favourite testimonial of the year.

However, that definitely doesn’t mean we have time to sit back and feel proud of ourselves. The next six weeks in the run-up to the EF Demo Day are going to be gruelling, and in the words of the famous cyclist Greg LeMond:

“It doesn’t get any easier, you just get faster.”

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Running and cycling have always been extremely important to me, and though this may sound like an unhealthy attitude to any psychoanalysts out there, I honestly believe I am a better person when I’m in good shape. My sleep is more restful, my day-to-day outlook on life is brighter and far less cynical, and my thinking is generally a lot clearer. (I also spend a lot less on coffee!)

For that reason, my first resolution for 2015 is:

Exercise for at least two hours each week

I was lucky enough to receive some rollers for Christmas from my parents, which means I can now cycle indoors when the weather is bad and the roads are dangerous. Not only that, but I can get a proper workout done without having to cycle 45 minutes each way to Richmond Park. (My favourite part of London)

Tonight I witnessed more deer than I've ever seen in my life. This is not what I expected from London.

A photo posted by James McAulay (@instamcaulay) on

I’d also really like to run a sub-20 minute 5k and a sub-40 minute 10k, both of which are milestones I’ve been meaning to hit for years now. I’d also love to beat my PB for cycling a century (100mi), which is currently around 6:30:00

Closely linked to exercise is sleep, and the main reason I began running regularly when I was fifteen was to combat insomnia. The physical exhaustion made it impossible for me to lie awake for hours in bed, and whenever I start to experience a phase of sleeplessness, I know that exercise is the solution. Resolution number two is:

Wake up before 8am six days a week

The freedom of working on your own startup is incredible, and means you can work precisely when and where you want. Over the last few months, though, I often found myself waking up late, and working until well after midnight, which I wasn’t particularly proud of. On the days that I awoke early, I got a lot done in the mornings, and I’m really keen to turn my sleeping pattern around over the coming year.

Though this may sound extreme, I plan to donate £10 to charity every week that I fail to meet these resolutions, and writing this blog post is a means of making myself accountable to them. (I really can’t afford this, so I have no choice but to get my shit together)

Lastly, I plan to:

Read more

I love reading, but never make time for it, and so I’ll be aiming to get through one book every month, at least. If I learn anything particularly profound, I’ll be sure to write about it here.


So, there we have it: my aims for 2015. Regular exercise, good sleep and a healthy dose of reading should make the next few months a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll be updating this post every now and then to let you know how I’m getting on. (you being one of about three people likely to ever read this)

Anyone who knows me well will know that those 8am mornings are going to be a struggle. What have I gotten myself into…?

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A Letter to my Fresher Self

So, you’ve left school, achieved straight As for your Advanced Highers, and just gained a place at Cambridge, arguably the best University in the world. You probably think you’re quite a big deal, right?

You could not be more wrong. You’re about to immerse yourself in a place where everyone seems to be smarter than you, and most are. You will meet people who had published books before they arrived at university, people who had already competed in Olympic-level sport, and people who will tell you they started programming when they were five (They probably weren’t lying). You really enjoyed being amongst the top students in your year at school. In fact, you derived a lot of your identity and self-worth from it. Sadly, this feeling is going to dissipate in an instant, and you’ll need to find new ways to identify yourself.

However, not all is lost! There are a number of ways to combat these insecurities, some sensible, and some not so much. This letter includes guidance I wish I had been given when joining Cambridge.

The biggest piece of advice I could give you is this: spend your time wisely. You will be presented with an inordinate number of wonderful and varied opportunities at University, and you’re going to want to do everything. You can’t, and it’s crucial that you realise this early on.

In first year, you’ll be successful in auditioning for an Instrumental Award, and I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that some of your most enjoyable and meaningful musical moments will stem from the piano trio you play with in first year, and your cello quartet in second year. Don’t change this. It’s a great way of spending your time, and you’ll get so much out of it.

You’ll also become a member of the CUMS Symphony Orchestra, and though this will take up around ten hours each week – sometimes more! – with rehearsals, concerts and impromptu pub trips, you’ll meet a lot of really great people through it, and as a member of CUMS, musicians from around Cambridge will start asking you to play in more and more concerts. At first, this will seem fantastic, but your eagerness to boost your reputation in the music circles will be your downfall.

You’ll be invited to play in some really great projects, such as the CCMS tour of France. You’ll love that, and you’ll come back with great stories involving the Chunderbus (“We’ve run out of sponges!”). However, you’ll also be asked to play in a lot of projects that simply aren’t worth your time. There’s no way of writing this without sounding arrogant, but you cannot please everyone, and you absolutely need to learn that saying no to things is okay. In fact, it’s necessary if you want to succeed academically. You won’t realise this until the end of second year after gaining another disappointing result in your exams, and if you had only prioritised your work a little bit more over saying yes to gigs and concerts that you really should have turned down, you might have performed a bit better.

At the end of first year, you might think you understand this, and you’ll tell people that you plan to cut down and take on less. The opposite will be true. Instead of simply limiting yourself to musical pursuits, you’ll take up rowing, start a design business, launch WhichMayBall, join Fitz Barbershop, and become Vice-President of the Fitz JCR. It’s hard to say which one of these you shouldn’t have done, as they were all worthwhile in their own way. Cello quartet rehearsals and concerts will provide you with a release from the stresses of work, as will Barbershop. The design business will help pay your College bills, and combined with earnings from WhichMayBall and your internship, will allow you to go nearly a year without having to ask for money from your parents. Being VP of the JCR will teach you skills of diplomacy, professionalism, and leadership, and to be very honest, it’ll look good on your CV. Rowing, combined with your stupid sleeping patterns, will drain you of a lot of your energy, so perhaps don’t get involved in that. Then again, it’ll be the first time you’ve properly engaged in a sport that’s not running or cycling, and you’ll enjoy the camaraderie of a strong crew.

WhichMayBall will take up a LOT of your time, but it’ll be worth it. It will teach you countless lessons about good web development, satisfying the needs of users, liaising with sponsors and committees, and generally running a small business. However, it’ll be an impediment to your studies, so try to get someone else on board right from the start to help with the general day-to-day running of the site. Ultimately, a project like this will provide you with ample ammunition for job interviews, and will be extremely useful in kickstarting your startup career. If you only do one thing outside of work in second year, make it this.

Towards the end of first year, you’ll discover a website called Reddit. DO NOT GET SUCKED IN. It will consume your time, eat into the time you should have spent sleeping, and will probably be one of the biggest distractions of your University career. Limit yourself. Block it if you have to. Most of it is meaningless.

“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill”.

That bill will come in the form of bad grades in Part I. You’ll end up having to ban yourself from it for two months in third year, and you’ll get so much more work done. Trust me, just stay away from it.

Academically, you’ll struggle. You’ll think you’re ready for this when you arrive, but nothing will prepare you for the insurmountable amounts of really difficult work you’ll have thrown at you. Most of your peers will rise to this by working harder and spending as much time as they can trying to understand the material, but you won’t. Don’t try to get by on the bare minimum, because you’ll end up pissing off supervisors (“James, stop bullshitting”), wasting an incredible opportunity to learn from the best minds in the field, and only just passing your Part I exams. Don’t run away from difficult work by spending all of your time playing music that you probably shouldn’t. As I said earlier, say no to the projects that don’t matter, enjoy the ones that do, and get into the library! You’ll be told by supervisors that you’re capable of success, and they were probably right. It just takes work, and you need to put the hours in.

Socially, make an effort to really get to know the people in your College. You’ll spend most of your first year in lectures or at rehearsals/concerts in town, so you’ll miss out on a lot of events involving Fitz people. You’ll come to make some truly incredible friends throughout your time at College, but you won’t get especially close to many of them until second or third year. I don’t really regret being so busy in first year, but I do regret not getting to know my best friends sooner. You know who you are.

To be honest, writing this fills me with extremely mixed emotions. By doing as much as you possibly can, avoiding work and leading a relatively hedonistic existence, you’ll fall spectacularly short of your academic potential during your first two years, and this will aggravate not only you, but your family, some of your friends, and all of the people whose job it is to make sure you’re achieving the best results you can.

However, you’ll also have a great time. You’ll meet people from all over Cambridge studying a whole variety of subjects, and you’ll make some truly excellent memories that simply wouldn’t have been possible had you confined yourself to the library. You’ll feel the satisfaction of watching your own business grow out of nothing into something that helps Cambridge students on a daily basis. You’ll get the chance to influence some of the decisions made by senior members of College by sitting in on important meetings as JCR VP. You’ll experience adrenaline like never before as you hear the blast of the cannon at the start of your first ever Lent Bumps race, followed swiftly by the humiliation of being bumped by a Fellows boat within 30 seconds of starting (You’ll bump in Mays, don’t worry). You’ll actually profit from May Week by becoming nocturnal and playing about three gigs every day and night. You’ll play truly awesome music with truly awesome orchestras, and your cello quartet will fill you with joy. You’ll laugh uncontrollably during numerous Barbershop performances, and you’ll awkwardly serenade more women with four-part harmony than you have ever done before. You’ll visit Paris and Zurich as part of Jailbreak, and by dedicating a lot of your time to WhichMayBall and immersing yourself in the startup world instead of your studies, you’ll be flown to San Francisco and introduced to the Prime Minister’s technology advisor at 10 Downing Street.

I think what I’m trying to say is this: I’d be lying if I said I regretted spending my time the way I did. Everyone says that your University years are the best of your life, and I didn’t want to look back on mine with only a First and memories of nothing but the library. By cutting down on my commitments in third year, I managed to redeem myself in my final-year exams, and I’ll make no secret of the fact that I was extremely fortunate with my results.

However, even if I hadn’t done well, I’d still be where I want to be in my career. If you plan to join a sector where good grades are paramount and extra-curricular pursuits mean nothing, then pay no attention to these words. If, however, you want to do something a little different, then seize the day and do as much as you can without failing your degree.

I always got the impression that a lot of people thought I was a bit of an idiot compared to the average Cambridge student, and so in a way, I think I subconsciously wrote this as a means of justifying and defending the way I spent my time. To quote Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way”, and hopefully that makes sense now.

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The YC Interview and a trip to 10 Downing Street

Previously, on Game of YC: we applied last-minute with a compelling idea, two of us had never met in person before we submitted the application four minutes before the deadline, and yet, miraculously, we were invited out to Mountain View.

For those of you who read my last post and are desperate to know whether we were accepted onto the YCombinator Summer ‘14 batch, I’ll put you out of your misery now: we weren’t.

However, that definitely doesn’t mean the trip was a waste of time.

The last thing I want to do is to try and elicit sympathy from you, and I’m not going to rant and rave about how the decision was wrong. This isn’t a sob story; we flew back with our heads held high (well, Neil’s was mostly slumped against a flight pillow) and we totally understand why weren’t successful. As I said before, we applied for the learning experience, and we’ve learned a huge amount in a very short time frame, which I hope I can share with you fully today.

Enough philosophy for now, though. It’s story time!


My last post finished about midway through the flight over to SF, and I’ll be honest, very little of note happened for the rest of the flight. I discovered the joys of Parks and Recreation, didn’t sleep enough, and enjoyed yet more free food and drink. Riveting, right? The excitement came when we started our descent over the Bay Area, and it was at this point that everything started to feel very real. The sun was shining, the clouds were sparse, and the aerial views we were treated to were a sight to behold. The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Giants Stadium all look pretty wonderful from above, and I must have resembled an excitable child as I gleefully pointed out all of the landmarks that, up until now, I’d only seen in films and TV shows.

My first true experience of the American culture came in the form of a chatty man at the security desk, who was fascinated by my story and told me with a smile on his face that

“We Americans love the whole Cambridge thing over here.”

, which is funny given that most of Britain seem to hate it. He was so chatty, in fact, that he completely forgot to scan my fingerprints or take my photo until it was almost too late, and after doing so, exclaimed “You go get that job!”. His optimism was infectious, and he personified my first taste of the American Dream.

After a quick coffee, we hopped on the BART, and then the CalTrain from Millbrae to Mountain View, and it was at this point that I finally learned the geography of the area. San Francisco is a city in the state of California, Mountain View is a city south of SF, and when people talk about the Valley, they’re referring to the stretch of land between SF and MV (Just in case anyone else was unsure!). This was the first double decker train I’d ever been on, which was exciting in a mundane sort of way, and after an hour of travelling followed by a short journey in a Lyft car (a really neat taxi app), we arrived at Casa del Sketchdeck. SketchDeck (YC W14) is a web company run by two awesome guys, David and Chris, which allows users to pay designers to beautify their PowerPoint slides. David and Chris had moved over to Mountain View at the start of 2014 for the YC Winter batch, and are now living out there permanently to develop the business further. We spent an hour or so hearing their story and learning from their experiences, ordered Thai food from DoorDash (another YC startup), and then laughed as David said:

“Right, mock interview time. Let’s go the jacuzzi!”

The laughter went on a bit, and then he repeated himself, wholly serious:

“I’m not joking. Let’s go.”

Trying to describe the experience of answering rapid-fire questions amid the fierce bubbling of a jacuzzi is naturally difficult, but it makes for a great story, and it’s something I’d recommend to anyone who ever gets the chance. All joking aside, this was a very sobering experience as Neil and I gradually realised we had nothing in the way of hard data to back up our idea, made only more gruelling when you consider we’d been awake for over 24 hours. Tired, stressed, and slightly defeated (but paradoxically, relaxed as a result of the jacuzzi), we retired to bed.

David and Chris left pretty early the next day, so we capitalised on the free time we had by researching as many useful and relevant statistics for our interview as we could (many articles, including one by YC itself, rightly recommend that you become an expert in your domain), and continued to fire practice questions back and forth at each other. Again, we ordered food from DoorDash, and I enjoyed one of the best burgers of my life that day. I don’t know what the Americans do – it might be the sweeter buns – but whatever it is, they do it right. In fact, here’s a picture:

After a strong coffee and some motivational dancing to pump ourselves up (well, I danced), we walked to the YC offices on Pioneer Way, which must be one of the most apt company-street couplings ever. Once signed in, we booted up Skype and brought Amar – our third co-founder who was presenting to a conference in Iceland – into the picture, chatted with some other teams, and then twiddled our thumbs before being ushered into the interview room.

The first question was surprising:

“Neil, why do you have a Microsoft Surface?”

The answer? Microsoft can’t sell them, so they literally give them away to interns (Neil’s going to hate me for writing that). After some preliminaries, the interview began.

I read a post this morning which likened the YC interview to a boxing match, and it’s an analogy I really like. However, I’d extend the analogy to say it’s like boxing against four adversaries at once: you have to be on your toes and ready to handle anything thrown at you, the pace is lightning-fast, and the punches are flying in from all directions, often with no delay between them.

The first few questions were intended to get a clear idea of what we had envisioned, and it wasn’t long before the skepticism of the panel began to make itself known. I’m not sure whether detailing our idea here is the right thing to do, as there’s nothing stopping anyone reading this from stealing it, but essentially, we had no hard data to prove that people were willing to pay for what we were offering. One of the golden rules in startups is that you have to build something people want, and though we strongly believed that people did want it, and had spoken to people who had explicitly said they did, we had no numbers to back up our claims, and no evidence to suggest that we hadn’t just been unfortunate in finding a number of outliers.

This isn’t to say the interview went badly, though. We rolled with the punches, and I personally think we handled the majority of questions as best as we could. There were no awkward silences, very little in the way of hesitation, and Neil and I handled the questions in a fairly balanced manner, which is a dynamic that YC look for in co-founders. Suddenly, we heard a knock on the door, signalling the final 30 seconds of our interview, and I actually asked at the end whether we’d been in the room for 10 minutes. We’d been entirely focused on the task at hand and there hadn’t been a spare second for us to relax in, so the time had just flown by.

Relieved that it was over, we headed back into the main waiting room and slumped onto the benches. Amar, who had been on Skype but hadn’t actually said anything during the interview, had been able to listen intently, and thought it had gone well. Neil, however, was more cynical. The panel’s skepticism was palpable, and we had a tough time convincing them people wanted, and even needed, our idea. That said, the interview went as well as it could have given our strict time constraints; it definitely could have been a whole lot worse.

After this, we spent an hour or so chatting to some of the other teams there, including an awesome 16-year old straight out of high school and already two years into an undergraduate degree who was working on (already successful) code clubs for high schoolers. The general impression I got was that most teams were much further ahead than us, which was particularly embodied in one line uttered by another applicant:

“We don’t have that many users right now, only 10,000 or so.”

However, this made it all the more incredible that we’d been invited out in the first place, and it was most humbling to think that we’d been reached the same stage as people already seeing success in their business.

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After taking the obligatory YC Fanboy shots, we got back on the CalTrain and made our way to San Francisco to meet a friend living out there at the moment (the Node.js wizard on my EF hackathon team!) and were given a tour of the stunning Bay Area. I quickly fell in love with the city, and even just 40 hours out in California has made me hungry for more.

We received our rejection email from Sam Altman, President of YC, around 8pm that day, which read like this:

I’m sorry to say we decided not to fund you guys. It was a tough call, because you guys are clearly smart and ambitious.

What stopped us is that we’re not convinced users want this. We talked to a few startups and asked if they’d use such a product; [detailed feedback on idea]

Best,

Sam

I completely understood their point of view, and if I put myself in the panel’s shoes, I too would find it difficult to take such a massive risk on an idea with no proven potential.

Like I did with the EF application process, I’m going to summarise the three main lessons we took from the weekend:

  • Get the first minute right. When reading over the feedback in Sam’s email, we couldn’t help but feel like we hadn’t quite communicated our target market properly, and this is something we might have been able to solve if we’d really nailed the opening of the interview. Naturally, the first question is always along the lines of “So, what are you working on?”, and it’s absolutely crucial that you get this right. If you don’t, you’ll waste time later on clearing up misunderstandings; you only get ten minutes, so this isn’t something you want to be doing.
  • Data, data, data. I strongly believe that, had we brought along some compelling figures from some extensive market research, we would have had stood a fighting chance. As I mentioned earlier, we realised in the jacuzzi that we didn’t have the numbers needed to prove our idea, and by that point, it was far too late to do anything about it. For anyone at the stage we were at (an idea with no demo or prototype), make sure you contact potential customers to gauge whether they want what you’re offering, and if so, how much they’d be willing to spend on it.
  • Practice, practice, practice. A lot of the questions that come up are fairly standard, and it’s important that you can answer them quickly and succinctly. I’m not advocating that you churn out rehearsed lines on the day, but the process of practicing these questions over and over will refine your answers a lot, and you want to be at the stage where you can answer most questions in roughly 15 seconds or less. Don’t ramble.
    Naturally, we were disappointed, but as Neil and I were discussing today, the application process got us asking ourselves a lot of really useful questions about our idea and its potential, and taught us some valuable lessons to learn from in the future. I’m confident that we’ll apply again, though not necessarily with the same idea, or even the same team, and next time, we’ll know exactly what to do in order to maximise our chances of success.

After getting back to the UK at 7am on Monday, we managed to shower and change into our suits before heading to 10 Downing Street, where we had a roundtable meeting with the Prime Minister’s Tech Advisor and the EF2015 cohort. This proved to be extremely interesting; Daniel Korski was engaging, passionate, and sincere about everything we discussed. There was no jargon or pretence, and he had a fantastic understanding of the current and upcoming tech trends, which was refreshing.


I’d like to finish this post just by thanking everyone who made our weekend so worthwhile and enjoyable. Firstly, thanks to Neil for proposing we apply in the first place, and to Amar for being such a great team member. It was a crazy idea that turned into a crazy weekend, and it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for them. I’d like to thank YC for inviting us out for an interview; those ten minutes were invaluable for us, and we really gained a lot from the experience. Thanks to David and Chris for being such great hosts and such good interviewers with access to such a great jacuzzi. And finally, thanks to Sam Aaron, Jack Lang, and James Brady, who all contributed to really useful discussions and brainstorming sessions in the days running up to the interview.

I’m still reeling from what has been the most intense weekend of my life so far, which I hope these words have done justice to.

P.S. Thanks to you for reading to the end!

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“These words will rarely tell tales of wild adventures or exotic travels”

I remember starting this blog back in July last year, and my inaugural post was focused on my intentions of writing more often. In fact, I actually included a disclaimer that went something like this:

“These words will rarely tell tales of wild adventures or exotic travels”

As it happens, I’m now writing these words on a plane to San Francisco, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting to wake up from a crazy week-long dream any minute now! After having just watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an uplifting film about throwing caution to the wind and living life to the full, and with 7 hours of the flight remaining, I decided there was no better time to take stock of the adventure so far and to get these chaotic thoughts out of my head and onto (digital) paper.

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To explain why I’m currently 34,000ft above sea level, we need to go back about two years in time to a conversation had with a good friend of mine, Neil. Back in first year, I remember discussing future career options with Neil during one of our practical sessions at the Computer Lab, and I was surprised to hear that he wanted to form a startup straight out of University. The idea of running my own business had appealed to me for a long time, but I had always been under the impression it was something that was done with a lot of real-world experience under one’s belt, and I certainly hadn’t planned on doing my own thing before I’d even turned 21. I admired his ambition, though, and he certainly got me a lot more interested in the startup scene. (Not least by introducing me to Hacker News!)

In second year, as most of my Cambridge friends will know, I came across a problem that required solving related to May Week, a week of decadent festivities in June (ha) after our exams have finished that seem to keep the Daily Mail in business. Over the course of one glorious week, the majority of Colleges will put on a May Ball or June Event, which is typically a black- or white-tie event lasting from around 9pm until 5am. Tickets range anywhere from £50 to £200, depending on how much you care about champagne and expensive dinners, and a ticket guarantees the bearer to unlimited food and drink throughout the evening, plus the chance to see both famous and local student acts perform all evening. With tickets being as expensive as they are, students put a lot of careful thought and consideration into which event they want to go to, and much to my surprise, no single source of information existed upon which these decisions could be based.

I woke up one morning in December 2012 to find a lengthy message thread between friends about which Ball to go to, and I became frustrated by how much of our information was based on rumours and here-say, so decided to hack together a simple single-page website containing all of the information for May Week 2013 in one place. I barely moved from my desk for about six hours straight, and when WhichMayBall was released to the world, the reception was far better than I had expected. I had been genuinely shocked that no such website existed already, and this was echoed in the feedback of both friends and people I’d never met before.

The satisfaction I gained from seeing an idea through from inception to execution was extraordinary, and, more importantly, I was proud to think I was providing a service to ease the decisions of others. I definitely wasn’t “enhancing people’s lives” or any corporate bullshit like that, but I was saving people time, and that felt good.

I’ll write a more in-depth post about the story of WhichMayBall later on, but in a nutshell, the experience, although small-scale, was enough to get me seriously considering a career either at a startup, or as the founder of my own, and it led me to successfully apply to Entrepreneur First, which you can read more about here. Around a month after the whirlwind which was the EF application process, a transatlantic storm arrived in the form of Neil and his crazy idea to apply to YCombinator, the most prolific tech accelerator in the world.

I’ll be honest, I was initially hesitant. Having just been accepted onto EF, and having been offered an internship at Decoded for the Summer, I was extremely content with the London-based future I had crafted for myself, and uprooting all of that felt uncomfortable and reckless. However, very few great stories begin with a refusal to get onboard, and much like Bilbo at the beginning of the Hobbit, I woke up the next day and went running back to a bearded man to tell him I didn’t want to turn down such an exciting invitation.

After getting in touch with our friend Amar, who’s currently studying for a PhD in Machine Learning, we began to draft up our application. However, one thing led to another, and before we knew it, the deadline day had arrived, and things kicked into overdrive as we frantically answered a slew of tricky questions and filmed our 60-second pitch to YC. Four minutes before the deadline, Neil pressed Submit…and the system crashed. We had no idea whether our application had gone through properly, but the clocks had just turned 3am GMT time and the deadline had passed, so I headed to bed.

We had treated the whole process as a learning experience, as Neil and I knew it was extremely likely we’d be applying to YC eventually, either shortly after EF, or further down the line, and so none of us ever expected to receive an email with the following line on the 16th of April:

“Your application looks promising and we’d like to meet you in person.”

As you can expect, I got absolutely no work done that day, and the afternoon and evening just blurred into a series of bewildered conversations with Neil and Amar as well as excitable Skype calls with contacts in the Valley.

The next week involved a lot of refinement of our idea, a lot of useful conversations with Cambridge grads, supervisors, and lecturers with relevant experience and wisdom, and a lot of practice interview questions, which leads us to here. Sadly, Amar is presenting at an AI conference in Iceland this week, so isn’t joining us, but he’ll be Skyping in at the same time as we step into the interview room at 2.30pm PST tomorrow. This whole story is made even more mad when you consider that we’re flying 5,300 miles for a 10-minute interview! Oh, and Neil and I are landing in the UK at 7am on Monday and popping into 10 Downing Street with EF on Monday. Yeah, really.

So that’s the story so far. I’ve never been to America before, let alone outside of Europe, which means free in-flight food, movies, and seemingly unlimited complementary soft drinks are completely new to me, and massively exciting. Landing in the States is going to be nothing short of surreal.

Actually, the drinks trolley is just coming down the aisle now – I’ll keep you posted.

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Entrepreneur First (An Applicant’s Guide)

Today, I’m going to attempt to write a comprehensive guide to the Entrepreneur First application process, or version 2.014, at least. The process between submitting your application and receiving a final outcome is certainly a long one, and one that will challenge you and stretch you in ways that you may never have experienced before, but it will also be one of the most enjoyable applications you make. Do bear in mind that this is one person’s perspective on proceedings, and there are 49 other cohort members who each had their own unique experiences.

Before launching into this guide, I should begin by explaining exactly what EF is for those who don’t know. EF is a graduate tech accelerator designed to harness the potential of pre-idea, pre-team individuals just out of university, and in doing so, aims to help foster a real startup culture in London comparable to that of the Valley. After gaining a place on the scheme, graduates attend part-time ideation/team building sessions throughout July and August, before beginning full-time in September and finishing at the end of February, when a demo day is held in front of investors, angels, and others.

From the first 2012/13 cohort, 11 tech startups emerged from the scheme which now have a combined worth of $50m, and I’m eagerly awaiting the results of the 2013/14 cohort demo day which took place yesterday! AdBrain, of the 2012/13 cohort, just recently raised $7.5m in their series A funding round, managed to lure Googler Jesse Hurwitz from Google Mobile onto their team, and already have offices in both London and New York. Success stories like this are what make EF so appealing to young grads, and I, personally, cannot wait to get started.

I should also add that the entry statistics are quite scary, and I’m very glad I didn’t know about them until after I got in! Of the 700 applicants for the 2014/15 cohort, only 50 offers were made – some quick mental maths shows that there were 14 applicants for every place. I’m sure the ambitious amongst you won’t be put off by such figures, but let it serve as a warning for how competitive the process will be.

So let’s begin.

The first step in the process should be obvious, and that is a check that EF is suited to you and your goals. Signing onto EF also means signing onto the riskiest year of your life, and failure is a very real, very viable option. A lot of people are keen to go into a stable job with a decent salary straight out of University, and the startup lifestyle certainly isn’t for everyone. Whilst the success stories may make the scheme seem very glamorous and prestigious, I’ve been warned that the full-time aspect of the course is gruelling and draining, and I’ll be sure to update you over the next year through this blog. If you’re sure that you want to do EF, it’s time to fill in the form.

The form is offline for now, so you won’t be able to access it yet, but I can give you a rough idea of what to expect. As well as all the usual basics, you’ll be asked about skills that you think would be valuable in a startup context, and in my opinion, a varied and broad knowledge of web technologies will stand you in good stead here. You don’t need to be an expert in all of them, but technical proficiency seems to be more of a baseline than the official EF literature perhaps lets on, and the fact that 96% of the 2014/15 cohort describe themselves as technical really speaks for itself. You’ll also be quizzed on impressive achievements and startup ideas you’ve had, so if you’re reading this now and are unsure of how to answer the first of those questions, get building! Start with a simple website or app over the Summer and continually expand it from there. Honestly, it’s the best way to learn.

The deadline for these forms will be around New Year’s Eve, but I’d advise finishing it before then! (See here for some relevant stats.) If you manage to impress the EF team, you’ll be invited for a short Skype interview, and by short, I mean 10 minutes. This will be almost quick-fire in nature, so make sure you can get your ideas across succinctly and effectively. One or two of the questions at this point threw both myself and some friends, and covered things like current tech trends and achievements of ours that we thought were particularly exceptional. I don’t want to give too much away, but make sure you can really sell yourself as a one-of-a-kind rarity.

If you’re successful, you’ll then be invited to the EF offices in London for a half-day interview, and this is where things start to get really interesting. My experience lasted from 9am until 11.30am, and consisted of a challenging interview with Alice, a technical interview with a current EF cohort member and an EF grad, and then an hour-long coding test. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, and I definitely don’t want to be providing you with interview questions, but the questions Alice fired at me were tough. Prepare to have a lot of your ideas rigourously challenged and critiqued, and be ready to either defend them or objectively analyse them. This interview was really enjoyable, and I got a lot out of it, but it was unlike any interview I’d experienced before!

Next up was a technical interview, which I really enjoyed. We chatted about web technologies that I had used in the past, what I liked and disliked about them, and examples of things I’d built with them. This quickly changed into a good chat about tech trends and what we loved about certain programming languages, and I got to demo my dissertation project, which was also really fun. (Expect a blog post on that in the coming weeks…)

Finally, the coding test. We were given three algorithms problems to solve in an hour, but as a student on the notoriously theoretical Cambridge CompSci course with very little experience of these types of tests, I don’t think I performed very well. I believe I can code well, and with some time, I could have figured out good solutions to the problems, but I had rarely been exposed to such time-sensitive coding tasks, and the pressure of coding quickly was quite overwhelming. Some people thrive on these things, even taking part in competitions, but I don’t (yet) and so I can say with honesty that this was the toughest part of the whole process.

Thankfully, my performance in both of the interviews made up for any shortcomings in the coding test, and I was invited to the final-stage selection weekend, again in London. This was an awesome weekend, and served as a really cool introduction to a lot of my fellow cohort members. I reckon I was the youngest there (ages seemed to range from 20-30), which was intimidating at first, but after some fun icebreakers involving dancing around, pretending to row, and generally acting like pirates, we got stuck into the Unconference section of the weekend, and I quickly settled into proceedings. An unconference is a “participant-driven meeting”, meaning we would host discussions and workshops rather than lectures, and topics ranged from the importance of good design in a startup context (co-hosted by myself) to behavioural economics, and polyphasic sleep. (The general consensus? Don’t do it) I learned a lot from each of these workshops, and had some really engaging discussions with some brilliant individuals.

The bulk of the weekend, however, took place in the form of a hackathon, and as a self-confessed hackathon-virgin, the prospect terrified me. The idea of a hackathon had always massively excited me, and I had been meaning to compete in one for a couple of years, but something or other had always gotten in the way, and I had stayed firmly in my comfort zone. I’m sure anyone who’s ever competed will remember the fusion of raw fear, adrenaline, and excitement in the moments leading up to their first hackathon, and by the time we were pitching our ideas to the group, I had become so overawed by some of the other pitches that I completely neglected to pitch my own. Thankfully, I had discussed my idea for an informative, objective website about the fast-approaching Scottish Referendum with a fellow Scot over lunch, and after checking it was okay with me, he pitched it to the group.

“Now, James over there originally came up with this idea, and I think it’s awesome.”

This very short pitch was both extremely validating, in that someone had faith in my idea, and also potentially disastrous. (More on that later…) After the pitches, I decided to throw myself fully into the ScotRef idea, and to my surprise, quite a few people wanted to get on-board with it; we actually had to turn people away once we reached a team of five!

We started brainstorming around 5pm, and decided we would build a crystal-clear, highly interactive guide on the Referendum. The page would be split into two columns, one for each outcome of the vote, and we would inform users on how different dimensions of Scotland, such as the Economy, Defence, and Healthcare, would be affected. We were also going to ask users to vote on which outcome they wanted, and planned to display some engaging, real-time graphs at the top of the page showing which way our visitors were leaning. Further to this, we were going to allow users to add their own reasons to the bottom of the page, which would then be voted up and down by others. Essentially, we planned to build Reddit for the referendum, and this was only a small aspect of the site.

Yes, we were very ambitious.

As it transpired, building Reddit in under 24 hours proved extremely difficult, as did creating the dynamic visualisations we had planned. Fortunately for us, one of our members was a Node.js wizard, so we went with that as the driving force of our site. Unfortunately for him, few of the rest of us had ever worked with it before, and this very quickly created a HUGE bottleneck.

I could write for hours on the various successes and failures of my first hackathon experience, but instead, I’ll summarise with three lessons that I took away from it:

  1. Choose a stack that the majority of your group are comfortable with. As I mentioned earlier, choosing Node.js seemed like a bright idea at the start, but our wizard got extremely frustrated when none of us Muggles could jump in to lend a hand, and it was equally aggravating for myself to watch him drown in tasks whilst I could do nothing of use on the server-side.
  2. Always be assessing how each individual is spending their time. A lot of the time, it felt like a few of us were working on non-essential features, or sometimes, just barely working, when we could have been using our time much more effectively. This definitely doesn’t involve slave-driving, and by all means, take breaks, but don’t be afraid to ask someone about the urgency of their current focus, and likewise, don’t be offended if someone else keeps you in check. Egos should be left at the door.
  3. Even if you feel like you’re on a sinking ship destined for disaster, all can be saved by a great demo. It’s very unlikely that your code is going to be exhaustively inspected or tested, so if something really isn’t working, just focus on making it look good. There were moments throughout the 24 hours when I worried that we might not have anything good to show, but by channeling my efforts into making the site look damn good, tailoring our presentation towards aspects that worked, and speaking with passion, conviction, and importantly, humour, we received a lot of good feedback on our efforts. HALF OF IT DIDN’T EVEN WORK, and we were experiencing crashes and failures right up until the last minute, but by making it look slick, we created an impressive vehicle for the original idea.

Midway through the hackathon, we were each interviewed on a one-on-one basis by a member of the EF team, and this brings me back to the “disastrous” aspect of my idea being pitched by someone else. I was grilled on this during my interview, and I vividly remember being asked

“So, do you think you struggle convincing others to get involved with your ideas?”

I definitely don’t, but this was a tricky question to parry; to the EF team, who were closely assessing us throughout the weekend, I seemed to have come up with an idea and then failed to pitch it. In all honesty, I had simply been overwhelmed by some of the ideas presented by the others. As I mentioned before, I was probably the youngest there, and though this is no excuse for a lack of self-belief, there were some applicants who planned to hack on top of their own seriously impressive projects. This threw me a little, and made me question whether my idea was of a high enough calibre to compete, but I’m so glad we went with it. I’ll remember this experience for a long time, and in future, I definitely won’t be shying away from the opportunity to pitch my ideas, even if some of the others seem better at the time.

Following the final presentations, the weekend was brought to a close by Matt & Alice, and we enjoyed a few drinks before parting ways and heading home. I was absolutely exhuasted, and one final piece of advice I would give is this: make sure you get enough sleep. I stayed with a friend who I hadn’t seen in at least a year on the Saturday night, so we were chatting until the early hours, and I was absolutely exhausted by the end of Sunday. Unhealthy amounts of caffeine can only sustain you for so long, and eventually, the fatigue will catch up with you, so do yourself a favour and make sure you’re well-rested.

The EF team were wonderfully prompt with their final decisions, and I received a joyous call from Alice the next day letting me know I’d been accepted! It had been a long road, and definitely something of a rollercoaster, but I gained an immense amount of experience (and fun) from it, and I’ve emerged with a whole treasure trove of new knowledge.

As I mentioned before, the process will stretch you to your limits, and there will definitely be questions that you can’t answer. There were a few for me, and being at a complete loss for words isn’t a pleasant experience. However, if you’re good at thinking on your feet, building things quickly, and proving to the team that you’re a worthy candidate, you’ll be just fine.