How to Take Full Advantage of Your On Deck Fellowship

Part 1

Van Nguyen
Oct 7, 2020 · 9 min read
Antique, faded book cover for “ODF Survival Field Manual” with redactions, declassified stamps, and signs of wear and aging.
Antique, faded book cover for “ODF Survival Field Manual” with redactions, declassified stamps, and signs of wear and aging.
Illustrated mock cover for the “ODF Survival Field Manual”

I was utterly unprepared for how my life would be forever improved by the On Deck Fellowship.

In April 2020, I decided to start my own company. But years of working at larger companies had led to complete isolation from the bustling startup and entrepreneurship scene of San Francisco. I no longer had any network connections, any support structure, or any insight into trends or what was happening. Building a tech company was already hard enough with a supportive and engaging community like the one in SF, let alone without any at all. I knew if I wanted to succeed, I’d have to find one.

I took a chance applying to a program that was gaining popularity but wasn’t as well known at the time as it is today: the On Deck Fellowship. It sounded like exactly the kind of community I was looking for. On Twitter, it was touted as the next YCombinator, a highly successful startup accelerator, but one that did not take equity (just upfront cost) yet provided a ton of value in return. It was exclusive, demanding, and rigorous. I had low expectations for getting in.

Then, in June, amazingly, I was accepted. And in those ten weeks, which quickly flew by, I’ve easily gotten 100X more value out of it than I’ve put in yet feel like I barely was able to take advantage of 1% of what was available.

I wrote this guide to help future fellows take advantage of more than my 1%. Or maybe because I felt guilty about how little I put in, comparatively speaking. Either way, thank you for joining and making this community even bigger and better. Let’s go build great products.

🏞️ Environment: What to Expect, How to Prepare

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” — proverb, attributed to Benjamin Franklin and H.K. Williams

Three adult moose are traversing the vast, empty snow-covered fields. Conifer-lined mountains lie in the background.
Three adult moose are traversing the vast, empty snow-covered fields. Conifer-lined mountains lie in the background.
Figure 1.1 — Photo of a herd of moose traversing the vast, desolate valley of Yellowstone National Park. They are surrounded by forest-covered mountains in all directions. Photo taken from a mile away. © 2020 Van Nguyen.

The first two weeks

📣 Story Time:

Towards the end of ODF4, in August 2020, I had a chat with a ODF fellow who needed help on some technical issues. Since the topic was totally in my wheelhouse, I was happy to point him to a solid list of excellent resources, some general advice, and more. He was absolutely ecstatic — exclaiming how extraordinarily helpful I was, how I was being so generous, blah blah blah. More out of concern over the shock in his response than anything else, I asked about his background and his experience in ODF.

Regrettably, he had a lukewarm reaction to the experience. He did not get as much value of out of the program as he had expected.

Unbelievable! There was no way.

After all, I had the complete opposite experience, so we were as far apart as can be. So I asked him how many fellows had he met with to date. His answer? Maybe a handful. This week? No… total.

BIG MISTAKE.

ODF is like a funnel for synthetic serendipity. The serendipity isn’t fake, not even close, but it is generated by design and you have to put in the effort.

And. It. Works.

Heed my advice or not. There’s no denying that you only get back what you put into the system. So, put more effort into the system, put more knowledge into the system, put more energy in and you never know what you’ll get out.

🎤 💧

Every ex-ODF fellow I have spoken to who did not spend the first two weeks just networking and meeting as many people as possible has grown the least, has made the least progress overall, has not gotten a lot out of the program, and has ultimately regretted it. You are spending time and money to be here.

You will not have this powerful an opportunity again, where almost everyone in the group is open to chatting and has the available time to do so.

MAKE USE OF THIS TIME.

Why does meeting people matter?

The majority of the value of programs like ODF, YCombinator, or 500 Startups is that they put you into a community and brain trust of like-minded, driven individuals like yourself. These are people who you can learn from, who will watch your back, who will support you with help and encouragement; and you, them.

The more fellows that know about you and what you’re working on, the more will be available to:

  • point out competitors you may not have heard of
  • point out tips and tricks applicable to your industry and startup
  • connect you with potential co-founders/employees/investors/more
  • provide valuable help, advice, services, and referrals
  • teach you about aspects of entrepreneurship you don’t know, are weak at, or need help with
  • and so much more

The reverse is also true. The more fellows you know about, the more you can help them as well. And the more help everyone gives, the more valuable the network becomes over time.

📣 Story Time:

In the first few weeks of ODF4, Aashni Shah, Founder, Taonga was constantly supporting the efforts of other fellows, myself included — thanks Aashni! She would constantly try to amplify what I and others worked on and shared. Similarly, she was constantly sharing her own progress as well ideating and coming up with a company to build.

She would eventually build a startup for social good. Generous, selfless, and full of energy and excitement — it is hard to not get inspired by Aashni’s presence. So then, later, when I reconnected with a few old contacts in the investment world who I’d lost touch with and who were then looking for promising social impact startups, I knew the perfect referral. I set up the introductions, they all hit it off, and now those investors owe me one!

Even later, I offered a landing page redesign service for ODF fellows (click here if you’re in ODF and want more information). I was happy to be able to provide a tiny bit of help to her app design. She’s warned me about potential competitors and provided a lot of feedback in my own work as well.

Realistic expectations

In the first two weeks of the program, new fellows will be getting acquainted with the ODF team, with the processes and tools, and how the process works in general. Therefore most of the curriculum will be light, focused on ideation and discovery, and there will be ample time to set up video chats with fellow fellows. But how much time?

Assuming that:

  1. you work eight-hour days in PST timezone
  2. 50% time is taken by curriculum and events
  3. you take one hour for lunch
  4. you meet with people for 30 minutes

Then the theoretical maximum number of people you can meet with during this two-week period is 60 or about a third of your cohort. It is highly unlikely you’ll hit this number, due to Zoom fatigue or scheduling difficulties, so at best, you’re likely to hit a theoretical maximum of about 20 meetings.

In the first two weeks of ODF4, I held an exhausting string of 14 one-on-one meetings (out of a total of ~250? in the cohort) — of whom, about half I still keep in regular contact with (hopefully this continues forever).

To put that into perspective, I would meet with another seven over the next twelve weeks following that initial period.

Taking advantage

Man sweating and a finger hovering over two buttons, one marked networking with fellows and the other attending every session
Man sweating and a finger hovering over two buttons, one marked networking with fellows and the other attending every session

There are a few optimal ways to take advantage of this rare opportunity, as well as some accommodations to make in order to maximize your benefit.

Ideally, you should free up your schedule and take time off if you’re currently employed full-time. Additionally, you should expect to not get much done on your actual startup during this time. You are investing in the long-term success of your company, and there is a cost, but it is one worth paying.

You’ll get better results by being attentive, asking good questions, and genuinely being interested in the other person than by making these chats all about yourself.

Curriculum sessions will be recorded, so if you don’t have relevant questions to ask and need to skip, you can rewatch later. You should be building intuition on which sessions are worth attending and ruthlessly prioritizing how you spend your time.

Finally, if you are unable to meet with the theoretical or actual maximum number of people during this time, do not fret, you will still have opportunities to do so afterward, but as you will see, the bar is higher to convince someone to break off even 30 minutes to chat. It will be up to you to make it as easy, convenient, and as unintrusive as possible for your guest.

📣 Story Time:

If you need inspiration on how to best utilize access to this amazing network, look no further than Melissa Kargiannakis’ story, which is filled with suspense, intrigue, and grit. As the founder and CEO, skritswap, which “simplifies complex jargon into plain everyday language,” she personally showcases the relentless resourcefulness to excel in entrepreneurship.

During the early days of ODF cohort #5, in September 2020, Melissa had locked down most of the investors needed for her first round of funding. But skritswap’s interim CTO was stepping down (in favor of finding a more capable executive) which threatened the fundraising process. So to close the round, she needed to find a replacement, and quickly.

So she buckled down and got to work. She reached out and connected with everyone in the ODF network on Linkedin — all 996 of us! By hand! In a very actionable, non-scammy way. The hustle and dedication is real.

Out of 996 connections, 144 responded and received a more detailed message. Then, after narrowing it down through over 30 meetings, she connected with or got referrals to 12 stellar candidates.

The rest of the program

During the subsequent weeks, like everyone else in your cohort, you will most likely be heads-down focused on refining your idea further (by doing customer research, analysis, and user testing) or developing your product (design, engineering, and shipping). The ODF curriculum will become more focused on action, on building, and preparing you to talk with investors.

By now, you’ll have figured out how to best manage your time. How to determine which sessions are worth attending in person and which ones can wait to rewatch later (if at all). How to schedule your life around ODF events. Et cetera.

If you can, use this time to:

  • refine and practice your pitch
  • build up your personal brand
  • host community sessions/office hours
  • offer your services
  • build in public

📣 Story Time

Linear is a prominent example of the benefits of building in public.

They tweeted their changelog with detailed descriptions and high quality GIFs on a consistent basis. They hid easter eggs and asked users to find them. It really showcased their rapid development pace and user experience design. Customers took notice.

After a few months, in November 2019, they raised $4.2M seed funding from Sequoia capital and Index Ventures.

They continue the same practice of building in public through to today.

The time after

open spring trap in a field with trees and mountains in background
open spring trap in a field with trees and mountains in background
Don’t fall for the trap of thinking your benefits and access end with your program

Do not forget that you retain full access to the community after your cohort ends.

You’ll be able to watch all sessions from all cohorts after the fact. You’ll be able to reach out to, get feedback from, and learn from all of the guest speakers if they are open to it. The value of joining the program continues to grow and expand long after your cohort ends.

Not only are all of the current cohort sessions recorded and uploaded quickly, but typically, the guest speaker(s) will include their contact information in these events. So even if you did not attend, you can still reach out directly for help. Most (but not all) are willing and open to help you out. But please don’t be an entitled jerk!

Furthermore, content-wise, you continue to have access to office hours, community sessions, icebreakers/socials, hackathons, and more.

For more information about resources available to you, including those you may not be aware of (like free landing page redesigns, sort Slack channels by activity, etc.), and so much more, please look out for future parts of this series.

Special thanks to Zvi Band, Nnenna John, Melissa Kargiannakis, JJ Nguyen, Ike Orizu, Aashni Shah, Zack Shapiro, & Sidni Standard for reviewing this document, submitting stories, and providing early feedback.

And a big thank you to the ODF team, especially Shiraz Dole, Regina Gerbeaux, Trish Kennelly, Jeremy Sto Thomas, Brandon Taleisnik, and Julian Weisser, who provided a ton of support for this effort.

In the next chapter, “(part 2) Psychology of Survival”, we’ll cover how to manage stress and how to cope with uncertainty.

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Van Nguyen

Written by

Designer / Engineer. ODF4. Building modern video editing tools at https://vidbase.co

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

Van Nguyen

Written by

Designer / Engineer. ODF4. Building modern video editing tools at https://vidbase.co

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

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