Be an Entrepreneur, First: what all aspiring founders should learn.
Today is my last day at Entrepreneur First, a talent VC that invests in individuals pre-company and pre-idea in Europe, Asia and, newly, North America.
There’s no better way to define my 15 months at EF than by saying it’s been an education in entrepreneurship. An intense crash course in starting not just one business, but hundreds.
And so, as I pack my desk and get ready to leave, I’ve been asking myself what the most important lesson was, one that I could leave for the benefit of future want-to-be founders that join the programme and for the first time operate in an entrepreneurial environment.
Within society at large, outside of the VC bubble*, it can be hard to find role models and lessons in entrepreneurship. If anything, the ones that are available can often put people off starting a business, a point that EF’s founder and CEO Matt has recently made (see his hilarious Twitter spat with The Apprentice’s Lord Sugar).
But once you join EF’s programme, or generally as soon as you start looking into the bubble, as a founder of a business that suits venture capital’s ambitions, you will find many in our little ecosystem who are willing and / or able to offer advice. So apologies in advance, if I add one more to that ever-growing pile of maxims. Here it goes:
The best founders switch out of the assignment mentality.
Since our childhood, we learn everything by completing tasks assigned to us, assignments given to us by our parents, teachers and other tutors or mentors. That’s why leaving school or university can be scary (I know it was for me): sometimes for the first time, we have to decide what to do with ourselves. But for most of us, that very real ownership of our destiny only lasts for a brief moment of uncertainty, and we then go back to receiving assignments. This conditioning is only reinforced by grades first and performance reviews later.
Entrepreneurship is entirely different. Founding a company is transformational because it forces a break from that mentality. It requires radical ownership of one’s professional life — and later of other people’s. The best founders I’ve worked with at EF have either always been allergic to being given assignments or successfully transition to this new level of ownership at one point during the programme. They are perhaps more commonly known as being mission driven.
They don’t incorporate a company on Week 9, apply for our pre-seed funding on Week 14 and pitch at Demo Day on Week 25 because these are steps in a programme. They do these things (or, importantly, don’t) because they set their own tasks. They never relinquish ownership over their mission.
This may sound straightforward. But because many EF founders are first time founders and because EF is run as a programme, it’s easy to fall into the illusion that founding a company is just like a university course, a set of tasks. It’s not. Forget all the tasks you’ve successfully completed for other people and other missions. What is the mission you’re on from now on? What are the tasks you’re going to set yourself to get there?
I’m extremely grateful to EF for giving me the opportunity to ask myself that very question. And that’s why I’m not going to spend the two weeks between EF and my new thing (more on this soon) travelling somewhere exotic, like I did before I joined EF. I’m going home to stay at my grandparents’, in the house where I grew up. I’m going to spend some time thinking about my tasks.
Thank you Matt, Caroline, Ali and Dom for reviewing versions of this post. I’d love to hear other people’s lessons in entrepreneurship as I get ready for my next gig. If you’ve switched out of the assignment mentality and are ready to set your own tasks, consider joining the Entrepreneur First team, cohort or portfolio.
*the social, not the financial meaning of the word.