Interview: Zoe Jervier @ Entrepreneur First

This week I spoke to Zoe Jervier, Director of Global Talent Acquisition at Entrepreneur First. Entrepreneur First takes individuals and over a 6 month period turns them into VC backed businesses. Although Learnitect is not backed by EF, I was on their programme 6 months ago, and a lot of the thinking that culminated in Learnitect happened in the creative environment they nurture.

Ed: Where do you find people with the potential to build a world changing business?

Zoe: EF looks for unconventional talent in unconventional ways, but has some conventional talent challenges. We invest heavily in scouting high potential people both online and offline, and 80% of team’s time is spent identifying. Founding a business is not a normal or default career path for the most ambitious people, so we need to go to them, rather than wait for them to come to us.

We’ve realised that timing is very important, so the first step is to work out whether someone should be joining EF now or later when they are more skilled and committed to the idea. We select up to 100 potential founders every six months, but some people won’t be ready to found a business for 2-3 years, and we’re investing more and more in our long term prospects.

Referrals from previous cohort members tend to be our highest quality prospects. Ambitious, highly talented people tend to hang out with other like minded people, and our alumni community is pretty good at referring people. Increasingly we’re shifting from asking “who do you know who wants to build a company?” to “who are the smartest, most ambitious people you know?”. We invest pretty heavily in generating referrals from our community through making it an important part of our culture. Companies like Stripe have done this pretty well, over half of their hires come from employee referrals

Ed: How do you screen for potential? What are the qualities that you're looking for and how do you test for them?

Zoe: We screen for potential over experience, and know from analysing the success of previous cohorts that some characteristics are essential:

  • Raw ambition: how big does the person think?

  • Resilience: do they persevere in the face of setbacks?

  • Commitment: are they ready to start a company now?

We also look for Edge - a distinct knowledge or skillset spike. This is something we help candidates articulate throughout the recruiting process and into the programme, and is helpful in guiding them on what they should be working on. All of these qualities we test through multiple rounds of interviews, as well as tracking their overall engagement in the process.

Ed: What has changed since EF started out? How do you measure and improve on your recruiting and development of potential entrepreneurs?

Zoe: One of the best things we did was invest in building an in-house tech team - we now have one of the largest and most comprehensive datasets on founders before they’re founders. This supercharged the insights and hunches that the team had, and we’re now data obsessed as a talent team. We like to think we're more data-driven than most recruiting teams - we apply lots analytical practices used by the best sales teams. We're obsessed with tracking data points which improve our funnel and it's lead to improvements across the board: better recruiting channels, better questions during screening, better team formation frameworks… Rigorous analysis of the data can lead to surprising results. One US company has optimised its recruiting funnel by doing 3 reference calls before even contacting candidates. It seems crazy, but it works for them.

Another big shift has been expanding our search, from targeting solely undergraduates to technologists and domain specialists in industry. Building the EF brand amongst our target audience was hugely important in the first couple of years. The connection with McKinsey gave EF credibility in the first years, but from year 3 we realised that we wanted to appeal to a more technical audience. McKinsey didn’t have as much sway with this group, and when we talked about entrepreneurship they had associations with Dragon’s Den and Alan Sugar, that weren’t appealing to them. We switched to talking about being a “founder”, and making an impact by working on really hard problems, and then things started to change.

Getting in front of people was still a challenge. We’d often get referred to business departments and had to sneak into hackathons to speak to people about their careers. We were running a lot of large scale events, but they didn’t seem as effective as some of our higher touch events. Most of the time this involved going bottom up through student societies. We now have a Student Partner programme in place to engage even more future founders on campus. Our Student Partners are key members of the EF community and we offer them career coaching, access to our portfolio companies and invitations to internal EF events like Demo Day.

Ed: What support do you give to businesses coming out of EF on the talent / people side?

Zoe: Most companies need to hire aggressively as soon as they are funded, so the most important thing I do is help them adopt the recruiting mindset from Day 1. Attracting high-quality talent is the most important business activity for them at this stage - they always need to be building pipelines of talent to hire. Most of our founders haven’t recruited teams before EF, so I run a workshop on building your first pipeline and making your first hire. Referrals are generally the best way to get going, but we’re always careful to mention the effect this can have on the diversity of your team later down the line, as otherwise it can become a problem. It’s very easy to find yourself sitting in a team with ten other people who look just like you if you hire unconsciously.

Ed: You were just in the US at a talent conference. What are the big trends that you see happening at the moment?

Zoe: I think a lot of recruiting teams have realised the power of investing in long term talent pipelining. Large companies have been doing this for a while, but it’s starting to filter through to startups now as well - the competition for talent is so difficult that you’ve got to do this. Just as we are cultivating relationships for years with some of our founders before they join EF, startups are building relationships a long way ahead of hiring people.

Executive-level coaching looks very likely to become a more mainstream perk for employees. This is distinctive from mentorship, which is where I transfer my knowledge to you, so you can do your job better, and can be set up internally. Coaching is around personal development, and is about helping the individual get better where they want to. This doesn’t need to be someone as senior as the person being coached, but usually it does need to be external, and it’s typically more valuable to individuals.

Finally, there’s an ongoing discussion about how to retain talent. More and more people have entrepreneurial desires, and no one has worked out how to retain those people. Companies like Google have experimented with things like “20% time”, and this helped create a more entrepreneurial environment, but companies seem to be cracking down time allowances such as this, as well as on IP ownership. To give people autonomy you can put them on the right projects internally, but to give them true emotional and financial ownership you may need to carve out a path for them to part ways with the company on good terms. If done right it can be a great thing - we’ve had many founders at EF who build business relationships with their former employers.

More information on Entrepreneur First and connect with Zoe Jervier.

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