Tech Q&A: Entrepreneur First’s Alice Bentinck on building businesses fit for the future

In the first in a series of interviews with tech and digital industry leaders, MBS’s Stephen Rosenthal discusses startup culture with Entrepreneur First co-founder Alice Bentinck.

Readers of my previous columns will know I have been interested in exploring certain key themes of late – among them entrepreneurship, digital and data-driven innovation and the need for greater female representation in tech. It is not often that a single conversation brings together so many issues that are top-of-mind, but I was lucky enough to get that chance when I sat down to speak to Entrepreneur First co-founder Alice Bentinck recently.

I have known Alice for some time, but I continue to be dazzled by her poise and vision. Having set up startup incubator Entrepreneur First with fellow McKinsey graduate Matt Clifford in 2011, Alice has overseen the launch of more than 100 companies with a combined value of well over $500m. Last month Entrepreneur First was rightly grabbing headlines around the world after raising funds of $12m from investors including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, who will now sit on the EF board.

At just 31 years of age, Alice has become a hugely influential figure in the startup world. Indeed, the Entrepreneur First model of prioritising people over ideas – and in particular the chemistry between company co-founders – has pioneered a new way of thinking about building businesses from the ground up.

The model uses a rigorous application process to find the best possible potential founders, all of whom are then thrown together until compatible co-founder pairings are made. Full-time resources are dedicated to “breaking up” incompatible pairings, and business ideas are only discussed once the right teams are in place.

“There’s often a lot of rhetoric that founders are ‘born not made’. We don’t believe that” Alice Bentinck

This approach has yielded incredible success. Last year alone, three EF-born companies sold for close to $300m, with Magic Pony Technology acquired by Twitter for $150m, Represent sold to CustomInk for $100m and Avocarrot bought by Glispa Global Group for $20m. Today EF has offices in London, Singapore and the US.

Besides her day-to-day role at EF, Alice is a prominent advocate for women in tech. She and Matt are also the co-founders of Code First: Girls, a free part-time training course for women who want to take a lead in the digital revolution. Available at over 30 universities, Alice estimates the course will have taught over 5,000 young women how to code by the end of 2017.

It was no surprise to see Alice pick up the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award earlier this year in recognition of her astounding career to date. This was just the latest in a long line of awards which includes an MBE for services to business in 2016.

I was delighted to have the opportunity for a wide-ranging chat with Alice during a visit to EF’s London office (a converted biscuit factory no less), where we discussed startup building, gender diversity and EF’s plans following its recent injection of investment.

Do you see last month’s funding round for EF as a culmination of all your work to date?

It feels like the start of the next phase of EF’s life. We’re six years old as a company and in some ways this is like a Series A for us. It’s quite a late Series A, but I think because EF was creating a new model – not just with startups but also with venture capital – it took us a while to figure out how it would work at scale and internationally. We’re at the stage now where we know how to make it work and we want to make it as accessible to as many people as possible.

How do you plan to use the investment to grow EF further?

Ultimately we want to develop a company-building machine where all of the world’s best talent has the opportunity to build a startup. There’s often a lot of rhetoric that founders are “born not made”. We don’t believe that.  We believe that your ability to be a founder is often dictated by the ecosystem that you’re a part of. We want to make sure that whether you are in Berlin, Reykjavik or Bangalore, you have an EF hub that is accessible to you.

What makes EF so different from other startup accelerators?

When we started out, we wanted to know why graduates weren’t starting companies at that time. Everything we read online was wrong – there’s lots of advice that says your co-founder should be someone you’ve known for a long time. That leaves you nowhere if you don’t know someone who wants to found a startup with you.

Also, ideas are usually around solving existing problems: ‘I’m hungry – food delivery’ or ‘I need a boyfriend or girlfriend – dating app’. You see the same things again and again, whereas actually you should be asking people about the unique skills and expertise they have that very few other people have. What do you know about that few other people know about, and how can we use that to make a valuable and unique startup – rather than a copycat with very little innovation?

We’ve had almost 600 people go through EF so far. Seeing that many people go through the process of trying to build ideas and build teams has been absolutely fascinating. 

What makes a good startup founder – and how do you find these people during the application process?  

Broadly we’re looking for really smart contrarian thinkers who are unbelievably motivated to do this. If you get someone with a mix of all those things, you normally get a good founder. If you have someone who is smart, skilled and motivated, you’ve got a really good management consultant – so you need that extra, contrarian way of thinking.

That means looking for people who are constantly questioning the status quo, who have taken risky and alternative paths throughout their life and who are often reasonably unsatisfied by what they’ve done in the past. That, combined with people who to some extent define themselves by their work and want to dedicate their lives to their work. Entrepreneurship is a really good vehicle to do that – and to do it in a way where you reap the rewards.

Since launching Code First: Girls, has the proportion of women applying to EF increased? 

Unfortunately not. We are just above the level of women coming out of computer science degrees – typically universities produce between 10-16% female computer science graduates, and we typically have about 20%, although at our last demo day, a third of the companies had a female co-founder, which is our highest yet.

When I was at McKinsey, coding was just starting to hit the mainstream. I started learning some basic skills at EF and have found that to be hugely useful. Understanding how machines think, the time it takes to do certain things and why some things are difficult and some easy, is certainly very useful.

Entrepreneur First co-founders Matt Clifford and Alice Bentinck

What is the difference between big company thinking and startup thinking?

I think the transition from big company thinking to new company thinking can be very hard.

Big companies are all about optimisation and efficiency. Even the way you evaluate new opportunities in a big company is very different to when you have nothing and you have to creatively bring something together where nothing exists. Instead of it being an analytical, evaluative process, it’s much more an exploratory, creative process.

Alice Bentinck: Quick facts

Age: 31

Role: Co-founder at Entrepreneur First

What do you do when not working? I’ve just got engaged, so at the moment planning a wedding is pretty much every other minute that isn’t work! Generally I see friends and do lots of cycling with my fiancé.

What excites you about technology? It’s interesting to see a bit of a resurgence in cryptocurrency and the Blockchain – it’s been around for a long time but it suddenly seems we’re going back into either a hype cycle or a moment where it really turns into something interesting. We also have a couple of companies at the moment looking into hyperspectral imaging which is a new form of computer vision.

Who is your mentor? We have a really amazing professional coach called Lucy Funnell who was Anita Roddick’s right-hand woman at The Body Shop. The hard thing as a founder is getting feedback and personal development, so having someone who will actually bang the table and say ‘you said you were going to develop this particular leadership skill – have you done it and if not, why not?’ is hugely useful. | @SteRosenthal | @TheMBSGroup