[IV] The NEF Application Process

In Chapter 3, we explored the process I used to help make the “career change”/transition from engineer to entrepreneur.  This was:

  1. Identifying the skills that I felt I needed in order to work in start-ups/become an entrepreneur – Web development; digital marketing; graphic design to name a few
  2. Acquiring as many of these skills as I could in my spare time* – I built a tech blog (Tech-Boffin.com – now defunct) and a simple, personal landing page (cipavlou.com); had a play with Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools for these sites; went through online tutorials on Inkscape (and created a logo for Tech-Boffin.com)
  3. Continually research the entrepreneurship ecosystem – Speaking with friends, reading about opportunities, etc

After a few months of skill building, I decided to apply to the New Entrepreneurs Foundation programme.  In this post, I’ll run through Part I of the application process (you don’t get onto NEF unless you pass Part I and Part II but, if you’re good enough to pass Part I, you should be OK with Part II – Matchmaking with Host Companies).  I’ll also provide some tips about what worked for me (and why) which is largely applicable to job applications.  It was quite a pleasant process overall and helped me realise a few things along the way.

Disclaimer: This is an accurate representation of the application process for the NEF 2015-16 cohort.  Future application processes may differ (in fact I’m pretty sure the application process for the 2016-17 cohort had a very different assessment centre).

Stage 1: Application Form

This was simple enough – fill in an application form with your details, upload your CV & cover letter and you’re away!  This stage wasn’t particularly memorable, so I’m going to gloss over it.

It’s generally best to apply earlier rather than later for most jobs as employers tend to fill roles once they receive suitable candidates.  I’m pretty sure I only applied to NEF a week or so before the deadline (so pretty late, but I hadn’t really heard of NEF until relatively late) but (I think) they screen all applications so it didn’t end up being a big deal.

Stage 2: Video Interview

This was super weird, and many NEFers agree with me on this one.  Most video interviews comprise of you having a Skype call with your interviewer.  However, the NEF video interview was different in that it consisted of 5 pre-recorded questions:

  1. Pre-recorded question asked
  2. 20 second pause so you can think of an answer
  3. 45-60 seconds to give your answer
  4. Steps 1-3 repeated for all questions

This is actually quite an entrepreneurial (scalable) solution to the sheer volume of applicants to the programme (there were 1000+ applications for ~35 places in my year).  It gives NEF the chance to give more applicants the chance to “shine in person” (instead of a straight rejection before interview) but also means NEF (and the recruiters they partner with) don’t have to burn man-hours interviewing everyone.

General Advice

  • Pick a quiet time of the day when your stress levels are low and you won’t get disturbed.  I did mine after work one evening after I’d had a good day (so was super-chilled and in a good mood).  First thing on a weekend is also a good time in my experience
  • Test your setup works – You’ll basically need a webcam and microphone (most laptops have these all set up) as well as optional speakers/headphones to hear the question being read out.  I’d recently done a fresh Windows install on my desktop and it turns out that I hadn’t installed the required drivers for the webcam (so wasn’t getting any sound from the microphone) – good thing I checked this before the interview!
  • Think of the interviewer – This is analagous to entrepreneurs thinking of what their customers want/how to please them.  Good interview technique is to make eye contact, speak clearly and be personable – a video interview should be no different:
    • Look at the webcam regularly (i.e., don’t look at the screen all the time) so that the person watching the video interview sees you “making eye contact”
    • Position yourself such that the microphone picks up your voice and speak slowly
    • Don’t forget to smile (or at least don’t look miserable)
  • Make yourself comfortable – I move my hands a lot when I talk to people so decided to do the same for the video interview (whilst pretending I was actually talking to someone) as this would make me feel more comfortable.  It possibly also helps visualise any examples you may have
  • Try and pre-empt the questions – As Benjamin Franklin once said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”  Work out good answers (from work experience or extra-curriculars, for example) to standard competency questions such as: “Give an example where you led a team,” or ,”Recall a time when you had to resolve a difficult situation.”  If you’ve got experience applying for jobs, you’ll most likely have come across some of these before but, if not, you can also Google for some common questions.  Much better than having to think of a potentially poor example on the spot!  I think I successfully pre-empted four of the five questions so, even though I was a bit thrown off by the fifth, it really wasn’t a big deal

Stage 3: Numeracy & Literacy Tests

If you were successful after the video interview, you were invited to one of four assessment days (whittling down to the final ~120 or so).  Before the assessment day, you had to complete online (TalentQ Elements) numeracy and literacy tests .

I don’t remember the two tests taking particularly long (perhaps ~20 mins for each?).  The format was relatively similar to that of the GMAT (I looked into doing an MBA in the States at one point so had an idea of what the test was like).  If you get a question right, you get a slightly harder one next up while the system works out which percentile you fit into.

I remember getting some immensely difficult questions towards the end, e.g., 20 seconds to pick out something like 4 relevant statements of 8 inferred in a ~1000 word article (so super rushed).  However, although I almost certainly got these wrong, I wasn’t worried because I assumed this meant that I’d done quite well up until that point.

General Advice

  • The numerical test looks at your ability to dissect data, so having a quantitative background (engineering, physics, maths) is incredibly useful here.  If you don’t, spend some time going through online tests – TalentQ have one practice test on their site to get you used to the format, but you can also Google for practice tests for the GMAT/McKinsey PST that are largely similar.  I don’t remember any specialist knowledge being needed (basic application of algebra was probably as niche as it got)
  • Have a pen and paper handy in case you need to do some rough notes/scribbles/maths.  I can’t remember whether I used a calculator or not but, if you’re allowed one, you should probably use one (if I did use one, it would probably have been my trusty uni engineering calculator – the Casio FX-991ES)
  • The verbal test looks at your deep understanding of the English language.  I found it tough as a native speaker – some NEFers speak English as a second language so extra kudos for surviving!  This test is probably a little harder to prepare for but verbal reasoning tests/GMAT are probably a good place to start.  If you read a lot, that’ll also help

Stage 4: Assessment Day

Aspiring entrepreneurs tend to all want to lead, and this can be chaotic in group exercises.

This was pretty awesome (although, for some weird reason, I tend to enjoy assessment centres in general).  The assessment day contained some of the coolest bits of being an entrepreneur and confirmed in my head that this was what I wanted to do.

We were hosted in a warehouse-style building owned by the aptly-named recruitment company “Escape the City.”  There were 4 assessment centres run in total for the ~120 remaining candidates (so ~30 at each assessment centre), each lasting half a day.

When I arrived in the morning, there were a bunch of applicants already grouped together chatting.  I joined them because it would be kinda weird just standing there in silence I wanted to see what everyone else was like.  This was, after all, the first time I’d gotten the chance to see/speak to anyone else applying.

I remember meeting several current NEFers that day – I remember chatting to Ollie (currently at Makers Academy for his NEF placement) about tech, with Marianne (currently running KnowLabel) about Hong Kong (having both lived there) and meeting Carme, a fellow rocket scientist by training.

We were then split up into groups of 6.  My group was pretty diverse – Nathan studied at Exeter and was big on events, Luis was Portuguese and had a business/FinTech background, Jenny (who would later appear on season 11 of BBC’s The Apprentice with Alan Sugar) was a business graduate into energy & health-tech, and Julia had a strong interest in healthcare.

new-entrepreneurs-foundation-assessment-centre
A snapshot from the NEF assessment centre (Credit: NEF)

Our task was to come up with and pitch a business idea to a panel of entrepreneurs, Dragons’ Den style.  We had 2 hours, although this was classically later shortened by 20 minutes to add unexpected time pressure.  We each took turns in our group pitching different ideas, and then all hell broke loose.

Aspiring entrepreneurs tend to all want to lead, and this can be chaotic in group exercises.  We had to find a balance between getting everyone’s ideas and opinions heard whilst also coming to sensible conclusions.

In this sort of environment, different personalities react in different ways.  Business psychology is super-interesting – I’d recommend reading about Myers-Briggs or Red/Green/Blue leadership styles.  Fortunately, I’d had management training in this area as part of my job – I knew I was a Red/Green leadership style [Dominating/Reasoning] – it turns out this is actually a common trait amongst young entrepreneurs (based on NEF data).

I tried to play the role of “team-player” and “indirect-nudger” to counteract/balance the team out.   This involved ensuring everyone’s opinions were accounted for, questioning what I thought were poor ideas and attempting to discreetly prod people towards what I thought was a good way of thinking.

We ended up pitching an events business running conferences for entrepreneurs (pushed hard by Nathan, Red [Dominating]).  One of my strengths lay in numbers, so I pulled Luis (Blue, [Relationship-Oriented]) into my “sub-team” and we crunched through some revenue-generating ideas and financial projections.  Jenny (Red/Blue [Dominating/Relationship-Oriented]) and Nathan led the other sub-team which largely focused on customer & product development and refinement.

After the time was up, we then pitched the idea to a panel of judges.  Our panel consisted of Oliver Pawle (Chairman, Korn Ferry and NEF Trustee) and Will Read (NEF alumnus, Founder of Sideways6) amongst others.  Some of the questions we got were:

  • If you had to pick someone other than yourself to send through to the next round, who would you pick?  No-one chose me 😦
  • Did you believe in the business idea? I didn’t, but justified that it was best for the team
  • What did you not do well individually?
  • What could you have improved upon as a team?
  • If you had one criticism for the person to your left, what would it be?  Luis told me that I was too number-focussed, and I told Julia she was way too quiet – she had some good ideas which weren’t put forward that well

Tips

  • Be assertive yet understanding – This is easier said than done, but had fortunately been trained into me at my previous “corporate” job.  You need to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, whilst also not being too quiet and pushing the group to actually deliver something of value
  • Understand who you are working with – we all often disagreed with each other on the ideas and reasons put forward.  However, I knew that direct confrontation among the personality types in the group would generally lead to hostility.  A better approach was a combination of reasoning and nudging (i.e., why do you think that/do you not think that x would be better because y/what if z happens?), enabling the team to question everything and eventually reach an optimal solution
  • Keep the “bigger picture” in mind – Remember what your end goal is.  If you begin to deviate, re-focus the team’s attention
  • Watch the clock and keep things moving (or you’ll run out of time)

It was hard for me to work out how important the online testing was versus the assessment centre in terms of progressing to the next stage.  NEF only have ~5 cohorts worth of data to analyse so it was possible that they were only using the results from the tests to determine whether there was a correlation between those who score highly and successful entrepreneurs.

I’m confident that, if you do well in both aspects, you’ll be sent through.  If you screw up the tests a bit, a good performance at the assessment centre could still send you through.  If things don’t go to plan at the assessment centre, there is also still a chance that you can get sent through (as my friend Alex, running One Third Stories, has pointed out happened to him).

Stage 5: Panel Interview

The final stage of Part I of the NEF interview process is the panel interview.  The panel typically consists of 3 interviewers (a mix of NEF staff, trustees, alumni and entrepreneurs), with discussions revolving around your CV, motivations and competencies.

My panel consisted of Neeta Patel (CEO, NEF), Veronique Rapetti (Learning Director, NEF) and Mike Bandar (Founder, Turn Partners and kayak-commuter).  I was asked general stuff to begin with – to talk about my experience to date and my motivation for doing NEF.  I was then asked a few tougher questions, such as:

  • What will you do if we don’t make you an offer?  I was a bit taken aback by this and basically told the panel I hadn’t actually given that much thought, but would probably start a business regardless and acquire the skills I needed some other way
  • How many people nominated you to get through to this stage?  Why did you think that was?
  • Would you describe yourself as entrepreneurial?  Give us examples
  • Are you prepared to put the work in for a tough year**?

General Advice

  • Be honest – There wasn’t a massive amount of entrepreneurial stuff on my CV, and I’d previously followed a pretty well-defined career path.  I was frank in explaining why this was (see Chapter 2 – Working Out Why I Hated My Job) and explained how important it was to me
  • Try and pre-empt the questions – As outlined in Stage 2, if you have thought of good examples and reasons for potential questions, you’re under slightly less pressure at interview/there is less of a chance of a long, awkward silence
  • Work out where there are gaps in your CV and try and fill them with other examples – Not had much opportunity to lead?  Read a management book and do some volunteering to try.  Ask for more responsibility at your day job.  It’ll also help you longer term

Hopefully this has been useful and has given some insight into the NEF application process (without giving away too many secrets) or job applications in general.  The bizarre thing is that, even though NEF make you an offer to join the programme, you still have certain conditions you have to meet before you are formally accepted (think of it like a conditional offer to study at university subject to you getting AAA at A-Level or whatever).

This process concluded around May 2015.  With a view that Part II (Matchmaking with Host Companies) could be a long and complicated process (and aware that this offer was conditional rather than unconditional), I informally notified by line manager that there was a chance I would be leaving.  This was to allow my team to begin planning for my potential departure, find a replacement, and hopefully allow me to cut my notice period short – the NEF programme starts in September of each year so I knew I would struggle to give 3 months notice if I waited until after matchmaking.

In the next Chapter, I’ll run through Part II of the application process

Memoirs of an Entrepreneur


*When one of my friends/housemates asked about what effort would potentially be required to change careers, one of my other friends/housemates (who’d been living with me at the time) phrased it quite nicely: “Most nights [I actually started this process about 6 months before I resigned], Chris would get home from work, head straight upstairs, work on whatever he was working on for a few hours, then come down and socialise when he was done.  It did seem to require a bit of sacrifice.”  What my friend didn’t actually see was me writing Tech-Boffin articles and reading books on the train to and from work most mornings – an efficient use of my commute!

**Considering it’s 11pm on a Friday night as I type this, I think I’m putting in my fair share of extra-curriculars.  Plus this isn’t technically work – it’s kinda fun

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