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Small Beginnings

Matt Clifford & Gayle Chong Kwan

Illustration: Gayle Chong
Photo: Linda Nylind

With no time to waste, limited amounts of energy and an always present possibility of failing, everyone wishes they knew when to keep and when to kill new ideas. Be it business or art, the beginnings of ideas are fragile and mysterious.

Matt Clifford - on beginning a business idea

Matt Clifford is a co-founder of Entrepreneur First, one of the hottest UK startup accelerators. Under his watch, kids coming straight from university (some don’t even bother to graduate) raise millions in funding, build huge teams, scale quickly and exit even quicker. In EF’s words, they are “not interested in building dating apps, they’re after building the future”. Not a bad goal, is it?

We wondered: How does one pick a co-founder, control anxiety levels and adopt day-to-day habits that will lead to success right at the beginning of a business journey?

You see dozens of people embarking on their business journeys, forming teams – have you spotted patterns in what causes smooth or bumpy beginnings?

When forming a team, people often make the mistake of picking a co-founder because they get on with them as friends. That’s not a bad thing (in fact, my co-founder Alice is one of my closest friends). But it’s not enough. The most important thing is your productivity. The most important question is not “Would I want to go to the pub with this person?, but “Does this person make me more effective?”. A productive team is a good team. Relatedly, respect really matters: ideally, each co-founder should secretly worry that the other is a little bit better than they are!

What do you think makes a successful start-up founder?

Successful founders are a hugely diverse group. In our experience, three things matter more than anything else: first, that people work on an idea that is a good fit with their skills, knowledge and experience; second, that they start a company because they want to solve a problem, not because they think it’s a “get rich quick” scheme; and third, that they are truly determined. At Entrepreneur First we call these three things “edge”, “mission” and “grit”. If you have all three, you’re much more likely to succeed.

What about day to day habits?

The most important habit is focus. Great founders make bold decisions about the most critical thing to achieve right now and then fully focus on that until it’s done. There are lots of ways to achieve that. Some founders don’t take any meetings before lunch, for example, or practise mindfulness. I don’t think it matters too much how you achieve focus, but it is important to find a way that works for you. Totally separately, I find that many (but not all) great founders are voracious readers; they’re endlessly curious and always want to learn more.

You once said: “As a founder, you have more control over your mindset than you do over almost any other variable that will have a big impact on your outcome”. What exactly do you mean by ‘controlling mindset’?

Starting a company is one of the most emotionally and intellectually intense things you can do. Even the most successful companies go through extreme ups and downs. The way you process that will have a major bearing on your success, because it will influence the responses of you and the people around you.

The good news is, you can learn to adopt the most useful mindsets, such as optimism, long-termism and “growth mindset”. Contrast this with the other major variables that will influence your outcome – such as consumer trends, competition and the broader economy – and you see that you have much more control over your mindset than anything else.

What are the best ways of coping with stress and all that comes with starting a business

Stress is an inevitable part of the high-growth startup journey, so it’s important to learn ways to manage it. Different founders find that various methods work for them, but I think one thing they have in common is achieving a kind of balance. It’s true that work/life balance is very tricky, especially in the early stages, but making time to exercise, eat well and spend time outside the business is important. It’s also worth remembering that startups aren’t for everyone: there are lots of other ways to have a big impact and a rewarding career, so it may not be the right path if you find that you struggle to deal with stress.

Tech startups raise investment, scale quickly and get bought even quicker. Yet, there’s beauty in slow growth, do you think tech startups can learn from small lifestyle business owners?

I think the two paths are very different and require very different strategies. One thing they have in common though, which it’s sometimes easy for tech startup founders to lose sight of, is that the journey to build any great company should begin with a sense of mission. Entrepreneurs who are looking to make a quick buck seldom succeed. The most important questions for any founder are “Why me? Why this idea? Why now?”. Sometimes, in their quest to build ‘the next big thing’, aspiring tech entrepreneurs forget that, but I think it’s at the core of any great business.

Lastly, culture. How should a founder go about creating the right culture from scratch, right at the beginning?

A startup’s culture always reflects its founders’ values – but this means what the founders actually value, which isn’t always necessarily what they say they value! Culture is the amalgamation of what the founders prioritise: whatever you make time for and expend resources on is what people will believe you care about. One way to think about culture in a startup is that it’s the “co-founder” that remains present when you leave the room, so you better make sure it’s one you’d want to have there!

Gayle Chong Kwan - on beginning a creative idea

Gayle Chong Kwan is an an internationally recognised artist. She has held major exhibitions in The Southbank Centre and Tate Modern, and has recently been commissioned by the Barbican. It is not just her finished work that is worth admiring, but the process by which she gets there, including her formidable project management skills. We asked Gayle how to overcome artistic “writer’s block” and recognise great ideas at their early stages.

Is there a place where, or a time of the day when, you are more likely to think of ideas?

Whenever I’m at home or doing a residency abroad, I always look for a local public swimming pool, or a special place to walk. I use swimming and walking to connect scattered thoughts.

How do you start preparing mentally for a project? To tidy up the studio space is one thing, but to tidy up one’s mind…

I spend a lot of time in archives, often doing quite specific research and I use exactly the same notebooks for sketching. I have two studios, one of them connected to my house, but at home I don’t have any of my work on the walls. In this way, I let my mind relax.

What habits have you adopted day-to-day to help your ideas emerge?

For a while, I used to get up at 5am, coffee kept me going and helped to squeeze in two intense hours of work. I travel a lot, recently I worked in Colombia, France, and Italy, and to keep some sort of structure I would listen to BBC Radio 4.

In my experience, finishing a project can sometimes evoke a feeling of emptiness. What’s your experience of that?

You always feel that way after it ends. Although, as an artist you have five or six things going on at the same time. When people come to your exhibition to look at your work, you almost have no time to celebrate it, as by then, you’ve already moved on and are working on something else.

Do you actively work on getting or finding ideas?

I never have issues finding ideas, the hard work is filtering them and arriving at the essence of what you want to make!

The so-called “writer’s block” haunts many artists… Especially when one finally gets to work on a big, maybe even dream project, something seems to get blocked inside. Is there a remedy or a strategy to make it go away?

I don’t really have that problem. I have deadlines, so I’ve learnt to trust that the idea will come to me when it needs to. There are strategies that you put in place that help you arrive at that – visual research, immersion in a problem, reading. Sometimes, pretty much until the last second, I have no idea what I’ll be doing, but from the beginning I will have a sense, an inkling, an atmosphere, or feeling, of what it is I want to do. Doing research sometimes just helps me get back to that starting point and to know that it is the right thing.

What about stress?

I usually get 20 or 30 assistants to help with large-scale projects and I have a great wealth of fantastic fabricators, printers, and creatives with whom I have worked for many years. Having people you can trust is the only way to prevent stress and anxiety.

A lot of creatives have the fear of “getting caught out” – they get commissioned to work on dream projects and then fear that they’ve fluked it. Is this something you’ve ever experienced?

For the first few years, I used to get that a lot, especially as I came to art through quite a circuitous route of studying politics and history. I think with time and experience that feeling goes, but I do still feel incredibly lucky to love what I do as my job.

How do you know when to kill an idea and when to pursue it?

Some ideas don’t really make sense right at the beginning. If it doesn’t fit anywhere, my best advice is to leave it for a bit. They will be waiting for you to look back and rediscover them when the time is right.