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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.

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Go Outside

I started watching Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror last night, and if you haven’t done so yet, I would thoroughly recommend it. Whilst the first episode oozes shock factor, and was arguably the more entertaining of the two I’ve watched so far, it was the second episode that had the most profound effect on me.

The episode begins with a glimpse into the daily routine of Bing, a man residing in a sterile compound from a dystopian future. As he wakes up, we discover that he lives in a tiny cell, comprising of only a bed and a bathroom, with each wall being used as a full-bleed, high-resolution screen. We notice Bing’s digital avatar and his 15,000,000 “Merit Points”, and observe his morning routine being regularly interrupted by adverts of an obtrusive, often pornographic nature. Bing’s only living space – Man’s final bastion of privacy – has been completely commandeered by marketers, and if he is to skip the adverts, he must sacrifice some of his earnings.

His waking day involves little more than cycling on a machine to generate credits for himself and electricity for the compound, and he does so in a room with a dozen others in plain, grey clothes, surrounded by screens displaying mindless TV shows and games. If any of them become too fat, they are publicly humiliated on television, and forced to work as cleaners.

While I don’t want to completely ruin the plot of the episode, I believe you’ll get more out of my writing if you watch the episode first. You can do so here.

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Through a combination of sweat, blood, and ingenuity, Bing manages to gain a highly visible platform upon which to vocalise his innermost thoughts and beliefs, and Daniel Kaluuya’s performance at this point in the episode is utterly mesmerising. When I say I was on the edge of my seat, I genuinely mean that I was hunched forward, hanging on to his every word, and the angst and frustration which Daniel injects into the monologue is red raw.

“What, I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new app for our Dopple, it doesn’t exist! It’s not even there! We buy shit that’s not even there. Show us something real and free and beautiful. You couldn’t. Yeah? It’ll break us. We’re too numb for it. I might as well choke. There’s only so much wonder we can bear. That’s why when you find any wonder whatsoever, you dole it out in meagre portions.

And only then until it’s augmented, and packaged, and plumped through 10,000 pre-assigned filters till it’s nothing more than a meaningless series of lights, while we ride day in day out, going where? Powering what? All tiny cells and tiny screens and bigger cells and bigger screens and fuck you!”

I couldn’t help but feel moved by his words, and it got me thinking about the way we use the internet today. I have read many, many articles criticising social networks and the internet as a whole for its adverse effects on society, and nine times out of ten, I choose to ignore them; partly because of their sensationalist tone, and partly because it makes me uncomfortable to admit to myself that I use the internet too much. I think nearly all of us do.

How much time have you spent mindlessly scrolling down your Facebook feed? How many of the YouTube videos you’ve watched have you actually learned or gained anything from, other than a few laughs and a profound envy of funny cat-owners everywhere? If someone presented me with a figure for the amount of time I had wasted online, I’d feel sick.

Imagine that, for every second you had wasted online, you’d gone running or cycling outside instead? Imagine that, for every status or photo you’d liked on Facebook, you’d sent a brief text to a friend inviting them to catch up over a coffee? Or, for every twenty YouTube clips you’d watched, you’d instead sat down with some friends and watched a full-length feature film?

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it very clear that I do not deem the entire internet to be a waste of time. Far from it. I think the internet can be, and will always have the potential to be, a powerful force for good. It can be used to connect us with old friends, to educate us on nearly everything contained within the collective human knowledge, to bring news from around the world directly to our fingertips, and for many other beneficial purposes.

However, the amount of pointless content on the internet seems to far outweigh the meaningful, and it’s all too easy to spend hours going through it.

I’ll admit that whenever I’m home with my family, I don’t spend enough time in their company. We’re all victims to our screens, be they computers, games consoles, or our phones. Even when we’re watching TV together, I’ll likely be texting a friend every half hour or so. It upsets me to think that families all over the world are falling into this trap, and as a society, we’re beginning to miss out on the very real, human experiences that make life so meaningful.

After watching Black Mirror, I looked out the window and noticed the sun setting in the distance. With haste, I changed into my cycling kit, threw my helmet on, and sped off towards the countryside in an effort to chase it down. With the wind rushing past me and the sun quickly falling towards the horizon, I felt truly alive. I wasn’t sitting down at my desk, reading a vaguely humourous status about someone’s day. Nor was I watching a short YouTube video that would make me smile and exhale air through my nostrils as a modest expression of my amusement. I was pushing my body to its limit, surrounded by beautiful, English countryside, and it felt incredible.


The internet is a wonderful thing. I love it, and if my career goes the way I would like it to go, my very livelihood may ultimately depend on it. However, it’s no substitute for reality. We need to walk places without glancing at our phone every few minutes. We need to be curious and seek out content that interests us, rather than passively absorbing the minutiae of our friends’ lives. Most importantly, we need to hold on to our creativity. Take some photos (though not of your food, please). Make some music. Invent.

I’m extremely guilty of everything I’ve mentioned above, and it’s something I’m making a concerted effort to change. I hope that you, too, might join me outside.

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Writing

I don’t write enough.

Four words that have resonated around my head for the last few years. I’ve made numerous attempts at blogging, always convinced that “this was it”, that I’d finally get my thoughts out into the World on a regular basis, but alas, even my most valiant efforts have never lasted more than a couple of weeks.

I’ll be honest; I’m not the most interesting man in the World, nor am I the best writer. These words will rarely tell tales of wild adventures or exotic travels, and even if they ever do, my ability to throw sentences together will rarely do justice to the real-life events.

I’ve begun to notice myself consuming far more content than I create, and this is something I’d like to change. I’m not writing with the hope of amassing a cult following, and I honestly wouldn’t feel heartbroken if these words were never read. I’m writing to help clarify my thoughts, to formulate my ideas, and to get better at it. I used to take hundreds of photos, devote whole evenings to recording music, and I relished the opportunity to capture my surroundings and express myself. However, as I’ve gotten busier with University work, I’ve found less and less time to just sit down with my thoughts and make sense of them, and this is something I really hope to achieve by writing.

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I’ve just started working as an intern on the Web Development team at RealVNC, which means I get to spend ten weeks of my Summer in Cambridge, a stunning city in any season. It’s the first time I’ll have been here outside of term, without the pressures of exams on the horizon, and for once, I’ll be lucky enough to experience Cambridge at a normal, relaxed pace. It’s so easy to hurtle round the city at breakneck speed during term-time, rushing from one supervision to the next, desperately cramming as much activity as possible into just eight weeks and hopelessly wishing there were more hours in the day. At that pace, much of the city’s beauty is lost.

I’m hoping to write every few days, and I’m going to dust off my camera for when I go cycling around the surrounding countryside or visit friends. Thanks to the immeasurable wealth of content available on the internet these days, it’s all too easy just to sit back and consume the work of others. I’d like to become one of the creators again, and these words mark my first, tentative steps into the world of writing.

Edit 26.12.14: Ha, that went well.