#11 Current Cohort Member Jake Woodhouse on his First Six Weeks at EF
By Nasos Papadopoulos, EF Head of Content
Jake Woodhouse is a member of the current EFLD10 cohort. Up to this point on the podcast I’ve spoken to EF Co-Founders Matt Clifford and Alice Bentinck as well as the founders of some of EF’s most exciting companies.
But who better to speak to get a flavour of what EF actually does than someone in the middle of the current cohort in London – and that’s exactly what today’s episode with Jake is all about.
Jake studied Management at University before working in the shipping industry for several years as a broker. He then developed an interest in startups, pursuing deals as an angel investor and launching his own energy tech startup before joining EF’s tenth London cohort that started at the beginning of April 2018.
In this episode Jake and I discuss:
- The initial experiences of the EF cohort at the program’s kick off weekend
- The co-founder dating process on the program and the importance of having tough conversations
- Jake’s insights into the balance between theory and practice in entrepreneurship
This was a great first hand insight into the EF experience and what it’s actually like to be on the cohort, so you’ll definitely get an understanding of the mechanics of the EF process and some great insights into everything from finding a co-founder to developing a product.
Why I Decided to Become an Entrepreneur
My First Days on the EF Cohort
How I Started Looking for My Co-Founder on EF
Dealing with Rejection and Breakups on EF
Nasos: Jake, welcome to the show.
Jake: Thank you very much. Cheers for having me here.
Nasos: [00:03:00] it’s a pleasure to have you on. I’m excited to have someone from the current EF 10 cohort to share their experiences. So, I think the most relevant place to start as a jumping off point would be when you first got introduced to the rest of the cohort. So, talk to me about the bus going to kickoff weekend.
Jake: [00:03:30] Very happily. You don't really know what you're about to step into at all. You know there's going to be maybe 100 people there from about 8 o’clock in the morning outside the Hammersmith Apollo, waiting for this bus to arrive, there's just a sea of people. There are a few EF organizers walking around with some clipboards, and you're saying, I’d better talk to them first. You get right to the other side and you're saying, “Oh god, look at all these people I've never met before.” Weirdly enough, of the first two people I met, one of them I am now working with - Cam. We met within about five minutes of standing in the queue for having a similar surname.
[00:04:00] It's extremely overwhelming. You're standing, waiting for the bus to arrive. The bus arrives, and it's complete potluck as to who you're going to sit next to. I think it was 8 AM Saturday morning until 6 PM Monday on the three-day weekend trip. You don't really draw a breath, but it was probably the most intense social scenario I've ever been in, in my life. It was exhausting, I was so tired by the end. But I met an eclectic group of people I'd ever met in my life. It was fascinating.
Nasos: [00:04:30] What was the experience like on kickoff weekend? Is everybody trying to suss each other out from an early stage? Were you actively starting to look for a co-founder? Because of course, the context is come and get to know each other, but inevitably people are going to have the end in mind. This is what people are here to do. They're here to build a game-changing company. That's definitely on the brain. So, talk to me a little bit about the dynamic.
Jake: [00:05:00] Frankly, I just didn't realize the size of the opportunity I was walking into until I got there. So, never before had I spent so much time in a room with the kind of backgrounds that people had, from all across the world. It was incredible. With that in mind, you're saying, “Okay, crap, I've actually got to start a company. How am I going to do this?”
[00:05:30] Your elevator pitch goes from a five-minute windy spiel down to about 30 seconds. Name, where you grew up, what you were doing, and if you have an idea, what is it? Within 30 seconds, you're having in-depth discussions about microeconomic scenarios or for the first time, listening to people designing tech products, which for me was completely new. It was really fascinating.
Nasos: Moving beyond kickoff weekend, there's a gap between that and the start of the program. What was the continuation of conversations like in that period?
Jake: [00:06:00] You've got 100 people on this cohort. That's 99 people you can call up. Now, really, you need to have a chat for an hour to get any idea of what they've really done. I tried to contact as many people as possible. At this stage, I was a bit of a headless chicken. I was thinking, “Who's my co-founder? I have literally no idea.”
[00:06:30] You've got a few profiles to look through, and you haven't been given the quite precise theoretical start-up advice yet that EF gives you once you enter. Therefore, I ended up speaking to lots of people who were never going to be my co-founder because of a noncomplementary skillset. You can have a great chat with anyone, basically. I approached and probably touched base with about 40 people in between the kickoff weekend and the start of form. During that time, there were some extra phone calls, a coffee, a lunch or a beer. You get to learn people's stories.
Nasos: [00:07:00] After that period, you start kickoff week. What do you do when you walk in the room again, and there's all the people that you've contacted over that break? There are obviously some people who are at the top of your mind. I'd be interested to know how many there were top of mind for you - who you were thinking, these are very good candidates for a co-founder. What do you do next?
Jake: [00:07:30] It's so tough. The prerequisites I'd set myself in terms of starting EF was a high-powered ethic that I wanted to follow, which is whatever project I'm involved in had to have an environmentally sustainable angle to it. If someone wasn't willing to pursue that dream, then I was just not interested in co-founding with them. That's been one of the most interesting discoveries over the last six or seven weeks now.
[00:08:00] I come from a completely different background to that, in the shipping business. I was helping to move fossil fuels around the world. It sounds like a real pivot in my own career, and it certainly has been. But the premise that I was able to start a company on a subject that I didn't know enough about, quite quickly became very clear that I couldn't do that. So, frustratingly, I've had to move slightly away from that.
[00:08:30] You also have to recognize that I can't build anything. I'm not a software developer. I don't come from a technological background. Therefore, your co-founder has to be someone like that, from my perspective. You can basically strike 50 names off the list almost immediately as to someone you're not going to co-found with. Funnily enough, you're in conversations with people and you walk into the room for the first time, you're thinking, “Whoa. What are we going to do here?” You're having a great chat with someone, and then you find out what their background is. You're thinking, “We're the same.” You have this great chat and it goes on for a while, you hear all about their life and what they want to do. You're thinking, “Wow, I could start a company with this person.” And then you're thinking, “Well, actually, no, because we'd just end up talking all day long and not building anything. So that won't work at all.”
[00:09:00] I don't know if I was super strategic about who I wanted to work with on the basis of this change in thought process I've had to go through. In the first 10 days, it's just manic. It's chaos. Everyone's saying, “I'm co-founding with this person. I'm co-founding with that person.” And I'm saying, “I'm not diving in yet. I'm not ready.” That rhetoric was like a self-defence mechanism.
[00:09:30] I got really intrigued in possibly working with two people. I'm not going to mention any names, but in both cases, I'd sent a soppy message, basically saying I thought last night's chat was really great and that I'd be really keen to follow up. Let me know how you get on. You then get sat down the next day and they say, “I'm going to go and work with this other person, I'm going be really straightforward to you about it.” You're saying, “It's fine.” But deep down, you're thinking, oh. That really hurts.
Nasos: [00:10:00] The pang of rejection.
Jake: Exactly that. It’s like being on a dance floor when you're 16. That was a really, really strange feeling. So fast forward to the second week, and Cam and I had been chatting away.
[00:10:30] I was talking about the shipping market and how I used to be involved in putting deals together between charters of cargo and vessel owners, and the very macro picture that you gain as a result of being a broker in that market. I was in Singapore for five years and I learned a lot about international trade and what drives our economies. I think that he was intrigued to learn about this, coming from a Fintech background and a computer science degree. He was also talking to multiple people. I can't quite remember what happened as to the moment when we suddenly realized we should try and co-found.
[00:11:00] At the time, you're told the statistic is 2.4 people per cohort member is the average amount of co-founders you'll have. So I was thinking, “Well mate, should we just have a crack? Because the likelihood of this coming off is pretty low.”
[00:11:30] Here we are six weeks later, and we are still working together. We've got another two weeks after this. It may all still go wrong, so then, come around to the whole process of the slight desensitization that EF goes great lengths to provide for these difficult conversations you have with people where you've got to let them down. You have to do it politely, but also be aggressive. Just like that, we're done. And move on. With that in mind, it has been a fantastic process for throwing yourself into something, because you would actually be too standoffish about things, or equally, you've got into a scenario that you're not interested in being in. The long answer to have was the first week. But it's absolute chaos.
Nasos: [00:12:00] There's a notion of experience in there. It's perfectly understandable. How have you been getting a sense of the scale of what you're working on? Obviously, the big idea at EF is that you're building something that's globally ambitious. At the early stages, that must be really hard to actually get a feel for, whether what you're doing is sort of A) feasible, but B) also globally ambitious. How have you and Cam been managing the process of figuring that all out?
Jake: [00:12:30] He's better than me, for sure. If he says this isn't big enough, we move on. The whole globally ambitious thing is quite funny, though. You're sat there in the first week, you're thinking, “I don't have a clue what I'm going to do.” Someone says, “Be globally ambitious.” And you're thinking, “Pfft. Whatever mate.” It was just repeated again and again and again. You feel like you are being kind of brainwashed. You're like, “Wow, what does being globally ambitious even mean?”
[00:13:00] So, it's incredibly difficult to quantify the stories of technology companies that have risen to multi-billion-dollar businesses. But frankly, how you get there is a minefield. Of course, we're at the very earliest of stages. One thing I've personally found really interesting is trying to take a view as to what's going to be going on in 10 years' time. How will the shipping business look in 10 years from today? With that goal in mind, let's trace back to where we are today and what steps we can go through to get to that future.
[00:13:30] Trying to organize our thoughts into what might be a deliverable product we can supply today to the existing market to then carry out all the steps that we've mapped out. That's a really, really interesting process, and has been just one of many theories that has been fascinating to learn about at EF. One of the things I was thinking of mentioning before coming on the show today, was that two years ago, if you'd said to me I'd be sitting in a tech accelerator and working on a tech start-up, I would've thought you're completely and utterly crazy. And now, here I am. It's been fascinating.
Nasos: [00:14:00] You mentioned the process and how it's been unfolding as being almost something that's impossible to maneuver strategically in some instances. It seems pretty chaotic. Interspersed between the chaos, there have been contact points between you, the cohort, and EF, where they've introduced some theory and some ideas. You definitely don't have to say that it's been useful. I'm fascinated, though, to know how useful have those modules, the kind of theoretical aspects of entrepreneurship, been to give you sort of checkpoints?
Jake: [00:14:30] Some of it is, “Whatever. That's the most boring thing I've ever read in my life.” I've got my audiobook going and you're on the tube and you're thinking, “This is just drivel.” You force yourself to listen to it and still you're thinking, “I don't know what that means.” But some of it has equally been very important.
[00:15:00] I was involved in a project at the start of this year that I co-founded in December, and it frankly hasn't gone very well. We didn't ever make any money, and we were applying for a government grant to move the business forward. Some of the hallmarks of the problems we had there are, for example, that one co-founder is working full-time and the other isn't. The vision of the company is perhaps not fully aligned long-term. The skills that are required to get that vision up and running weren't in the co-founding team, specifically in myself.
[00:15:30] I was trying to work in energy tech, having previously been a ship broker. I didn’t have the base knowledge and network to really make that business flourish. Now, whatever happens with that company, I have learned lessons from it that I would not have learned had I not come into EF. What I now see as a totally obvious way of how you should start a company, we didn't know before. We made a lot of mistakes. I will still make many, many more to come.
[00:16:00] Some of the best theories are simply in the co-founding team. You need a combination of analytical, engineering, and product vision skills, with business development acumen, hiring and moral support. Learning that, was such an obvious thing to say. That's so, so true. What have been some of the other ones that have been great? The fierce conversations but, just get on with it. Tell someone how it is and move on. It's not a big deal. We're all here to try and start a company. It's going to be difficult. If you're not up for it, well, the door's over there. You know how simple it is.
[00:16:30] I'm trying to think of some other ones. The mum test. That is the most awesome thing of all of them. It's such an obvious piece of theory in hindsight. The amount of bad business ideas that people have spent time trying to build, along with raising finance and all the people that would have been let down on the back of it.
[00:17:00] If you don't use the theories that the book explains, that's the kind of passive questioning of potential customers. You say, “Hi, mum, I've got this great business idea. Will you listen to me?” And they say, “Sure, okay, fine. You know, get off my back, I'm not interested.” Entertaining some terrible idea for a product they'll never buy, but because you feel bad and you want to make them feel good, you'll say, “Yeah, sure, I'd buy that.” The start-up entrepreneur is saying, “That's gratification, this is a good idea, let's go and do it.” The person that you think is your first customer is in their head going, “I would never buy that.”
[00:17:30] Re-applying that to real world scenarios has been interesting, because what comes back is not what you expect. We've already thought about five viable business ideas to get to the future that we're looking at, and they've been struck off the list for all sorts of reasons. Actual life conversations that we've had with people in the market have made us realize we were wrong.
[00:18:00] If we weren't using those kinds of techniques and you didn't have the right co-founding team, it would be even more difficult than it already is. I valued it massively, and I'm hoping that when I finish at the cohort, depending on what happens with the company, you'd have something to value yourself with and offer to other start-up companies. In terms of trying to move away from being a broker and move into the start-up space in the next 10 years alone will be a valuable process.
Nasos: [00:18:30] Let's cycle back to the pre-application stage and your experience. So, you went out of uni. What happened next? Give me a quick rundown of how you ended up becoming interested in start-ups, building one yourself, and doing a bit of angel investing as well.
Jake: I grew up on the south coast of the UK, I went to business school in Leeds. I finished back in 2011. Leaving Uni, the normal “Who am I?” problem that most graduates have, you're juggling jobs in about five or six different markets if you can get near one.
[00:19:00] I ended up getting a role, funnily actually, it was a sliding doors moment. The first role I was accepted for was an unpaid internship for an off-grid solar company up in Shoreditch. I was about to start that when I got a call from a shipping company that I'd contacted months and months before with a broking job, a junior broker role. I ended up going to work for the shipping company, and because they’re so internationally recognized, they're going to pay your salary.
[00:19:30] Contrary to my interests in green technology, I went to work with a shipping company who were helping to move coal and iron all around the world. It couldn't really be more different. I spent a year or so in London doing that, and then got an opportunity to move to Singapore. So, in 2012, I moved there and spent four and a half years working for a company called Arrow on their cape sized desk. So, you're the middleman between big mining companies like Anglo American and Rio Tinto.
[00:20:00] They are large shipping companies, so their vessels are 300 meters long, 50 meters wide. They carry 180,000 tons of iron ore in one load, or 150,000 tons of coal, predominantly to go to China for steel mills. Steel in the automobile industry, in any kind of roads, hospitals and airports. Coal is, of course, the main electricity source, and still is today.
[00:20:30] After four or five years of doing that, the process of being away from my family for a long time and traveling back and forth from Asia, I was ready for a new opportunity. I didn't love my role as a ship broker enough to warrant moving to another company to be a competitor to my previous team, to commit to another five years in Asia. I decided on moving back to England.
[00:21:00] I took some time off, a few months traveling, and then back in London about a year ago, I started looking for a new project. It's a combination of a few things. Slightly sad story, my father passed away about 10 years ago now. We sold his house at the time. I was able to get some capital, and I was thinking, maybe I can work for myself. That's the aim. You don't want to work for a broking company forever. You can have a very nice life doing that, but frankly, in 10 years' time, the upside is only as good as the market is. It's only that bonus every year.
[00:21:30] I wanted to work for myself, great. So off I went. My CV said ship broker. I went to a green technology company, I said, “I want get into the green tech, let's go.” They said, “No interest, mate. No interest, mate.” I felt like I was back at Uni again. I said, “Oh my god, I don't know who I am. This is like being a graduate again with the CV going to people and all the rest of it, six or seven years has gone by. What the hell's going on?”
[00:22:00] I thought, let's have a crack at this whole angel investing thing. I read a book called Angel by Jason Calacanis. It said how to turn 100 grand into 100 million. If I can get anywhere near to what he's done, then maybe that's not a bad idea. I started going to networking events, spent a lot of time at Imperial College looking for green technologies that were in a start-up phase and really get into grips with what it means to get a prototype out of the basement of a lab and into a market, where it's manufactured at scale and is cost-effective against existing fossil fuels. It's really tough. It takes a huge amount of capital and time.
[00:22:30] I started building out the network and did some more reading around what I was supposed to be doing. You're looking for a product, a team, a market, a potential exit. I employed a few people to help me analyze the pitch decks I was getting. I think I looked at 40 or 50 companies with the intention of being solo angel into their dreams.
[00:23:00] I was completely inexperienced. You're not an analyst from a financial background, but you reckon you can have a crack. Luckily, I realized that I was fighting a pretty foolish game. I didn’t actually make a single investment over a six to eight-month period.
[00:23:30] I have only just done so in the last month, and even then it was very small amounts through a syndicate that I've met that helped do all the due diligence, get the shareholder agreements together and have a look at the legal aspect of everything. Plus, who were their customers? Go out and talk to them. Check the start-ups actually doing what they say they're doing. During that process, I met entrepreneurs for the first time. You're saying, “Hang on a second. What's going on here? This is an interesting job.” My reasoning to start as an entrepreneur was, to be a good investor, you need to understand what it's like to be an entrepreneur in and of itself.
[00:24:00] Therefore, I needed to be an entrepreneur. I'd also had some problems where decent entrepreneurs and decent start-ups that I found weren't interested in working with me because I didn't represent smart money. I didn't represent someone with a book of contacts in the green energy business who was going to help that company to the next step.
[00:24:30] So I needed to be an entrepreneur. During that shift in thought process, I'd come across EF. Before, I was thinking, “It's six months away, whatever. I'll apply, but I want to start a company anyway, so let's go.” I mentioned this energy tech company that I got going, and all the problems that we had there. But roughly speaking, I came through the broking business, got back to London, and through the attempted angel investing I was doing, I learned about entrepreneurs. Through that, I wanted to do it myself.
Nasos: [00:25:00] It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the doubts going through your mind when it was a slightly unique situation given the fact that you'd been doing a little bit of angel investing and getting close to the entrepreneurs. But I still imagine, there must have been a few doubts about jumping in and doing it yourself. What, if anything, was holding you back, or was making you think twice about it?
Jake: Good question. Thinking twice, of course, is the reliance on an income to live on. You know that you're not going to make a great salary from an early stage company as an employee or equally, as a founder.
[00:25:30] That's one of the main hurdles that you've got to get by, and of course EF gives you some stipend to get through, which is a big factor in aiding this process of starting companies. To be honest, I haven't seen it as that big of a challenge switching from trying to be an angel investor into being an entrepreneur, just on the basis that I know that it's what I have to do first. I had this target angel investing, green tech. The first question was, “Does this company envision a low-carbon economy?” If it's yes, carry on looking at it. It's a noble reason to invest in a company, but it doesn't make the company that you're looking at any good.
[00:26:00] I think it's an interesting nuance to have as an entrepreneur now looking at getting funding for the idea you have, knowing the depth of the due diligence that people put into potentially investing, and how good we're going to have to be to get to that stage. I've enjoyed both so far. It's very different to my last job.
[00:26:30] I've taken the decision that, for a few years, this is where I want to search for some upside, and I'm convinced that in the next 10 years, this will be the way to be successful rather than working for a big corporation.
Nasos: Well, it sounds like that's the case, Jake. I think I could definitely spend much longer sitting here, drawing out all of the gossip about the cohort from you.
Jake: There's none, there's none.
Nasos: [00:27:00] In the interest of time, let's finish up with just a couple of final thoughts from you. What advice would you give to someone who is on the fence about applying to the EF process?
Jake: Just get on and do it. Why not? You've got nothing to lose.
Nasos: Once they're on, any advice about navigating the chaos that is the early stages of finding a co-founder?
Jake: Ask me that in six weeks' time, if I've got funding.
Nasos: I'll come back and do that. Jake, maybe we can do an episode soon. Thanks a lot for coming on the show.
Jake: Thank you very much. Cheers for having me. Thank you.