This month’s Wired magazine features a story by Rowland Manthorpe entitled Are entrepreneurs born or made? that focuses on the startup accelerator Entrepreneur First. EF is unique in the accelerator world in that it takes on bright, technical individuals and gives them 3 months to partner up, find an idea and start a business. Whether or not this is a good model is for someone brighter and more experienced than me to discuss (time being the brightest and most experience of them all), but one point made in the article that lead me to write this post was a quote made by one of the founders Alice Bentinck, talking about her and other co-founder Matt Clifford’s time at Mckinsey & Company priory to founding EF:
“We always joked we were accidental consultants. It’s no exaggeration to say that from month one we were planning what we would do afterwards.”
This statement has given me new found respect for EF and what they are building. As a recent graduate of the last few years, I have countless friends working in grad schemes at banks, law firms, management consultancies, accountancy firms etc. I have nothing against grad schemes whatsoever, but what I think is a shame is that many people on them, like Bentinck and Clifford apparently, don’t really know why they are there.
Perhaps it’s pressure from parents (and society) to get on start giving back after decades of educational support; perhaps it’s a fear that for the first time in their lives there’s no defined next step; probably it has a lot to do with the resources and excellent recruitment drives by some of the world’s richest organisations. I base a lot of my (very much under-development) philosophy in life on Viktor Frankl’s ‘logotherapy’ (a premise he developed and wrote about on why he survived Auschwitz) that humans are motivated, satisfied and ultimately survive when they have a purpose in life. I think it’s important to find a ‘why’ in everything that we do, so I think it’s sad to see so many people breaking themselves in jobs that they accidentally stumbled into.
I have respect for what Clifford and Bentinck are doing because they are creating a physical environment in which people can scratch their itch. People who’ve thought about whether they are suited to starting and running a company but for whatever reason haven’t tried. The lucky ones will succeed but most fail. And this is good. For now they know whether they do want to start and run their own company. They’ve worked hard, they’ve taken knocks, they’ve failed, but they’ve loved it and want to try again. Or perhaps they’ve worked hard, they’ve taken knocks, they’ve failed and they’ve decided that actually they’d prefer a life that is more stable and predictable than the one entrepreneurship would give them. Both are progress. They now know what they want, what they are good at and where they need to improve, so the next step they make focuses on developing the skills they need to succeed.
I think we should encourage more of this hands-on career orientated self-discovery. Could graduates spend the first part of their training working directly with those at the top to discover whether the top is somewhere they want to work to be? Could companies extend their grad-schemes to not just recent graduates, but to anyone whose interested? That way the decision to try an alternative path seems less risky. Those who wonder whether they could make it as artists, musicians or actors, how do we encourage them all to take a chance? Do they want it enough to persevere through rejection, weekend bar shifts and low pay, or would they prefer to keep such things as hobbies in their spare time? Ricardo Semler discusses in his Ted Talk schools that encourage their pupils to first think about what they want to do or build in life, and then tells them what they need to learn in order to achieve it: if you want to build a race car, you need to go to physics and maths classes. Could we not extend this to careers? In one way or another you want to help people, well perhaps the best way to do that is to train as a lawyer? Money is your goal? Banking it is.
Having chosen straight out of university to start my own company over a grad-scheme (and failed), I now know that building companies is what I want to do and I know also which skills I need to work on to succeed. This lead me to join another startup, much further ahead in its growth. My co-founder, an arts graduate, discovered a knack for design, taught himself to code and now is a freelance web designer. By failing twice to get into med-school, my girlfriend knew more than ever that she wanted to become a doctor, and since she got in that motivation has meant she’s in the top tier of her year. A friend tried his hand at music but discovered he wasn’t prepared to play stuff he didn’t believe was good just because it would make money; so he decided to go down a more ‘normal’ path, but one that gives him the money and lifestyle to continue playing the music that he wants to play in his spare time.
We need to create an environment that encourages young people to experiment and try out different paths, and supports them in that journey. We need organisations like Entrepreneur First in every sector: competitive and intense just like the real world. And if you can’t hack it? Then you’ve learnt that particular path isn’t for you. Result. On to the next one.