Entrepreneur First: Building Aspiration Among India's Future Entrepreneurs

Getting selected to the global talent investor's cohort is no mean task. The acceptance rate is 3 per cent, which is lower than many Ivy League institutes

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“I believe the golden era of India’s startups is starting now,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked as he interacted with over 150 startups via video-conferencing recently. Currently, India houses the world’s third largest startup ecosystem and there has been a growing interest among professionals to explore entrepreneurship as a career choice.

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Entrepreneur First (EF), a global talent investor, reveals that the applications to their cohorts have more than doubled since they launched in India in January 2019. “While our first cohort had 800 applications, the most recent one had over 1800 applicants from across India looking to join our cohort to kick off their entrepreneurial journey,” states Esha Tiwary, Partner and Head, India, at EF.

In India, EF has supported over 300 entrepreneurs and built a portfolio of 42 startups so far. These startups are working on diverse market-led innovations, powered by Artificial Learning (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Robotics, Virtual Reality (VR) and other cutting-edge technologies, to solve real-world problems across industries.

EF has emerged as the preferred choice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to build world-class tech startups because of its unique value proposition: Ambitious and talented individuals who want to startup NOW. Unlike typical startup programs that focus on supporting entrepreneurs who already have a startup with a founding team and have started building on their business idea, EF finds and funds talented and ambitious individuals before they have a startup, co-founder or even a business idea.

However, getting selected to EF’s cohort is no mean task. “The bar is very high – we receive over 1500 applications for 50 spots on our cohort running every six months. This means an acceptance rate of 3%, which is lower than many Ivy League institutes!” admits Tiwary, as she goes on to add that the kind of dedication and commitment shown by passionate candidates who apply with EF repeatedly to enter its cohorts is touching.

Globally, the talent investor has built over 300 tech companies since 2011 across six countries (London, Singapore, Berlin, Paris, Toronto and India) working with over 3000 entrepreneurs and a portfolio valued at over four billion dollars. “We have a firm belief that the most successful founders have been outliers their entire lives. They don’t fit in; always doing things differently from their peers, not satisfied with the status quo and hungry to make an impact,” states the EF India Head.

Making the cut

At EF, the selection process starts with the written application, followed by two rounds of interviews for shortlisted candidates. “Every step of our process is built to evaluate candidates on both their functional abilities (technical or commercial) as well as their behavioural skills,” says Tiwary. Each cohort has a mix of people from technology backgrounds and business backgrounds.

“We see an interesting mix of aspiring entrepreneurs from business as well as technical backgrounds. From specialists and generalists in business to PhD holders, data scientists and products hackers, our cohorts bring together an eclectic group of people who are passionate about entrepreneurship and willing to commit 100% to the venture,” she notes.

The selected candidates who join EF’s rigorous, six-month program spend the first three months in identifying the right co-founders, ideas to work on, market validation, and building the business case. EF then invests pre-seed in selected startups and those founders move to the second stage of the program, which involves building the product, expanding the team, and deploying with early customers. Finally, once the founders are ready, they are introduced to top investors in the ecosystem for their next round of funding.

EF’s success ratio, in terms of founders who have gone on from the programme successfully to the next milestone, including funding, is nearly double the industry average. The secret? Tackling the tough questions head on, and advancing difficult conversations that typically happen much later in the entrepreneurial journey.

“We call this running into the spike. We encourage founders to identify what could be the biggest threat to the business and focus on validating or invalidating those with the customers to see whether they can address those, and if not, then pivot to something else. It is very rare for founders to get such crucial advice at such an early stage,” explains Tiwary.

The founders of UK’s first computer vision unicorn, Tractable – that develops AI tools for accident and disaster recovery – has benefitted from their experience at EF London. Closer home, Pune-based Unbox Robotics – part of EF’s first cohort in India in 2019 – recently raised USD 7 million in Series-A round.

The recent spurt in funding announcements in the ecosystem may give the impression that funding is the sole parameter of success. Although a critical ingredient, EF emphases the fact that “the ability to move fast, understand customer needs and build a product that is unique, defensible, profitable and loved by customers are ultimately the right metrics to judge entrepreneurial success on”.

As the Prime Minister rightly put it, “Our startups are changing the rules of the game”.

You can apply to the upcoming EF cohort in Bengaluru here. The closing date is 30th January, 2022.