Entrepreneur First Thinks It Can Grab The Talent Long Before YC

The world of tech startup accelerators has become an ocean of choices. “Batches”, “programmes”, “mentor networks” are thrown around from one organisation to the other. What sets them apart has become difficult to define. Perhaps it’s geography, such as proximity to investors in a big city? Or perhaps its a programme in a vertical, like fashion or fintech?

Whatever it is, the sheer number of accelerators has started to pose a question: if, as some think, the best tech accelerator in the world is Y Combinator, does that mean everyone else is an ‘also-ran’. If you wanted to be incredibly harsh about it – does that mean every other accelerator is taking YC’s ‘rejects’, the ones who didn’t create Dropbox? So if you want to do acceleration, how can you be different? And how can you be successful?

Matt Clifford, co-founder with Alice Bentinck of Entrepreneur First, thinks the answer is “pre-acceleration”. Grab the talent before they have even worked out what startup they are going to do – pre-idea, pre-team. And that means hitting them early.

What would happen if you took university graduates and suggested they try entrepreneurship FIRST, before joining that bank or that big company?

Essentially, that’s Entrepreneur First’s idea.

There’s clearly a need. Smart graduates flood out of university with a choice – do a startup or (as is often the case often) get a high-flying job, such as in the world of finance or management consultancy.

But creating a startup from scratch with no experience is hard and their ideas can be flimsy.

Clifford says they therefore take people purely on talent, pre-team. They then spend 12 months allowing them to form teams, develop their ideas and get to the stage of creating an actual product/startup. His view is that there will be essentially two accelerators left in the world – YC and the few that manage to survive on investing in startups created by the people who didn’t take it into YC.

EF emphasises technical skills, product, speed and iteration. And it prefers people who had an attempt at a startup already, perhaps while at university.

EF – which is backed by private investors who are mostly in London – invests on similar terms as other accelerators, £20k for 8%. They mainly recruit in universities and this year are doubling from 30 to 60 people in their latest batch intake.

So far EF says it has helped create over 10 startups in each batch and says that those companies are now worth over $50 million. These include AdBrain (raised $7.5m), Echobox and Blaze bike lights.

Clearly EF is walking its talk. And now it’s expanding to draw in more applicants from Europe.

Can it take on YC? It looks like it won’t need to if it can grab the talent long before anyone has heard of YC.