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.

Zoe Jervier

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Interview: David James @ Looop

This week I spoke to David James, who was at Disney 8 years, leading first the UK L&D department before becoming Director for L&D across EMEA, and now is a Digital Learning Strategist for Looop (we’ve mentioned them a couple of times before, as they supply the platform for ASOS and Learnitect’s digital content).

David James

You spent 8 years at Disney in various L&D roles. How does Disney handle L&D? What can other companies learn from it?

I loved my time at Disney. Although, there’s a misconception that Disney is a fun place to work. It’s challenging. Disney attracts smart, driven people and expectations are high. But it was incredible. Most noticeable is the complexity of the business. You’ve got the parks, stores, films, TV, consumer products, media distribution… it’s an incredibly broad portfolio of products and therefore challenges. From a L&D perspective you need to think about the corporate functions (sales, marketing, etc.), industry divisions (retail, entertainment, and leisure), and geographies [in his final role David covered 27]. Take all that into account and you still haven’t covered how dynamic the industry is. An example of this is, when I first started in 2006, we thought we’d won the format wars with Blue-ray, but within 2 years streaming was beginning to disrupt the physical home entertainment market..

As in most organisations, the L&D department is small, so you need to plan where you can have most impact – it’s an enormous remit to cover with limited resources. It was in my role as Director for the EMEA region that I realised that my role was not accountable for delivery, of training or programmes, but about really enhancing performance and building organisational capability.That means affecting the work in a way that the business cares about, rather than focusing on the traditional L&D metrics of attendance, completion and satisfaction.

There are lots of learning platforms on the market, what was it about Looop that made you get involved?

Ben [Muzzell, Looop co-founder] demoed it to me at the CIPD exhibition. I realised then that it was the first piece of corporate learning tech that I would use myself. And that was after years of pushing elearning out to people and it being largely rejected or ignored. Google has changed the way people think about learning at work. If they can’t find the content they are looking for they can search the whole internet. Looop performs a similar function in organisations, quickly and easily turning local expertise into actionable resources that affect the way the actual work is done. For this reason, you can develop content that people really want to engage with.

What is a “Digital Learning Strategist” anyway?!

Josh Bersin said “digital doesn’t mean learning on your phone, it means being where your workers are”. Digital doesn’t mean putting content on computers, it means really helping people with the work they are doing and preparing them for future roles. People research and learn things through Google everyday, it’s ridiculous to expect that they won’t take similar ownership of their learning in a corporate environment.

I work with learning teams to understand what they are really trying to achieve, who is affected, and work with them to design resources that meet those needs. In this regard, our work means making workers better and faster at their current role, as well as preparing them for future challenges. The new approach we facilitate is like building bridges between people and their collective know-how – opening up the organisation, and helping people get to where they want to go. Workplace learning isn’t about inputs and activities, it’s about outputs and results.

What are typically the quick wins for businesses in L&D?

The most important thing is to understand is the goal – what the business and its people are trying to achieve. For example, induction can increase speed to competence, so people are performing confidently and delivering results faster, as well as positively affect engagement and reduce churn, but all too often, this is all overlooked when it’s becomes an event that runs on Monday? L&D departments can get trapped in polishing content they already have. That’s no use unless that’s delivering the desired business results. Every organisation has its own journey. You need to understand the challenges that your people face, and then give them the resources they need to overcome those challenges and perform with more confidence and competence.

What are the top companies doing in terms of L&D?

Sanoma is a great example of how to do L&D today. They are laser-focused on what the organisation needs and they work with distinct departments and employee groups to understand what they need to do before equipping them with the digital tools (resources) to be able to do that. Face-to-face events then supplement everyday digital support to do what people do best: discuss, question, challenge, practice and relate it to their situation, whilst removing what people aren’t good at, which is absorbing huge swathes of content over the period of a few hours (or days). At first, Sanoma worked with one publishing brand to understood the work, their challenges and what digital would mean for them. By mapping individuals onto their scale of capability, it became clear what they needed to master next, and gave them an individual learning pathway. They captured what local experts knew, in relation to helping this distinct group of people do their jobs, and made these available in the form of resources – not to be learned, but to support them through doing the job differently. Once this approach was honed for this group of people, they scaled it out to rest of business, iterating along the way. Too often in L&D scaling means launching generic content or programmes to broad groups of people. What Sanoma are doing is integral to how the business performs and they are responsible for building the capability the business requires.

Further reading:

Looop blog on digital learning
David James on Twitter

How top startups in London approach Innovation and Culture

Forward Partners logo

Last week we attended a dinner hosted by Forward Partners for their portfolio companies and mentors. We facilitated the conversation on scaling people and operations, and captured as much of the ensuing conversation as we could here.

On maintaining innovation as your company grows…

  • Be conscious as to whether your team is innovating, or just iterating
  • Protect your MVP approach, even as the company becomes bigger
  • Clearly define KPIs for innovations (e.g., conversion)
  • Design incentives that encourage innovation – both reward and recognition
  • Build space and flexibility for innovation, e.g. create Hackathon days/weeks for employees from different functions to pitch and build innovations to improve the business
  • Assign funding for innovations based on employee votes
  • Encourage ruthless delegation of execution tasks to more junior levels of the organisation to free up experts’ times in developing innovation
  • Spark interesting ideas by constantly asking your team “What would we build if we are a new company, without any constraints?”
  • Invite customers to come in regularly and ask “What pain points do you have in your business today?” (rather than “What new product features do you want?”)

On building a solid culture…

  • Define your culture early and then iterate on it
  • Easiest to define it around values (though not the only way)
  • Important to make sure everyone has a say to get buy in
  • Values need to be translated into expected behaviours, so that everyone has tangible examples of what living a value means
  • Having values is meaningless if they don’t convert into visible actions

On the limits of transparency within companies…

  • You can push transparency much further than you might think… but it’s not always a good idea!
  • Sharing salaries, records of board meetings, and financial plans are all ok
  • However, individuals’ performance issues should not be shared as this can become very emotional
  • Transparency is easiest when it’s established very early on and then maintained

Interview: Michael Walker

As the former Head of People & Operations at Mastered, and advisor to multiple start-ups, Michael Walker has a fascinating perspective on L&D. Mastered is itself a talent development business, focusing on the skills creative talent needs in the fashion industry, so they are always looking for ways to develop people in new and improved ways. Here are the main takeaways from our conversation:


Management training is an obvious place to start in an organisation, as the impact here will be felt throughout the organisation. You could start by creating an offering here with a series of themed workshops for managers of different experience levels. “Every business has a lot of knowledge internally. It’s just a case of sharing that knowledge in a way that will stick”. This approach has multiple benefits. First, it allows attendees to learn from each other directly. Second, it establishes a baseline for culture and gets everyone on the same page. Third it’s an opportunity to capture content and best practices for future training sessions.


Another approach, which Mastered uses in its own courses, is to interview thought leaders in a particular field and then edit these down to short videos. These are broadly characterised as either inspirational or technical, and form the backbone of Mastered’s programme. Live events are another key component, with the centre piece being Mastered Live. Here students fly to a stunning global location such as Iceland, Croatia or Canada for a weekend of learning and creativity. This incorporates workshops, portfolio reviews and fashion shoots all running concurrently, creating an unforgettable experience.


Whilst every organisation has a lot of hidden expertise that can be unlocked, Michael likes to get inspiration from thought leaders externally as well. Sports coaches, athletes and experts are a rich seam of ideas and he keeps a close eye on the likes of Alex Ferguson, Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson and James Kerr (whose book “Legacy” comes particularly recommended!). All deal with world class performance under high pressure, whilst the Netflix culture deck has popularised the metaphor of a business as a sports team, rather than a family.


“All too often, assessment is based on whether someone has had training in a certain area, not whether they’ve actually picked up new skills”. Assignments and follow up actions give people the impetus to practice skills they’ve been trained on. This works best when it’s tied to something they would do anyway, and time-limited to prevent it getting pushed back indefinitely. One example might be to get attendees of a workshop on performance management to report back on a feedback conversation they’ve held within the next week. A small practical step to make sure they quickly put the things they have learnt into action to help turn this knowledge into experience.


At Mastered they value coaching and mentoring both internally and as a key component of the courses they run for creative talent. Whilst 1-2-1 sessions can feel inefficient in terms of time, Michael believes they more than make up for this with their increased impact – and the feedback from students certainly supports this. The key difference between the two is that mentoring is more directive, with experienced professionals giving guidance to students on what to do next. Coaching on the other hand involves asking students the right questions to unlock their potential and empower them on their development journey.


“Training and performance management should be focused on the same outcome” says Michael – both give people a ladder from where they are currently to where they/you want them to be. He’s also a fan of discussing people’s career plans outside the opportunities they have inside the company. Being realistic that an employee has a life after your company allows you to develop them in a way that they will find most engaging, and means they will likely spend more time at your company. Examples might be creating side projects for people that aren’t business critical, but make a big different to their engagement.


Michael works with scale ups to ensure their growth, providing talented individuals on a search basis, as well as advising on talent attraction, development, retention and employer branding. You can find out more here.