Twice a year, the accelerator Entrepreneur First brings together around 100 talented strangers in London, helps them form companies together, and then guides them along to an investor Demo Day.
How the hell did that work in 2020?
"I expected it to be more different than it has been," said Jonny Clifford, who organizes EF's London initiative. That's saying something, because the six-month program kicked off within days of U.K. entering COVID-19 lockdown.
Yet over the course of five months, the participants still managed to found companies, and today they're (virtually) pitching for investment. In a series of conversations in July and September, Protocol spoke to three of the teams — decentralized machine learning company Gensyn, medical telephony company Empela, and women's contraception review platform The Lowdown — tracking how moods and attitudes shifted while building a company during COVID.
Perhaps the most obvious trend: Remote work might be productive, but it may not be the nirvana it once seemed.
Finding a partner
Unlike other accelerators, most people don't enter Entrepreneur First with an idea, or even a co-founder. Instead, the process is designed so that the first few weeks are spent getting to know other people, in the hopes that some of them will find a perfect match. This year, that process had to happen rather differently.
Well, for the most part. EF runs a kickoff weekend a couple of weeks before the program itself starts, and the dates this year fell so that it took place just before the U.K.'s lockdown orders kicked in. Of the three teams Protocol spoke to, two met at that weekend. "I'm very thankful that we actually got the face time before the program went fully remote," Empela's Christian Mellor said. The day after he met co-founder Will Nash, Mellor flew to Berlin, where he was based throughout the summer. "Will and I got the opportunity to build a rapport," he said.
The Lowdown didn't enjoy the same luxury. Its co-founder Alice Pelton was in the U.S. during the kickoff weekend, so she was forced to find a co-founder remotely — though she did have the advantage of having started The Lowdown before joining the program. "We both had lots of calls with different people," Pelton said, noting that it took a few weeks of searching to eventually find co-founder David Pratt. EF made an effort to encourage that kind of virtual networking, using tools like Donut to prompt spontaneous chats. On another platform, Clifford said, users "move around in a 2D space and speak to people."
But once people were connected, building relationships was still a lot of work. "We were just very conscious of over-communicating things, almost to a robotic extent," Pratt said. "We were making sure we were aligned, and I think that just created a lot of trust between us as well."
By and large, company-forming worked just as well online as off: Clifford said that typically, 80% of an EF cohort pair up; the remaining 20% leave the program. The results this time were perfectly in line: "80% of people have found someone they want to work with," Clifford said.
"The fact that we've only met three times is just crazy," Gensyn's Ben Fielding said.
He and co-founder Harry Grieve had known each other for 14 weeks by that point, and — aside from three long, socially distanced walks through London — had spent the entire time working remotely. "But the fact that it feels like it's more [than three times] probably shows that doing it via these tools is quite effective," Fielding said. "We spend basically all day on the phone to each other, so it feels like we've kind of spent all day in the office."
Grieve agreed, saying the company would be remote first going forward. That attitude was echoed by Empela's Nash, who said "remote companies are the future — that's where everything's headed." Nash said he went into EF preparing to build a remote-first company, something that the program typically doesn't like. "I saw that tension coming," he said. "In that way, it's been really good for me because I haven't had to have that conversation."
Empela and Gensyn's attitudes seem to be reflective of the cohort as a whole: Back in July, Clifford said less than a third of companies were "very keen" to return to the office.
The Lowdown, however, was one of those companies that approached remote work trepidatiously. "It's certainly not a style that I want to work in," Pelton said. "I'm a massive extrovert, so I get my energy from people." Pratt agreed, saying he'd found it difficult. But he said the process did have some benefits, forcing the two to over-communicate their intentions and make sure that they got to know each other properly. "Some of the things that may go unspoken, we initially spoke about," Pratt explained.
Siren call of the office
Just days after our first conversation in July, Pratt and Pelton moved into an office.
"We did it before we were allowed to" under U.K. lockdown rules, Pelton said. "I actually genuinely would rather get COVID and find out that I'm with the wrong co-founder than … I don't know what the other option is." Since being in an office, Pelton said she'd found working with Pratt much easier. "I'm reconnecting with parts of my personality that I've buried away," she said. It's easier to share ideas and get feedback, Pratt explained, when you can just turn your screen around.
Pelton said having an office is now seen as a benefit among young people, too, who ask if the company has one: "They're desperate to get out of the house."
Given their earlier reticence to remote work, The Lowdown's embrace of the office isn't surprising. More surprising is that both Gensyn and Empela seemed less bullish on remote work by September.
"Remote first is working and does work for us," Mellor said. "I wouldn't go as far as saying it will work forever." Nash agreed, saying that working remotely "teaches you about the value of working in person. … Having it taken away, you get an opportunity to think about, 'Why would I bother adding this back?' And you come up with some good reasons." In particular, the pair has found that in-person work offers "a lot more momentum and energy," Mellor said. "When we're ideating on something that is a bit more abstract, being in the same room gets us to the answer quicker."
For Gensyn, clients are the driving force behind getting an office: The company is primarily targeting financial services companies. "When we spoke with the financial sector at length, we realized that we're kind of in lockstep, to an extent, with what they're doing," Grieve said. "If they are on site, then we have to be on site." At the beginning of lockdown, Grieve thought companies would take much longer to go back to the office than they have done, pushing the company to get a central London office to be near those clients.
Still, neither Gensyn nor Empela is planning to go back to traditional working habits. "There's an expectation that people should be able to work more flexibly," Grieve said. Empela, which is still split between countries and wants to hire across Europe, plans to remain remote but with "minimum quarterly meetups," Nash said. "I suspect we will go to monthly one-day things, and then quarterly week retreats."
The Empela team was particularly grateful for starting off remote. For one, Mellor thinks it's made them better prepared to pitch to investors remotely. "It was an important skill set to build up over the last six months," he said. For Nash, it's added resilience, too. "Working from home does select for proactivity — which is a good thing to select for in startups."
Surprisingly, COVID doesn't seem to have caused many business problems for the EF cohort. Though Gensyn talked about budget freezes back in July, more often than not the companies cited COVID-linked opportunities, rather than threats.
Grieve said meetings were much easier to schedule now, thanks to a lower "marginal cost" — though he did note that it can be tricky to find out who the right stakeholder at a company is when you're having lots of one-to-ones, rather than big group meetings. Nash said that doctors are more open to ideas than they once were, making it easier to sell technology to them.
In fact, COVID actually helped Empela refine its product pitch. Originally, the team pitched doctors on a product that would automatically transcribe and summarize doctors' calls. "The doctor turns around and says, 'I can't even place enough phone calls, because we don't have enough phone lines,'" Mellor explained. Empela pivoted to making a basic telephony product that lets doctors click to dial patients, something that seems more urgent now than before.
The Lowdown, meanwhile, plans to take advantage of the commercial real estate crash. "We're quite excited about the idea of offering our users physical clinics," Pelton said. "The fact that rent is going to be quite cheap, if not free for a period, would help us get it off the ground."
Ahead of Demo Day, none of the founders was too worried about investment being hard to come by. "A few months ago, everyone was like 'the world is going to collapse, no one's going to invest in anything.' And let's just settle on the fact that it's the ninth of September, and investors are still going to work," Pelton said.
That optimism was the pervasive mood among everyone Protocol spoke to. And that's perhaps not surprising, given what it takes to start companies right now. "We believe that people that come through this process of building a company when it's probably the hardest time to build a company in the last five or 10 years [are] going to learn way more from coming out the other side," Clifford said.
That potentially sets them up for long-term success, even if things are tough in the short term. Building a company during COVID has required founders to be adaptable and proactive, both of which are valuable traits even in normal times.
"There's been one or two EF cohort members who have said to me, 'This is rubbish, EF promised us X, blah blah blah,' usually after a pint. I always want to say to them, 'There was this thing called COVID-19 … what were you expecting?'" Nash said. "It's our job to make the best of it. I think the best teams in EF have taken that attitude."