Interview With Matt Clifford From Entrepreneur First

I have just interviewed Matt Clifford from Entrepreneur First, an accelerator that accepts application only from GRADUATES with strong technical skills aka Computer Science students.

Matt Clifford is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Entrepreneur First, “the UK’s leading programme for aspiring tech founders”.

Can you give us the standard profile of the applicants you accept every year? Do you accept non technical people and what skills do you look for in technical applicants?

We’re looking for people who can make a big impact in a tech startup on day one. The nature of what a tech startup does means that a lot (in fact, most) of these people are going have tech skills. But there are lots of other things that are important too. A big task for a startup is gaining a very deep understanding of their customers’ needs. We’re very interested in people whose skills and experience help with that. Successful non-technical applicants tend to have impressive domain expertise or lots of skill in the techniques needed to distribute what the startup is building to customers.

Universities are looking at employability rates as a way to increase worldwide rankings and Entrepreneurship is often not considered at all. In what way do you think we should put the focus of Universities on Entrepreneurship?

Most unis have active and vibrant entrepreneurship scenes, whether that’s largely led by a university department or by a student-led society (or both). One thing outside that that we’d like to see is a greater emphasise on making and building within academic courses – that is, the combination of cutting edge academia with a drive to create actual products. There are some computer science and engineering courses from which you can graduate without ever having built anything, which seems a shame.

Why is Entrepreneur First a charity and what’s the mission behind it?

We’re not! We’re a community interest company. We don’t seek to make a profit out of our normal operating activity, but we do have an investment fund and our investors will make a profit if our startups do well. The EF team, though, is motivated by a deep sense of mission: we believe starting a startup is the most exciting career choice for the most ambitious young people and we want to make it the obvious one too.

Have you got any success stories?

Lots. We built 11 companies last year that have created millions of dollars of value. Some of the most successful ones include AdBrain (disrupting mobile advertising), Blaze (cutting-edge bike light and cycle safety products), Prizeo (YC W13), Kivo (YC S13) and many more. The current batch is just as exciting and we’ll be unveiling them to the world in March.

What’s the value of getting into an accelerator that looks at the people instead of looking at the ideas?

Well, if you don’t have an idea, one major value is that you simply won’t get into an accelerator focused on ideas! But (obviously) we think there’s more to it than that. In startups, people are way more important than ideas. Ideas in startups are essentially experiments; what’s really important is the quality and the character of the people doing the experiments – and that’s what we focus on at EF.

How many applications have you received for the summer internship and what do you expect from the 2014 summer interns?

Hundreds. We have two big goals for the summer programme. First, we want to give people the chance to get a taste of what working in a startup is like. Second, we want to give our startups access to amazing talent. Finding great people is almost always the number one issue facing good startups.

I know you have recently released a program exclusively for Girls (Code First: Girls), but do you think programs can solve the “ratio” problem or is that more a mindset issue, regarding the presence of women in technology, that we all have?

I think the issue is extremely complex. It’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about at EF. My co-founder Alice has written some great things about this. This is probably the best summary of our thoughts: “Tech shouldn’t be a boys club: what I’ve learned from getting more women into tech.”

From what Universities are your graduates from? It might be interesting to see the Universities that get people involved in entrepreneurship the most.

This year we had applications from students and grads from 105 different unis. I’m skeptical that the breakdown of our applicants and cohort by university is a good proxy for which universities get people most involved in entrepreneurship. We’re so focused on tech that it’s much more a reflection of where the best (and most practical) computer science departments are – and consequently of where we spend most time recruiting. I think our top three unis this year are Cambridge, Imperial and Edinburgh.

How many people are part of the Entrepreneur First team and are you recruiting?

There are six of us full time. Alice and I divide our time between helping the startups and working with our external stakeholders. Alex runs most of our programme activity. Zoe is in charge of all our work at universities, finding amazing talent. Chloe manages our relationships with startups. And Maddie runs Code First. We have a couple of internships open right now, but otherwise aren’t actively recruiting for permanent roles. That said, we’re always excited to hear from exceptional people who have something to offer.

What are the 3 most promising startups in London?

Well, obviously I want to name three EF ones, but that would mean picking favourites… So, picking from outside EF, I’d point to GoCardless (fintech), Thread (fashion) and Show My Homework (edtech) as people doing very exciting stuff. Full disclosure: I have friends at all three, so am hugely biased.

[GreatPreneurs] Matthew Stafford From Student Upstarts

I have recently reached Matthew Stafford, one of the co-founders of Student Upstarts. This is an incredibly interesting firm that invests only on graduates, postgraduates or Phd students. You can find the article here.


Matthew Stafford is a co-founder, with Christian Jakenfelds and Nick Wheeler, of StudentUpstarts. Student Upstarts invests up to £15,000 in exchange for up to 8% into student and graduate teams to start and run their own business. Matthew and Christian also co-founded UpstartsConnect – a co-working space in Kings Cross, London, and Matthew is a co-founder of 9others – a global network solving the problems of business that keep entrepreneurs up at night – all over a good meal with 9others.

The Uk university system seems to be focused on people getting jobs and graduating with an outstanding CV that can help them, so why do you bet on graduates instead of everyone, even dropouts?

Traditionally graduates have had two options – do further study or work for someone else. What Student Upstarts is about is giving them a third option – starting a startup. We think that students and recent graduates are perfectly capable of running a business and we believe it’s the perfect time to do it. We can give a bit of startup cash, some office space, an amazing network and mentoring. It’s not for everyone but we want to be part of that ‘third option’ for those students and graduates who are smart, entrepreneurial and driven to build a business.

You say that you take between 4-8%, so how does the equity you take vary?

We won’t take more than 8% because we think that’s fair for £15,000 and we want the founders to be very incentivised to build a huge business. We’re open to taking less if the team are more developed but this hasn’t happened yet.

In how many businesses have you invested till now and do you think you are going to reach your 100 companies goal by the end of 2015?

We have invested in 5 teams so far and 4 are still running. We’re going through the paperwork for our sixth and that they should have the money by the end of February. More importantly that sixth is the third in two months. Last week we interviewed seven teams and if we like them all then we’ll offer to them all – we have the vision of investing in 100 teams in the next couple of years so we’re aiming of doing 30-40 this year and more next year.

Have you got any success story?

Well, 4 our of five still running is pretty good so far for such early stage businesses! One of the teams has raised further investment and three of the four have regular paying customers.

What’s the ratio in applicants between graduates, postgraduates and Phd students?

Of the five teams there are 3 PhDs, 6 undergraduate degrees and 2 masters.

How do you see the startup scene in London and what do you think the best three startups are?

The London scene is great and getting better – it’s really developed and matured over the last few years that I’ve been involved. There’s more investment around but it’s never easy to get this – it also shouldn’t be the focus the whole time, which it sometimes seems to be – what’s more important is selling to customers and getting cash in, something that too many entrepreneurs forget.

There are some terrific businesses around but three early stage startups that spring to mind that I admire right now are:

How do you think universities should improve the presence of Entrepreneurship in their institutions?

They should cause chaos by creating and getting involved in as many external networks as possible – too often universities look inwards and try to get the ‘perfect’ solution before acting.

They should also stop measuring/being measured by salary increases and percentages employed and start measuring the number of companies started and jobs created by their alumni.

You have organised a conference with one YCombinator partner, do you see a difference in operating between an american investor and an european one?

Yes, this is a massive question – I don’t have any experience investing in the USA but they do seem to have a greater appetite for risk and they act quicker (whether that’s a yes or a no). They also seem more accessible – I’ve had email conversations with a few well-known and prolific US investors and they’re not hidden away like many UK investors seem to be.

Fred Wilson and other american investors have said more than once that they are seriously looking at the european startups, what do you think it makes them more interesting?

Yes, the world is a small place and there are incredible opportunities for investors here as well as many other parts of the world – it takes a while to get to know they lie of the land though so don’t expect masses of activity overnight.

In what area do you invest the most?

So far with Student Upstarts it’s been e-commerce. I like the internet enabling real ‘products’ with a ‘price’ that can make some ‘profit’ to be sold in huge markets all over the world.