Wong Liang Zan

Wong Liang Zan

© 2020

Joining EF in their third batch

I’m now with an accelerator called Entrepreneur First, most call it EF for short. I was accepted in their third batch in Singapore. That was sometime this year January. I’ve wanted to start my own company, having worked at many startups for many years. When opportunity knocked, I took it.

Accelerators have existed for a long time and there are many of them. What made EF different was, you apply as an individual before you have an idea or a co-founder. It goes against conventional wisdom that there must be a team or there should be traction. Thinking that way isn’t wrong - they reduce risks. What EF does is they convince good people who has the capability and desire to start companies, get them together in one room, let them form teams organically, conquer the world, and return their capital; ideally more than what EF has given. Once the teams are formed, EF operates like most other accelerators, the standard mentorship, office space, demo day and investor networks.

How do you get accepted?

EF is fabled to be hard to get in. I don’t have the statistics off my head. I suspect it is largely based on what you have done. Those who just got out of school or those barely worked for less than 5 years would accumulate less body of work to be convincing. For my case, I received a cold email which piqued my interest. I checked out their website and found their model interesting. Help me find a co-founder - plus one. Seeing their funders are brand name VC firms like Greylock - plus one. Had big exits(Magic Pony); the model works - plus one. Focus on creating deep tech companies; I like that - plus one. Reading what the cohort companies are doing, realising that they are solving challenging technical problems - plus one. I can’t find signs of scamminess. A coffee, an interview, an application and a few weeks after, I’m part of EF’s third batch in Singapore.

What does the cohort look like?

There is a methodology to forming the cohort. EF divides cohort members into 3 types. The first type are the Technical edges[T] - specialists in an area, typically those with Phds. The second type are the Product edges[P] - those who can build a product, typically the engineers. The third type are the Domain edges[D] - those who spent a long time in an industry, coming with deep knowledge on the inner workings and numerous contacts. Each type roughly makes up one-third of the cohort.

Why is it divided into these types? EF not so gently nudges everyone to form a team of two as two is found to be the optimal founding team size. The two making the team are encouraged to be of different edges. The endorsed combinations are DT, DP, PT, TT. It makes sense to combine different edges where each bring different strengths and don’t step on each other’s toes. A DT and DP combination is where the Domain edge knows an industry inside out, allowing the team to get to product-market fit quickly, while the Product/Technical edge builds the product. In a PT combination, usually the Product edge fulfils the outward facing role and the Technical edge concentrates on the product. TT combination is the special case like Magic Pony, where 2 technical founders create a cutting edge technology.

The quality and diversity of the cohort is amazing. There are people holding doctorate degrees from various fields - quantum physics to computer science to materials to robotics to mathematics. Some even holding multiple degrees. There are entrepreneurs who ran companies of various sizes, CEOs, CTOs, robotics engineers, hardware/software engineers, musicians, artists, Heads of departments at MNCs, dentists, architects, speech therapists, ex-Googlers, ex-Facebook, ex-Netflix. There are many industries represented - Finance, Marketing, TV, Logistics, Medical, Oil & Gas, Food, Retail, etc. However, most are first-time founders. Most aren’t veterans either; the median age is in the early thirties.

What does the team forming phase feels like?

The team forming phase is a lot like dating. It is an emotional rollercoaster, where there are high highs and low lows. Finding a co-founder is a large helping of serendipity, a dash of skill. Let me address that in another post.