Lessons from running a start-up accelerator
A view from Alice Bentinck

Lessons from running a start-up accelerator

Technologists who want to start their own businesses should focus on coding and programming skills, while more women should be encouraged to work in a sector that has unlimited potential, writes Alice Bentinck.

I studied management at Nottingham University and got involved in start-ups there. But it was when I moved to McKinsey & Company, and began working with clients on thinking about how to use technology to help grow their businesses, that I realised how important it was.

While at McKinsey, I met my business partner, Matt Clifford, and decided that we would leave and launch a start-up together. I was about to sign a contract to join Google but decided to take the leap.

I always knew I wanted to start my own company. So, in 2011, we founded Entrepreneur First to help technologists create start-ups from scratch. We haven’t looked back since. While I’m immensely proud of what we have achieved with EF to date, there is still a long way to go.

We have certainly proven the model works and the businesses that we have helped create speak for themselves. Since we founded EF, we have worked with 200 individuals and built more than 50 start-ups, which have raised more than $60m (£42.4m) in venture capital from leading global investors.

Collectively, these start-ups are now worth more than $250m (£177m). EF was founded on the principle that the most ambitious people in the world should be founders. But starting a company is hard, and many young computer scientists are told that they can’t do it.

We disagree. Being able to build products using proprietary technology is something that few can do. The additional business skills that go with founding a company can be learned later.

My advice to young twenty-somethings is to harness technical skills. Coding and programming are creative skills that allow you to bring your ideas to life. In a few years, we will reach a point when these skills are as essential as maths and English.

Thousands of technologists apply to us each year and the competition is stiff. We look for individuals with technical talent and the desire to found a company and fulfil their potential. The majority of those on the EF programme have backgrounds in computer science and engineering.

My advice to young twenty-somethings is to harness technical skills. Coding and programming are creative skills that allow you to bring your ideas to life.

And while many of the technologists we work with have had experience building a product and shipping it, most are first-time founders. The technology industry is hugely exciting. It moves quickly and working in it means you are at the cutting edge of some of the most engaging and innovative things happening in the world today.

Female founders

From a personal point of view, I haven’t encountered discrimination against women in this industry. The challenge we face is getting more women into tech in the first place.

Technology remains a maledominated industry and this should change. At EF, we have made a massive effort to try to correct the gender imbalance. For example, if you look at computer science courses at university, about 16% of students are female.

For applications to EF citing the same subject, this rises to 20%. I set up Code First Girls, which offers technical training to professional women for this reason. It is a not-for-profit programme to teach women to code for free.

It’s not enough just to raise awareness. We need to make sure women are equipped with the skills required to become the founders of tech start-ups. Looking at the first group that went through Code First, more than half now identify themselves as "technical" or are working in software-development roles.

We are beginning to see some trickle-through, but it is an industry-wide problem we need to fix. We should all be doing more to encourage women to enter the tech sector.

There is no silver bullet to this but one thing that would certainly help is more positive press on the issue. Not enough of that message is getting across. Instead of how awful or complex it is to work in tech, the message should be how exciting it is, how great the opportunity is and how unlimited the potential can be.

Alice Bentinck is a co-founder at Entrepreneur First