“I am going to be an entrepreneur” is a statement, in my opinion, with about as much viability as saying “I want to be a unicorn” or, perhaps more aptly, “I want to be determined, motivated and able to make a product” which according to Matt Clifford, co-founder of Entrepreneur First, are the main attributes conducive to being an “entrepreneur”. Matt Clifford and Matthew Stafford founded Entrepreneur First and Student Upstarts respectively, both companies that aim to offer starting your own business as a “third option”, as Stafford describes, to recent graduates. It became increasingly apparent whilst interviewing Clifford that “becoming an entrepreneur” was a phrase best replaced with “becoming a founder” of a company, with his focus being on people who want to start something and who are determined rather than being desirous of the “glamorized” image of entrepreneurship. On asking him how one would get onto his program he said that those who had founded companies through Entrepreneur First so far had “come in all different shapes and sizes” and from “wildly different backgrounds” but the defining feature was their “extraordinary determination”. Stafford described how he wanted leaders, people who would “inspire others to go through the lows as well as enjoying the highs” of starting their own business.
Although on the face of it, Student Upstarts and Entrepreneur First are doing much the same thing their recruitment focus is very different and indeed Stafford, from Student Upstarts, has even invested in AvoCarrot, an Entrepreneur First team from the last batch. Stafford invests at the point where the team has an idea, they don’t need to have “a product, or traction, or a company”, just an idea. Entrepreneur First, on the other hand, start even earlier before there is a team or idea – Clifford is looking for pure talent and spark with a view to mixing 30 to 40 graduates together to see how they interact and ultimately to create teams of about 2-3 people who then come up with an idea. So for recent graduates this is great if you are looking to create a business, with no money and no connections it would seem to me to be a good idea to try the corporate route, learn the ropes and then break away but according to Stafford delaying “in the belief that corporate life will somehow prepare [you]” is a no brainer for him – “it won’t”. Similarly, Clifford describes how internships used to be seen as a way to show that you could knuckle down and work but how photocopying for two years does nothing to show off your talent whilst “two years of founding a company shows off your talent way more than being in a less corporate environment”. In this vein, Clifford went on to mention how whilst 75% of those who had come through Entrepreneur First were still founding or developing their own companies, 100% were employed by the end of the program.
With 100% employment behind you it seems an obvious choice – why the hell not? But starting your own company does come with risks – according to insiderstartups.co.uk 1 in 3 start-ups fail in the first three years. Stafford agreed that “sometimes” it could be a risky business but that “high risk can equal high reward” whilst Clifford described going through Ent First as being “as risky as a gap year” and that he and his co-founder Alice are “always walking a fine line between making it less risky and too safe” as the “risk of failure is often what pushes people”. As I mentioned above both Stafford and Clifford are trying to advertise entrepreneurship as “the third option” – the latter describes how “Entrepreneur First fundamentally challenges the idea of a career” giving graduates more “autonomy, choice and leadership”. He also argued that as well as being no more risky than a gap year “no one has missed an opportunity” with many of those recruited by Entrepreneur First going on to work with companies such as Starbucks and Google who find that “entrepreneurial talent is one of the most important talents for them” but with it being “relatively difficult” to attract.
Both companies provide an initial investment, Student Upstarts offers £15,000 whilst Ent First usually puts £17,500 forward both in return for 8% equity. They also both provide accounting and legal support as well as fast tracking their teams to meeting the relevant network of people. They also both provide a working space in central London. This business model of providing support and that little push that graduates, with no money and nowhere to work, might need to turn an idea into (hopefully) a cash-cow, indeed Stafford recalls his motivation for starting Student Upstarts was that he “wanted to start a company after [studying] computer science but had no money, no network, nowhere to work and no idea how to go about it”. Apart from the fact that they invest at different stages of the business, as I mentioned above, their support and ethos is similar although they do differ in market focus. Student Upstarts “will invest in areas that excite [them] and where [they] think [they] can be useful” and have a view to invest in 100 companies by 2015 whereas Entrepreneur First has a strong focus on technology as Clifford describes that the last generation of entrepreneurs were working with a very different audience and how “scale meant something very different” due to the fast pace of the internet. Although Clifford said that “a lot of the people we are going to need to do this will have a skill that you can find in engineering and computer science” or with a background in technology Entrepreneur First does also take on people who have no technological background. At this point in my conversation with Clifford I was thinking “ah, technology… I can’t tell a hard drive from a floppy disk and please don’t even try to get a USB involved” but magically he heard my thoughts and suddenly mentioned Entrepreneur First’s new “Code First” scheme which is aimed at involving women in their company more by teaching them about technology. He even went as far as to invite me to a “Code First” training day. He said that it was actually “embarrassing” how few women took part in the program and that he was “massively passionate” about involving them “because it’s the right thing to do but also from a cynical point of view” as since his company recruits on the basis of talent he did not want to lose “50% of the talent”. In fact, they are launching an Oxford version of “Code First”, which piloted in London this summer and “made young women see that [technology] was not a boys club”.
So is the “third option” the right option? As a student with little technological knowledge, and even less of a clue about my future prospects, starting my own business has never been on my list of possible outcomes for my degree. With such a focus on graduate schemes and attaining a job after University, and having had little success, this could be a very interesting and lucrative experiment – especially when I hear the total sales for Entrepreneur First last year hit $1 million. So far, they have had a 100% employment record. Not bad. What could go wrong?