Entrepreneur First with Sophia Parvizi-Wayne

An interview with Sophia Parvizi-Wayne, the CEO of Kanjo Health, regarding her experience in Entrepreneur First as part of the 16th London cohort.
February 24, 2024
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Background

Sophia Parvizi-Wayne is the Co-Founder & CEO of Kanjo Health, an AI-driven platform that helps clinicians and parents support their kid’s mental health. Sophia participated in Entrepreneur First (EF) in 2021 as part of the 16th London cohort. I talked with her about how she found a co-founder through the program, what happens during the admission process, the makeup of the cohort, what advice she would give to a founder applying to the EF, and more.

Highlights

  • The value proposition of EF is helping founders find co-founders and venture-backable startup ideas they are passionate about pursuing. Sophia attributes EF’s co-founder matches to their ability to fill cohorts with talented individuals and their deep understanding of founder compatibility.

  • EF’s FAQ says that ~80% of their cohorts are technical, and 20% are non-technical. This did not match Sophia’s London cohort, as she mentioned it was “more balanced” or closer to 50-50. It’s important to note that EF’s definition of “technical” includes people who have deep domain expertise in technical fields (i.e., someone with a PhD in computer vision), but may not necessarily be a full-stack engineer.

  • EF’s deal is expensive relative to other startup accelerators – you receive less than $100,000 US regardless of the city you participate in for 10% of your company.

  • Only some people who join EF receive funding. They advertise that 40-50% of the cohort does. Sophia mentioned that 14 teams in her cohort received funding.

  • Everyone in EF receives a stipend (£2,000/monthly for the London cohort) to cover living expenses from day 1 of the program until you leave.

Interview Transcription

Kieran: Thanks, Sophia, for joining me today. Briefly introduce yourself and what you’re working on to kick us off.

Sophia: I’m Sophia Parvizi-Wayne, the Founder & CEO of Kanjo Health. If you (saw what) we were doing a year ago, it was slightly different than what we’re doing today. We originally started as a gaming platform that looked at digital biomarker-based assessments for children’s mental health. We’ve actually realized the system between clinicians and parents is broken. So, what we do now is we’re an AI-driven platform for parents and clinicians. By understanding parents and kids better through clinically validated assessments and some additions of biomarkers, we can directly refer parents to the help they need. And provide clinicians with all the pre-clinical insights on that child so they can do a better source of diagnostics, remote monitoring, and down-the-line treatment.

Kieran: When did this pivot happen?

Sophia: It’s been a few months. I think the first year of building a company is to understand the market better and the needs and “fail.” We saw there was a need in what we were building, but we hadn’t exactly figured out where that little wedge we could occupy. There are real problems in misdiagnosis and triaging resources on the clinician’s side. I was like, “Well, we have learned so much over the last year, and we have the right team to build it – why don’t we go ahead and do it now?”

Kieran: You were in the 16th London cohort of EF, which took place in 2021. Is that correct?

Sophia: Yes, end of COVID.

Kieran: Why did you want to participate in Entrepreneur First?

Sophia: Honestly, originally, I didn’t. I did not know what EF was. I was living in the US, where everyone just hears about YC. I had just left my first startup, which I had built while at Duke, in college. What do I do next? I had just moved back to London, and I was speaking to a guy who had recently raised a significant amount of money, was doing really well, and (he said), “You seem like the perfect fit for EF.” I was like, “What is EF?” Then I looked at it, and I was like, this is exactly what I need. I don’t know exactly what I want to build, but I know what space I can build in. And I don’t have someone to build it with, but I know I’m the right person to build a company right now. I think what excited me was that I didn’t have to do this application, being like I’ve already raised X amount, this is my traction, I have FDA approval, and my co-founder is a genius. I’m getting guided on actually how to do the things, which I didn’t do the first time. So, I can do this in a slightly more methodical way than I did in college, being like who am I going to go for or oh my god, what do I do with this money?

Kieran: So it seems like the idea maze and trying to find a co-founder was the biggest draw to you. Did you consider other options that could provide these things?

Sophia: I’m always going to say EF is the best because they did it first, and I truly believe that. They have a secret sauce that nobody else has. Other organizations do it, but they’re slightly more specific to a domain. Zinc is another amazing accelerator that I know well, but they are very specific on whether this cohort will be climate change, mental health, etc. I think that’s equally as beneficial in the way that you’re learning with people about a similar topic and bouncing ideas. For me, it really worked, actually not having that. I was surrounded by brilliant like-minded peers, but we were occupying different spaces, which meant it felt inherently more collaborative than competitive, like we weren’t fighting for investment or stealing each other’s ideas. I don’t know how those different (programs) work (in that regard). But for me, that was helpful. The other one I know is Antler, which many people know. I don’t know as much about it, but I think the program is slightly longer than EF – EF is very much a sprint.

Kieran: Can you talk about the process of getting into EF? You met this person who told you about EF. Did you then go to the website, apply online, and then interview with the team? What was the process for you?

Sophia: I applied on the deadline day. I think (the written application) was three questions. It’s kind of based on two things – founder ability and behavior. Are you the right person to build in a certain space? You don’t need qualifications, but do you have proof in your past that you can build or sell, right? For me, it wasn’t my last company that got me in; it was the fact that I’m always someone who goes after what I want and will keep going, and I’m happy to fail and do it again, and I was an athlete, and all these little things that make me the founder that I am today. The other one was founder behavior. So the questions were on that. I think it was three questions of 150 words. So, I did that. I thought it would take a few weeks to hear back, but I heard back that morning. I had three interviews the following day. I was like, “Wow, this is moving quickly.” And then, the day later, Jonny Clifford, the main guy in London and who is great, asked for one more call. I did the call with him, then a day later, I was in.

Kieran: So, it sounds like four live calls. Were all those 1:1 calls, and who were the people on those calls?

Sophia: Yes (1:1 calls). So, I only spoke with their team. It was different members of the team. It was people who did different things within that team. Some worked more with the actual team building, some who had fundraised before, etc. I think they have slightly changed it now that they do more in-person. So, seeing how you interact with other founders before. But, it was COVID for us, so we had a slightly different situation.

Kieran: What were some of the questions that they asked you during those conversations?

Sophia: I think I ended up being slightly more vulnerable than I expected, but that’s also the nature of who I am. I prefer to speak to the person I am rather than to the things that I’ve done, and I think they let me do that. I think that’s quite important (to me). It was a lot about my vision of the world, what kind of spaces I want to build in, how I work with other people, and what good leadership looks like – examples of when I’ve been a good leader but also when I’ve made mistakes. I’m trying to think of what else they asked. There were a ton of questions. But, a lot of the answers I gave were not what I expected to give. (They asked), “What’s one of the times you sold something that didn’t exist?” I spoke about this learning-to-fail class at Duke or when I got this magazine to host my birthday party when I was 18 and no one. But all these little things show that I have this weird skillset I didn’t realize I had until I did it every day.

Kieran: I saw on their website that 80% of their cohort is technical, and 20% is non-technical. Did that match up with your experience?

Sophia: We had a slightly more balanced cohort. Also, I think “technical” is quite an interesting term. Because you can be technical without being a builder, I think that was something I didn’t know. Technical can mean I have a computer vision PhD, but you still need a CTO. So you’re a technical CEO. That was one thing I didn’t understand. I assumed “technical” meant full-stack (engineer). Whereas it means you have this array of people with different domain expertise in very technical spaces. But, someone with depth in AI may not be the best person for a tech team.

Kieran: When applying to EF, it seems like you had a general idea of the spaces you were interested in. Do you think people can be too early to apply to EF, or were people coming in earlier than you where maybe they didn’t even know what spaces to work in yet?

Sophia: A lot of people didn’t know. But I don’t think you can be too early to start a company. You have to be in a space – maybe this is my personal view – and strongly believe in the world you want to build. It’s the idea that EF always says, “strong beliefs, loosely held.” I think that’s the key thing. It’s like, I know that at some point I’m going to be the right person to build this – so you have this weird self-confidence – where does it come from – but when it comes to customer validation, hearing other things, your ability to potentially change it a bit and respond to feedback is critical. I think going into anything when you’re building, you have to be able to respond to feedback, become better, and (realize) maybe what you’re building right now is not what the market needs – what can I do to change that? 

Kieran: EF’s program is structured into two main stages: Form (co-founder and idea formation) and Launch (accelerate and grow your company/fundraising). Let’s talk about the first phase of the program. What happens during Form when you’re trying to find a co-founder and get through the idea maze? How is that structured? What are you doing on a weekly basis?

Sophia: EF always says to celebrate breakups. In your head, you work on an idea with someone for a month, and you suddenly (realize) this isn’t working, and you feel like it’s actually a breakup. It felt like a breakup when I did it. Then, I realized every time I broke up with a (co-founder), I was getting closer to the right person to build with. So, a lot of that is trial and error. It’s meeting a ton of people, working on something for a few days, and (reflecting) on how quickly are we moving – do our experiences match up? Ultimately, when you’re building a company, it’s either an IP play or an execution play – who gets there first, or are we building something special? If those don’t work or the relationship isn’t functional, cut your losses there and move on. I went through three co-founders before I met Stefan. I knew Stefan the whole time – these people were my friends and peers. The week before Form ended, Stefan and I were like, why haven’t we tried (working together) before?

Kieran: I’d like to hear more about what you were doing (to find a co-founder in practice), though. Were you doing a bunch of 1:1’s with people in the cohort? Did they have events around specific topics that you would attend? How did it happen?

Sophia: You’re building as well as networking. If you meet someone, you will act as if you’re building a company together. So, this whole time, we’re having these amazing people come in to teach us about stuff like what good customer testing looks like – the guy who wrote “The Mom Test” came in and spoke with us. So, you’re still getting those building blocks – how do I build a company – how do I move quickly – what does a good pitch deck look like – so we’re still learning all these things. At the same time, sometimes you’ll learn these things with a different co-founder. Many of the people who did raise money in my cohort had the same co-founder the whole way through. By the time they got to Launch, they already had a product. By the time I got to Launch, we had our demo ready with Stefan. We built it in a week, and we had people using it. But, yeah, I think it’s not just about relationship building. It’s also can you build.

Kieran: It seems like EF focuses on evaluating individuals. Did people in your cohort join as co-founders? Were there any pre-formed teams, or was everyone on their own looking for a co-founder?

Sophia: You can’t really go in as a company.

Kieran: You were able to find your co-founder through the program. Looking at their website, it seems like they’ve been able to match a bunch of people. Why do you think EF is successful in helping people find co-founders? Do you have any insights that you picked up from the process?

Sophia: I think their ability to talent investing is really high. They are very good at spotting talent, knowing what founder compatibility looks like, and pushing you on it. You would think they would be like, “You got your person – go, go, go.” But they were encouraging me to break up with people (co-founders). They were like, this isn’t going to serve you, this isn’t going to work well, we know your personality, we know what you want to build, this isn’t going to work. So, the whole time, yes they’re a fund, but is this something you can do in three years and question you on it? Stef and I had therapy together during EF. Literally, like marriage therapy because I could not give him feedback – I was unable to tell him when I was upset, or when I thought he did something wrong. Once a week, Stef and I had to go and meet Gina Golin, who is this amazing psychologist/coach. Eventually, at the end of every week, I would be like Stef, you pissed me on this – and he’d be like, well, I think you need to say how you feel. But, it wasn’t problematic because this was the structure in which if we wanted to do this in a year, we needed to be able to do it.

Kieran: You met Stefan and built your product in a week. Then, that phase of the program ended. What does the next phase of the program look like?

Sophia: Slightly more independent. So, in the second phase, a lot of the teams are gone. You go through, and you raise the money (the money they give you) in 3 months, and then that following 3 months is more independent and building you up to be ready to fundraise when you want to or not. You have the option to decide and do their Demo Day whenever you want. We delayed it. Stef and I just wanted to raise an angel round – we were slightly behind everyone else – but the digital biomarker stuff is pretty technical, and I think we needed more work and weren’t ready to raise a Seed. So, we took another $300 - 400K in an angel round. But, that kind of for us was like, okay, let’s see if we can deliver something. It was building, learning, having all their support, figuring out the legal stuff. I’m not trying to say it was less exciting, but it was more like, okay, this is how a company would feel. You might hire someone with that $80K. What does that look like? Then, you know, the conversations changed. What does growth look like? What does hiring look like? What’s the best practice? What kind of lawyer should we go for? What does tax relief look like to investors? How should you construct a round? All that kind of stuff.

Kieran: So, it’s less networking, and now you actually have to go build your company.

Sophia: Build and raise.

Kieran: What does raising money from EF look like? You mentioned that many teams get cut off after the first phase because they might not have found the right co-founder or landed on the right idea. Do they require you to jump through other hoops to get the money?

Sophia: Yeah, at the end of the day, they’re a fund. So, you go through the same process as you would with a VC. We had an LP on the call, one of the advisors, the EIR, and Matt was on our call. Ultimately, our job as founders is to return investment. I think they have to act like that, as does every accelerator. So, we did that, and I think it’s like, can they prove traction? Are they building something exciting? Founder-market fit is a huge one. Many people didn’t find the right co-founder, and many ran into a place where they felt like they should keep going. In my cohort, 14 teams raised money from EF. Others didn’t raise money from EF but went on to raise a lot or go on to Sequoia Arc. It doesn’t always stop there. Everyone is still in the startup ecosystem.

Kieran: One thing that stands out to me from looking at a lot of startup accelerators – EF’s deal is pretty expensive. Regardless of where you are, it’s less than $100,000 US for 10% of your company. Looking back at it, would you still take that EF deal?

Sophia: Yes, 100%.

Kieran: It seems like the value prop is helping you find your co-founder and (land on an) idea. Most startup accelerators sell advice. They sell that their team is very smart and will help you build this company. Was that part of the value prop for you going through the program? If it was, what was one piece of valuable advice that you received during the program?

Sophia: Yes, I’d say advice, but even more so, advice from my peers. I think that was the biggest thing for me. Most of my closest friends are people from EF from that cohort. I see them daily. I run with them every day. I think that’s been important – that network is exceptional and super helpful and not competitive at all – we share our investors, and we’ll hire each other’s people. It’s so, so close. A lot closer – like half of these (companies at) accelerators don’t even meet each other – or they’re already in teams, and they don’t have that experience when remember you couldn’t be my co-founder, like haha. EF has amazing advisors. I’m still very close with them. I’m actually seeing them all for dinner tomorrow. What was really lovely about EF was everyone was allocated an EIR, an advisor, and you got different people. Some people got Rob Bishop, who founded Magic Pony and was acquired by Twitter in 18 months. I had an amazing advisor, Zefi Hennessy Holland, now at Sequoia Arc. When you’re building alone, you’re often not really pushed to realize your wrong. He was like, actually, test this more I’m pretty sure you’re wrong, or this looks like shit. And, I was like, thank you. It’s rare to hear someone tell you you’re wrong or to explore this more or this is what’s missing and have real experience. They were all founders or investors, and there was stuff I needed to work on. I remember speaking to Zefi, who said, “Sophia, your greatest strength in the world is you’re a seller.” I can sell shit to a donkey. But I talk when I don’t need to talk the whole time. I remember him saying to me, “You don’t need to talk the whole time.” And I was like, what do you mean? He was like, sometimes silence is quite good – let them ask questions. You don’t need to give away all the information at once. You don’t need to bring yourself all the time, and he was like, use it as your strength but also let Stefan talk sometimes. I said, “oh my god, you’re right, I don’t let Stefan talk enough.” I realized that very quickly, it’s my strength, but how can I use my strength better – by using it appropriately? 

Kieran: What advice would you give to someone applying to EF?

Sophia: Speak to people who have been through it. Building companies is not for everyone. We all have this illusion – Travis Kalanick, etc. – (that being a founder is fun). It’s not that. I speak quite transparently about it. It’s really hard. I think we all sell this amazing vision and growth at all costs. But, growth at all costs can be problematic, and what happens if you don’t grow at all costs? I haven’t. EF is amazing – if you want to build a company, go to EF. I do wholeheartedly agree with this. But, building a company in the first place – figure out if you actually want to do it because it’s pretty challenging. With EF, speak to people who have been through it. Look at the companies who have come out before – ultimately, EF is looking for tech companies. I’m not saying slightly less consumer – I won’t speak on their fund’s behalf. But, a lot of us are like deeply technical companies. So, if you want to build CPG or B2C, it’s probably not the right place. Out of all of the companies, I think we were the most consumer-driven, barring another one called Avi. If you read (their website) and you love it – get someone who’s gone through it to read through your application together – just don’t LinkedIn message me because so many people ask me to read through their applications, and I really don’t want to read anymore. EF should really pay me to read and edit all these applications. I think at some point, they must realize that I write every single application. But I think that’s it. One of the greatest skills you can have in the world is networking. Use that network to understand what it’s going to be like. Are you ready for that pace? It’s very fast-moving. You work as hard as you want, but you want to work that hard.

Kieran: It’s clear that you have had a positive experience with EF. What is the perception from the outside community – founders, investors, and operators in Europe – what do they think of EF?

Sophia: I think the reason why we’re probably speaking is because EF is well-known, right? It is, it’s Europe, it’s EF. Techstars, too – I’ve also been through (that program). It was the Abhu Dhabi program, so luckily, we were given the money without giving up equity. Very ideal. I could not give away more. But I think EF has a phenomenal reputation. They are clearly making good investments. They just raised a massive Series C as well. Investors look very fondly upon EF – our Demo Days are always great – you can see how our network expands outside our cohorts. Also, we’re all building cool and different shit. That’s exciting because you’re not seeing copycat companies or the same companies repeatedly. There are a lot of people who have gone through EF that were the first in their space to do that. Tractable is a good example.

Kieran: Would you recommend EF over Techstars?

Sophia: I feel like I could get in trouble with either one. I think they’re very different. I couldn’t be where I am right now without EF. It’s a very different program, right? With Techstars, I had a company. Techstars was also in Abu Dhabi, where I work now. EF could not do what Techstars did for me in Abu Dhabi because it’s a different landscape, and Techstars couldn’t have done what EF (did for me). And it’s the same reason you’ll see a lot of EF founders go through YC.

Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think is important to know for someone considering EF?

Sophia: One thing that I think EF is good at, what many early-stage pre-idea accelerators don’t do, is they pay you a stipend the whole way through. I think that’s important. Founding is expensive because you’re not making money at the beginning. You still have to live – ideally, you want to live in a city where you can network and meet people – you’re probably actually losing money, and you don’t know when you’ll get it. That’s stressful. I was 24 when I went to EF. It wasn’t like I was at Blackstone for five years and saved some money. I was fortunate that my parents lived there, but having money in some form of safety net while I was building something out took away a slight stress that could have impacted my ability to build. Cause I would’ve been like, shoot – when can I pay off my credit card, or can I afford to take an Uber home? And (since I had the stipend), I was like, yes, I could Uber home.

Kieran: Does everyone receive the stipend, or must you apply?

Sophia: Everyone, it’s part of the program.

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