3 Lessons I learned as a failed Antler founder

antler startup

I still vividly remember sitting in my home office, my palms sweating, as I read the Antler email. 

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email from Antler

For those unfamiliar, Antler is a global startup generator and early-stage VC firm that runs an intensive incubator program for budding founders.

Founders apply to Antler online. 250 applicants make it through to interviews with Antler’s partners and around 60–100 people join each cohort — from Sifted 

Getting accepted would give my facial recognition startup idea validation, a strong support network and potential seed funding.

I had what I thought was a brilliant business concept — allowing individuals to conduct facial recognition searches tied to automated copyright takedown requests. I assumed that explaining the market potential would have investors chomping at the bit to back me.(lol wrong). By failed Antler founder, you’ll see what I mean 😉

However, after going through Antler’s rigorous 3-round selection process, my naivete came crashing down. Not only was my idea shot down, but I learned so much about myself and entrepreneurship along the way.

While my facial recognition software concept didn’t move forward, here are the 3 biggest lessons I took away from my Antler interview experience

What we have here is failure to communicate

I’ve always considered myself a creative thinker, “thinking about thinking” being a favourite hobby. However, I learned the hard way that being an effective “idea person” is not enough. You need to persuasively sell yourself and your vision when trying to get any new venture off the ground. 

I underestimated how much I would need to personally stand out — to convince experienced business minds that I was capable of building a successful company around my idea. That selling yourself is just as important as the business potential. 

A combination of courage, self-belief, eternal optimism and yes- a bit of madness is what attracts me to working alongside founders, time and time again. 

Going through Antler’s interview process forced me to deeply understand the technical complexities and market landscape. I had to master communicating details in simple and engaging ways. And learn how to tell compelling stories that elicit emotion, not just logic. And I sucked at it. 

The ability to genuinely inspire and influence people through communication is hugely undervalued in the startup world. With CustomGPTs being easy enough to create, chimps will soon be doing it, uniquely human strengths like persuasion through narrative will only increase in strategic importance for founders.

This experience taught me self-promotion abilities can’t be faked. Lesson “1” was on the importance of “chest-beating”, and how “show don’t tell” rarely works in pitching. 

The Dunning-Kruger Demise

Lesson two was how I also drastically overestimated my understanding of the facial recognition and data privacy market when initially conceiving my startup idea.

In my naivety, I assumed that allowing individuals to conduct facial recognition searches, tied to automated copyright takedown requests, would be straightforward to execute from a technical perspective. I thought a slick app front-end calling basic API services was all it would take to get an MVP launched.

However, after a developer friend asked some questions (that prompted me to deeply research the market) I quickly realised I had barely scratched the surface of the complexities involved- I didn’t know shit. 

Both building the core image recognition technology itself, and scaling a legally compliant business around it, requires enormously sophisticated engineering and data privacy capabilities far surpassing my comprehension.

I learned that facial analysis AI leveraging billions of images for accurate identification is extremely advanced — needing massive datasets, machine learning pipelines, and compute power. 

My plan to simply piece together a few basic third-party services was embarrassingly simplistic and unrealistic.

I gave no thought to vital data protection considerations around biometric privacy, regulated uses, consent requirements and cybersecurity. My lack of technical depth and legal understanding would have seen me fail before even starting (and it did!)

While disheartening to admit, having my naivete exposed was incredibly educational. It lit a fire under me to put in the work to truly comprehensively understand market landscapes before jumping to execution. An idea is only as good as your command of how to implement it properly at scale. It also showed me what I’m actually aligned with- problem solving, not solution finding. 

Ethics and Values and Alignment (oh my)

While my original idea didn’t pan out, interviewing with Antler taught me that my core values around justice, ethics and learning are tightly linked to the entrepreneurial projects I decide to pursue. Since then, I’ve been working with others on concepts more closely aligned with those values. Ultimately, assessing startup ideas through the lens of my principles guides me toward meaningful work.

What have you tried and ‘failed’ at? Tell me here or reach out here