EF Founder Stories #2

There is a reason that most accelerators and accelerator-like programmes take on fully formed teams; because there is the perception that building teams from scratch is an impossible task. And to some extent that’s true. It is tough to build a team from scratch. Tough, but not impossible. It feels as though so much has to come together to create success. You and your co-founder have to be totally aligned on an idea that fits your skill set; work with someone who you can both challenge and respect; start off exploring an initial market in which to make your product/service a reality and be able to get on with your co-founder.

A new cohort started at Entrepreneur First in September and as they embark on team building, I spoke with Chris and Theo from Cloud NC, an EF5 team that formed in 2015, about how they came together and knew that their partnership was the right fit.

Theo Saville (CEO) and Chris Emery (CTO) co-founders of CloudNC, EF5

Theo: “I met Chris just before I started EF officially and it was at the Kick Off Weekend where we decided to try out working together. He didn’t know much about CNC Milling machines, but then again, not many people do, but he was interested enough that he read a lot, asked questions and got up to speed fairly quickly. I knew he was going to be a great co-founder for me because we get along extremely well. In just a month, he was so up to speed with the industry we were working in that he was challenging me and asking questions that I had never thought to ask.

I think it can feel daunting to go all-in with someone you have just met, even before you are friends, but the only way you know if something is going to work is to really test it. You need to sit side by side, set goals and hold one another accountable. It isn’t enough to just work with someone you really get on with. A good startup, is a combination of an idea and a team that fits the idea. If you start with just a team then it’s quite unlikely you will find an idea that actually fits that team. YC tried funding teams with no idea before and it didn’t work out for them. If you start with just a team then it’s quite unlikely you will find an idea that actually fits that team. It is all about the idea that suits both of you in some way.”

At EF team building comes in my guises and whilst it can happen very quickly, part of the EF process is helping you to experiment with different teams. Chris initially joined EF4 in March 2015 to build a startup, he ended up being a sole founder and then, rather atypically, joined the EF5 cohort in September instead.

EF5 Kick Off Weekend, August 2015

Chris: “Team building is hard. It’s very difficult to tell if a team is going to work or not. The best you can do is try to form a team that has a strong idea, where the experience of the people fit the idea. Once you’ve done that, just go for it as hard as you can. If it seems like it’s not working for whatever reason (including gut instinct) then kill it quickly and move on, otherwise you’ll just spend months on one idea that comes to nothing.

When I was on the EF4 Programme in March, I worked on 6 different ideas and had been in 4 teams (the other 2 ideas I was a sole founder). I’m pretty sure I’ve made just about every single EF team building mistake. Luckily, I also (mostly…) stopped working on things when it wasn’t working.

On EF4, in the first week, I didn’t have a strong idea. So I chatted with people and eventually found two guys and we *sort of* had similar interests. One had an idea about using people’s phones as a computation resource when they weren’t using them (e.g. when they’re charging at night), so we got started. We all had reasonably similar skill sets, with an idea in a market none of us knew and that any one of us could have built singlehandedly. After about a week, mainly focusing on trying to find anyone who would want to use it (and failing), we stopped working on it.

Next, I worked as a sole founder on trying to make an app/device to do transcription of meetings. You would record a meeting and get a nice web interface with a transcript, summaries and searchable etc etc. I worked on this for a good month before deciding that waaaaay less people want this than you might think (my brother who spends probably 3–4 hours a day in meetings at his company said “if it was like a £2 app then sure”), and speech recognition (particularly differentiating who is speaking) is still far from good enough.

Next I worked with someone on making MRI images 3D and then I worked on my own again, this time trying to make CAD software for consumers to design stuff for 3D printing, which evolved into a site that allowed people to 3D print their Minecraft models. This evolved into a service that I would offer to games companies that would allow them to sell figurines of characters from their games. I was working on this and having some success talking to games companies. I then realised that there was almost nothing technical about what I was doing; it was basically an e-commerce website. Did I really want to do e-commerce for 5 years? No way in hell. So I stopped working on that, and ended up joining EF5.

Theo and I actually first met while he was going through the interview process. Theo was in the office for an interview and, since he worked on 3D printing and so did I, EF said we should talk. He was working on this cool new 3D metal printing method and when EF5 came around, I was eager to work with him on that. It turned out his idea had changed to automating CNC machine programming. We talked about it a bit on Facebook Messenger, and then about 20 minutes into the first day of EF we spoke a bit and decided to give it a go. A year after working together we’re in good shape, we’ve been through fundraising and are building out our core team. From a team building perspective, everything fits: Theo knows about manufacturing and business, and I know about the software. The idea is a strong idea born out of deep knowledge.”

Even though I’ve helped to build almost 100 of EF’s teams, it is hard for me to put my finger on that one common attribute that makes a team world-class. There are so many variables. But the best and strongest co-founding teams, from what I’ve seen, aren’t built overnight by chance. They are built through extensive, consistent testing and rely on the combination of co-founders’ skills to co-create together.

If you’re interested in building a startup, have a technical background, but don’t have a co-founder, feel free to get in touch with our UK Talent Manager (sonia@joinef.com) or if you’re keen to start a startup in Singapore, Izzy (izzy@joinef.com) to hear more about Entrepreneur First. We’ve built over 100 teams from scratch that are working on everything from drones, through to insurance and space. We’d love to hear from you.