The Creation Vocation
By Jaron Collis, EFLD9 Cohort Member, CTO @ Plural AI
Because creation is the true purpose of life. It is what living things do, they transform the chaos that surrounds them into order.
This is the story of six months spent building a deep tech company from scratch, as part of EF9, the 9th Entrepreneur First London cohort. But it’s also an exhortation, to answer your own inner calling, to utilise your own unique talents, and to have the courage to try building something marvellous. To create something no one else could.
I. Order from Disorder
The raw material of creativity is all around us. Imagine yourself on a beach, a beautiful strand of golden shore. Trillions of grains of sand lie beneath your toes, scattered and formless. You reach down and scoop up a handful, shaping it, giving it form as it fills the contours of your palm. You can feel the grains slowly trickling between your fingers, the sand falling to the beach, becoming formless once again.
Creativity requires effort. The natural state of things is disorder. Left to themselves, ink and paint exist as puddles, not poems and paintings.
So you kneel, and begin to push the sand around you into a mound. This does not collapse, or trickle away. And then suddenly you see it: a vision of what this rudimentary pile of golden powder could become. Something recognisable, something beautiful, something that did not exist before. Something that has never existed before, that will never ever exist again, unless you — the only one who’ll ever have that vision — creates it.
You fetch a bucket, paddling into the warm lapping tide to collect some seawater. You mix in some sand to create a muddy paste that can be shaped, allowing you to realise the complexities of your design. And slowly, deliberately, remarkably, you transform a billion sand grains into a sculpture. Perhaps it’s a statue, or a sandcastle, or the face of your lover, or simply an abstract arrangement of shapes that pleases your eye.
Creativity requires effort, because the sand will not arrange itself; it requires you. But sometimes the lone artist is not enough.
Sometimes you require a catalyst too.
II. The Spark
Almost exactly twelve months ago, an email arrived in my inbox from someone I’d never met before, inviting me to dinner.
It sounded sketchy, so I did some background checks. The email had come from an organisation called Entrepreneur First (EF). They sounded a bit like YCombinator, but in London. They’d won awards, and others seemed to speak highly of them. Their thesis was counter-intuitive, almost to the point of being bizarre: to build startups “pre-team, pre-idea”.
Building a startup is hard. Probably one of the hardest things you can do in your professional life. An undertaking to create a completely new business from scratch. Product, business model, customers, everything is uncertain. Everything needs to be improvised and hustled. All this on a shoestring budget.
And now EF was proposing that I embarked on this arduous struggle with a perfect stranger. With no preconceived idea of what we’d actually build.
It sounded crazy. But I was intrigued enough to accept the invitation. Looking back at my calendar, I now realise I travelled down to EF’s offices for that dinner on March 22nd 2017. It still astounds me to think of what I was doing exactly 365 days later.
That evening, I found myself milling through a group of about 20 highly educated individuals. Deep learning terminology filled the air. One of the first people I got chatting to was Jameel, and just look at where his own journey has taken him. Then EF’s co-founder Matt Clifford did a fireside chat, attempting to convince those in the audience to consider the precarious path of entrepreneurship, rather than the safe, perk-filled world offered by tech giants and investment banks.
Then we sat down to dinner, and in one of those little quirks of serendipity, I ended up sitting beside Victoria Nicholl, then a member of the team that curated EF’s admissions process. We spent the next hour talking about how EF worked, by the end, she’d introduced me to Zoe Jervier. Between them, they convinced me to apply.
I filled in the EF application form a couple of days later, and interviewed the following month. I was beside the beach at Looe in Cornwall, when Victoria called to say EF would like to offer me a place on the upcoming cohort, EF9. I looked out over the blank canvas of sand, disordered and patient, as if just waiting for a force to sculpt it. As the waves washed over the shore, I emailed my acceptance.
III. The Idea
“Pick the most ambitious idea you have”, Zefi advised me. “One that you know would fail, if you were anywhere else but here.”
It was a couple of months before EF9 officially started, and I’d arranged a half hour chat with Zefi, a senior member of the London team (and now running EF’s new cohort in Berlin). Zefi convinced me to choose the most ambitious project I could imagine. The mentorship of the EF process would be the magic ingredient, turning an idea that would otherwise be certain to fail, into something that might just work.
“If you’re certain an idea would work, you don’t need to be here.”
It was probably the most influential piece of advice I received. To be excessively ambitious. To go beyond the comfort zone of your capabilities. What would you attempt, if it didn’t matter if you failed?
EF was paying everyone in the cohort a stipend to cover our living expenses, so we wouldn’t even be out of pocket. This was a one-off opportunity, the chance to do something as daring as we could imagine, and be paid for it. The only risk was not being ambitious enough.
I told Zefi about the idea that had started to dominate my thoughts. A hazy vision of an army of automated workers. Limitless labour. He didn’t criticise it. He merely smiled and said “Sounds great.”
Looking back, our chat brought to mind Terry Winograd’s advice to his student, Larry Page. That a great mentor should encourage the exploration of ambitious ideas, not torpedo them. Because you never quite know what might happen when you run the experiment.
A couple of weeks later, about 50 of the upcoming cohort assembled in a car park in Hammersmith. Name badges were dispensed and introductions made, as we boarded a pair of coaches to take us west. Our destination was an old boarding school in the Malvern hills. We were to spend the weekend there, getting to know each other, taking a crash course in startup fundamentals, and refining our own ideas.
I talked to every one of the cohort during our weekend away, and over time, noticed two distinct kinds of conversations. Some were motivated by what they perceived as an emerging opportunity, whilst others were motivated by an intrinsic passion. The latter proved far more interesting to talk to, and were the people who ultimately formed successful companies. Those motivated by opportunity mostly failed to go the distance. Because when the going got tough, they found their hearts just weren’t in it.
A crucial moment for me was the time when we assembled in a grand circle facing each other, and were challenged with the question: “What do you believe, that most others would disagree with?”
It’s a question that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Peter Thiel’s contrarian classic Zero To One. By the time it was my turn to step forward, an answer had crystallised in my mind. But now, it had a succinct, compelling clarity.
“I believe work is for machines.”
That was it. My own manifesto. An unsolved problem. One worth solving. Worth the dedication of a lifetime. Six words that might rally fellow believers to the cause.
By now we all knew that within this diverse highly talented crowd of strangers, was a co-founder who’d help realise our vision. It felt like we were each holders of a fractured enchanted amulet, seeking that complementary piece that would be unleash a special magic. Little did I know at the time that the holder of the missing piece of my amulet wasn’t even in the room.
The dedication stone of the West India Docks, Canary Wharf. From an age when an entrepreneurial voyage meant real ships and life-threatening risks.
IV. A Meeting of Strangers
EF9 officially began on October 2nd, 2017. Conversations had continued amongst ourselves in the six weeks since the away weekend. I’d been working full-time on my idea, prototyping some code, and even doing some preliminary customer discovery interviews, gathering insights from friends and contacts who worked in financial services and the law. Some teams had already begun to form, but most people were yet to firmly commit.
For me, the pivotal moment on the first day was a session where all 85 of us stood before the group to talk for 30 seconds on what they wanted to build, and what they were looking for in a co-founder.
I was particularly impressed by the conviction of Jiameng and Ross. I’d known them both for months now, having met up on previous small-scale get-togethers. Their convictions never wavered, both were absolutely certain what they wanted to do, and could now express their vision with a compelling clarity. It was no surprise to me that both were to found tremendous teams.
For others, describing what they were looking for was more difficult, but the sharing culture within the cohort meant it was never an insurmountable problem. Uncertainty was embraced, and experimentation encouraged. Many of those who were initially hazy on what they wanted to achieve ultimately went on to form awesome teams, honing their vision in a succession of deep conversations with some absurdly talented people.
My advice to future cohorts is to at least have an idea of what you want to achieve. It’s fine if you don’t yet quite know how you’ll actually achieve it. That’s why you have a co-founder.
As for me, I knew what I wanted to say, having scribbled it down in my notebook a few days earlier.
“Hi! I’m Jaron, I’m an AI PhD. And I passionately believe work is for machines.”
“I believe that people work too much, and waste their time on mundane, unfulfilling tasks.”
“I want to change that. To put AI at the service of the many, and create an on-demand agent workforce. Just imagine what you could achieve if there were 10 of you. Or 100…”
“If you believe in creating an automation revolution too, we should talk!”
And that was it, I sat down to listen to the other pitches. A few minutes later, Camille addressed the room, and began talking about how the financial services world she’d come from was a painful struggle to find the right information. My ears pricked up when she mentioned the word ‘automation’. I scribbled her name down in my notebook, adding her to my shortlist of those who seemed most aligned with my own intentions.
I hadn’t previously talked to Camille, a late admission to the cohort, part of a surge of new entrants who applied late following the high-profile announcement that Reid Hoffman was joining EF’s board. As a result, she hadn’t attended the away weekend, but by chance, we ended up standing beside each other later that afternoon as we waited for dinner to start. We started chatting, and it was soon very clear that we each held the missing piece of the other’s puzzle.
So much success in life is due to little quirks of serendipity. The gap between events allowed us time to talk, and then we walked over to where the group dinner was taking place. It was natural to continue talking, so we sat in adjacent seats and our conversation took up the rest of the evening. By the time we’d finished dessert, it was clear that Camille knew all about the problem, who’d pay for it and how to create a viable business, and I knew the technology that would enable us to build a solution.
We agreed to continue working on the plan the following day. We’d made such good progress that by Wednesday, we were confident enough to be among the first pairs to found a team. In a company’s lifetime, you’ll never make a more important decision than your choice of co-founder. It was easily the best decision I made during my time in the cohort.
V. Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
Yet forming a team with Camille came as a surprise to me, because I’d always assumed I’d establish a team with a fellow technical co-founder. A Page and Brin style dream team to share the burden of building something complex. But in retrospect, that was rather naive. Even in a deep-tech startup, only half of the complexity is in the technology. You must also create a viable business. Customers, contracts, commercials, capital — just because they don’t have an API doesn’t mean they’re any less complicated, or any less important.
One of you needs to be able to speak your customers’ language, to understand their world, why it works that way now, and how it might be bettered. You can’t just expect a couple of PhDs to waltz into a client’s offices to a round of applause. Real life isn’t Ghostbusters.
Keeping an open mind, and being aware there’s more to a successful startup than technology expertise is the best piece of advice I could give to a founder with a technical background. Resist the temptation to find the best engineer or the most brilliant scientific mind. That’s your role to fill. Or your first hire. Find instead someone who has the skills you lack, and which you won’t have time to develop. Form a team that will be insanely productive from day one. Complementary skills characterise every successful startup I know.
We spent the next 3 months working at a crazy, intense pace. Not just refining our proposition, but building a product and securing our first paying customer. A month after founding the team we incorporated our company. And Plural AI was born.
Looking back on our original vision, I can now appreciate how much it was continually refined and polished through customer feedback and some superbly insightful conversations with EF’s in-house experts. Programme director Alex Diaz had warned us as much in his very first presentation. Your brilliant idea is wrong. It will change. He was right. But in its place will be something far, far better.
Have strong opinions, but weakly held. Be aware enough to adapt and evolve in the light of new evidence. Feynman put it most brilliantly: nature cannot be fooled. If you’re wrong, you’ll never succeed by insisting you’re right.
We went before EF’s investment committee early in the new year, confident we had the ingredients to be a investable business. We’d secured good traction, and proof the problem we’d identified was both real and immensely valuable. We had an exceptional team with every capability we needed already in-house. And we could present a credible vision of how big our company could grow.
But you’ll forgive me if I keep some secrets under our hat.
EF decided to invest in us, and ever since we’ve been working feverishly to deliver our vision. Rapidly moving from proof-of-concept to what can be a truly scalable product, and engineering solutions to challenging problems few others seem to have ever attempted.
On the 22nd of March, 2018, one year to the day of my first encounter with EF. Camille presented our vision at demo day, skillfully distilling the essence of six months of intensely hard work into three and a half marvellous minutes.
It was a real privilege to see the teams of those I now consider friends present their work. I can remember how all the ideas that now sound so brilliantly compelling were once speculative, nebulous and uncertain. Such is the enthralling adventure of entrepreneurship.
And for us, it’s a voyage that is only just beginning.
VI. The Call to Adventure
I wrote this article for several reasons.
I wanted to commit my memories of EF9 to writing, before they faded, or were overwritten by vivid sparkle of new experiences. As the faintest ink outlives even the strongest memories.
I also wanted to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone on the EF team, who really are a wonderful bunch. To recruit, orchestrate and guide a group of so many highly ambitious individuals must be remarkably hard. But they manage it through skill, patience and good humour. Their hard work did not go unnoticed, and I’m profoundly grateful to every one of you.
And finally, I also wanted to write a call to adventure for anyone reading this who’s ever found themselves pondering that timeless existential question of purpose: why am I here? How do I best use my talents?
Put simply: if you want to change the world, there’s no better way of doing it than starting a company. Publishing papers on rocket engines won’t, by itself, get you to Mars. Real impact comes from executing ideas.
Matt Clifford is right when he says the world is missing out on its best founders. They’re hoovered up by big corporations — how tragic that our generation’s smartest minds spend their days working out how to sell more display advertising.
Yet the world is full of difficult, potentially life-changing problems. It yearns for the audacity of modern day Argonauts. Those with the skill and courage to build a new ship, bring together a crew and embark on an uncertain voyage.
Each of us possesses an extraordinary gift. An imagination of stunning power and subtlety. Spend your existence making things of beauty and ingenuity. In whatever medium your talents lie, be it in words, or paint, or sound, or code. Or in the people you surround yourself with, the communities you build.
Create, and encourage others to create.
Because creation is the true meaning of life.