Yesterday, I received an email from the EF Team requesting advice for founders about to embark on the EF programme.
“What advice would you give to someone to help them get the most out of EF?”
It’s hard to believe that, this time three years ago, I was beginning my own entrepreneurial journey as part of EF3, and there are plenty of things I wish I could tell my twenty year-old self.
Here’s a small selection:
Spend as much time as you can with your cohort
Your perception of ‘normal’ is heavily influenced by the people around you, and one of the best things about EF is that you have the opportunity to spend thousands of hours around incredibly smart and ambitious people.
This will redefine what you perceive as normal.
Working 12–15 hours a day becomes the norm when everyone around you is doing it.
Living a frugal life becomes the norm when everyone around you is on the same minimal stipend that you are.
You will start to feel a disconnect when you hang out with friends who have chosen comfortable career paths. They’ll go out more often than you. They’ll spend more money than you. They’ll travel more than you.
Spending as much of your time with the EF cohort as possible minimises the disconnect that you’ll feel, and reinforces the discipline and work ethic that is required to get your company off the ground.
I’m not advocating for zero work-life balance. I think balance is one of the most important things for entrepreneurs to get right. However, this balance needs to be severely tipped in the favour of ‘work’ for the first few months of your company’s existence if you wish to achieve lift-off, and sustaining this workload is easier when everyone around you is bearing the same load.
(Selectively) Do Things That Don’t Scale
The parables of Paul Graham have become hallowed by entrepreneurs around the world, and his essay on “Things that Don’t Scale” is one of his most famous.
The example used is that of the AirBnb founders when they travelled round New York photographing apartments themselves, rather than employing others to do it. This “Founders as Photographers” strategy clearly wasn’t going to work in the long-term, but it increased conversion rates on the site and, far more importantly, helped them meet hundreds of their first users.
We applied this thinking to many different projects and initiatives during the early days of Encore. For example, we built a “Website Import” tool which allowed our members to enter the URL of their personal website and have their content “automatically” added to their Encore profile.
The “automation” involved us, as founders, manually importing content for our musicians, which could take anywhere from 5–25 minutes per person. The time taken to automate this correctly would have been far greater.
This was a laborious task that we couldn’t sustain forever, but it gave us insight into the content people had on their websites and it helped set a good benchmark for profile completeness. I don’t regret this “unscalable” activity.
Unfortunately, we also applied this advice to tasks that could have been automated extremely easily, and there’s a very real danger that you carry on acting unscalably for far longer than you should.
Be careful when choosing your own “things that don’t scale”. Don’t get bogged down in manual labour just because PG said you should.
Get comfortable being uncomfortable
Building a company that people care about involves various activities that most normal people will find uncomfortable.
Talking to hundreds of people you’ve never met before.
Shamelessly self-promoting your startup to attract early adopters.
Surviving in London with minimal funds.
Sacrificing social time and sleep to hit ambitious targets ahead of fundraising.
Being told, repeatedly, that your idea is not going to work.
You will find yourself doing a lot of things that make you uncomfortable and that stretch you beyond your comfort zone. Do not pity yourself, and do not make excuses for yourself. You chose this path, and you will only succeed if you get comfortable being uncomfortable.
If you were smart enough to get into EF, you’re no doubt smart enough to waltz into any number of high-paid jobs that will provide you with as much comfort as you desire. You may even have left a comfortable career to join EF.
The earliest days of your company’s life will stretch you, and the founders who make it through EF are the ones who get comfortable being uncomfortable.
There are times when you must go against EF’s advice
You know your users better than anyone else does (if you don’t, put down your laptop right now and get in front of them). This means you know what they like, how they think, and how they’re likely to react to new features and developments in your product.
The advice you’ll be given by EF will be sound and rooted in lessons from hundreds of startups before you. James and I would not have gotten Encore off the ground so swiftly without EF’s nuanced guidance and mentorship.
However, there will be moments when this advice can also be wrong for your business, and you must have the conviction to defy the advice you are given when it contradicts your unique understanding of your business and your users.
There was an occasion where I got into a heated argument with a member of the EF team in front of a full room of 30+ people. We were being advised to do something that we knew would go down badly with our musicians, and so we stood our ground and refused to proceed in that direction. It was a difficult moment and fellow members of our cohort probably thought we were naive to defy the
recommendations we were being given, but I’m glad we held firm.
In these moments, you will likely experience some inner conflict. EF have spent five years aggregating wisdom from hundreds of successful and failed startups. Surely they know what’s best?
They often do, but not always. If you’ve spent enough time talking to your users, and if you’re starting a company because you have unique insight into your industry, you will know better than anyone how your users will respond to
your decisions, and you must have the conviction to go against advice you think is wrong and place trust in your insights.
I would recommend that you only go against advice related to product and user growth. EF are experts when it comes to team-building, fundraising and co-founder dynamics, so pay close attention to their suggestions in those areas. If they tell you that you’re working with the wrong co-founder, you probably are.
Listen extremely closely to EF’s advice, but do not accept it as gospel.
Work on what you care about
This might sound obvious, but it’s not.
Long before I joined EF, I had been fantasising about a huge online musicians’ network and marketplace. I was surprised it didn’t exist and EF were going to give me six months and a small amount of cash to make it work!
However, upon joining EF I realised that very few of my potential co-founders shared my unbridled love of live music, and so I began building an app to help cyclists plan safer routes and avoid dangerous junctions in London.
I worked fairly hard on this, but there wasn’t a burning passion inside me and my interest in the project faded fast. This definitely wasn’t my life’s work…
As soon as I began work on Encore, I felt a seismic shift in my hunger to work on and develop every aspect of the product. I care about music more than anything in the world, so working on a music startup simply didn’t feel like work.
I wasn’t the only one to lose sight of what I cared about.
A trend I observed during EF3 was that people would throw themselves at seemingly random ideas as the funding deadlines approached in a desperate attempt to make it to the next stage.
Very few of these mismatched founders and ideas worked out, and the ones that did gradually fell by the wayside as time went on.
Nearly every EF3 company that is alive today was started by a founder with a deep connection to the domain. Zehan had spent years immersed in Computer Vision, so Magic Pony was a natural fit. Ryan had excelled in electronics at university, so it made perfect sense for him to co-found Pi-Top. James and myself have been musicians since we were young children, so co-founding a musicians’ marketplace was a natural next step for us.
Do not throw yourself at a problem because it’s vogue or ‘hot’. Think about your expertise, and think about your passions. Enduring difficult periods and surviving before your first funding round is much easier when you’re working on something you truly care about.
If you’re about to join EF and have any questions I can help with, please reach out!
I’m @thejamesmcaulay on Twitter if you want to ask in a public forum for the benefit of others, and I’m hello [at] jamesmcaulay.co.uk if you’d rather talk in private.
EF is an incredible programme that will accelerate your learning and growth faster than ever before. Good luck, and enjoy the ride!