Wong Liang Zan

Wong Liang Zan

© 2020

Team formation at EF

This is part two of my experiences going through Entrepreneur First. This is also where EF is different from other accelerators - team forming. From my earlier post, EF divides the cohort into 3 groups. The technical edges, the product edges, the domain edges, and not gently, people from different edges are nudged to team up. Did that happen?


These are my general observations as I have no access to data. The first observation is people with similar interests tend to team up. For example, those interested in blockchain want to work together. Another example, the quantum physicists in my cohort want to work together as they can understand each other.

The second observation is people with complementary skills tend to team up. Typically there is one person with a strong idea, and he or she finds another person who has the skills to implement it. The domain edges form teams like that. For example, we have a domain edge in sports teaming up with an augmented reality expert to build a AR solution for sports teams. My team is one. It is a domain expert in the finance space who needed someone with deep engineering skills to build infrastructure for the emerging crypto space.

The third observation is people who like each other tend to team up. There is still a need to find a good business case to justify the team. These cases are fewer in number as they often have problems finding a business model around their skills. Typically the technical edges(from academia) like working with each other due to their similar backgrounds. Similar examples includes founders who came from the same country.

Breaking up

Breaking up is an essential part of the process. Form a team fast, break up fast - that is the advice. EF tries their best to put the stigma away - by cheering whenever a team breaks up. We are congratulated as though we have left a bad relationship. No one sets out to break up on a whim. Most are careful before committing to working together. But still, it does happens. I’ve been through one, and it is painful like any form of failure.

Why do teams break up? When they are not making progress, they break up. Progress is loosely defined as having received validation that there is a genuine problem or making head ways towards developing new technologies. When teams are progressing slowly, EF nudges the team to break up. Breaking up is entirely the team’s choice. There are teams who have deep faith in their work and don’t want to break up. Towards Judgement Day(which is the investment panel), these teams tends to break up. As time passes, as the team talk to more customers, the invalidation becomes clear. Seeing there are no customers, there is no reason to chase a lost cause. Inevitably they break up. At that point of breakup, it can be too late to validate another idea as there are only those weeks before Judgement Day. So EF always advise us to break up quickly.

Break ups happen when founders are not aligned. A team came together to work on an idea that both founders are keen on. Due to customer feedback, the form of the idea changes. When it becomes something that the founder is not interested in, and if that is something they cannot accept working on, the team breaks up.

EF nudges teams to break up when the founders have poor fit to the skills required to build the business. Obviously if the founders don’t have the skills to build the business, they get nudged to break up. If the founders have a super set of skills, they get nudged to break up too. For example, an idea demands only software skills, whereas the founder has both hardware and software skills, EF encourage the team to break up. The rationale is this founder can work on another idea which can leverage the founder’s skills fully. That team will be stronger as there aren’t others with that unique set of skills who wants to start a company at this moment. What happens this creates sets of founders with strong skill alignment to the problem they are solving.

There are also people who cannot find a co-founder. Sometimes they are deeply attached to an idea, and sadly they are unable to convince another to join their cause. Another group are those who are not committed. They continue with their existing work and hope to build a business on their spare time. Starting a business is hard. Those who don’t commit have difficulty finding others to work with them. There’re those who fail to find a viable business model. If the business case is weak, they fail to convince others to join them. Lastly, people who are hard to work with, don’t form teams and drop out.

True to EF’s advice, breaking up does help form strong teams. It creates balanced teams going after validated ideas. When I look at the teams, it is as though they were tailor made to solve that problem. A founder has to find a co-founder, with a specific set of complementary skills, quit what they are doing at the same time to start a company. What is the probability of that happening in the wild? That is scary. I think that is an effective way to create startups. Time will show us if this model performs better. Amongst the top teams in the cohort, half of those are from broken up teams, including mine. I’ll share about what happens after during the validation phase in a separate post.