The 3 Best Free Courses for Entrepreneurs
The entrepreneurship journey is a high-stakes endeavor. Unfortunately, very few startups become unicorns, a few do well but most fail. Only 50% of businesses with employees survive past the first five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
These 3 courses provide invaluable knowledge and experiences to entrepreneurs and startup founders. They are also ideally suited for future founders, college students, and curious go-getters.
How do you pick that niche, that perfect market fit which will ensure growth and garner interest from angels, venture capitalists, and competitors? What is the process to ensure that an idea becomes an acceptable prototype and eventually an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) leading to a successful go-to-market?
The Startup School, a Y combinator program, provides a curriculum with the answers. It offers different tracks, one for active founders and one for future founders. It is free with a mix of videos, exercises, group interactions, and readings.
Y Combinator was founded in 2005 and has funded over 2,000 startups, working with 4,000 founders. The company provides seed funding to the companies it selects in its two yearly batches.
Those companies have a combined valuation of over $100B. They include many household names such as Airbnb, Doordash, and Stripe. They have a wealth of knowledge to share with founders. They have also created a great environment for startups to excel and line up additional funding.
Free course: The Startup School
The Lean Startup book from Eric Ries is a good complementary read on this topic, with real-life insights on strategy, MVPs, pivots, and A/B testing, among others.
Startups are expected to have an online presence. Regardless of their business model, they usually need to purchase ads, use social media, and use analytics to understand their audience.
Companies seeking funding are also on a short timeline: on one side they have a limited runway and on the other, they have to show progress fast to get funded within their targeted valuation range.
Hitting milestones is important but metrics play a key role. KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) showing rapid growth such as ARR and MoMs (Annual Recurring Revenues & Month over month sales from marketing campaigns) are often scrutinized.
Google Digital Garage has a free program covering digital marketing. It is about 40 hours worth of teaching, broken down by modules, and delivered using short videos of about 5 minutes each. Quizzes reinforce each lesson and each module. The videos are clear, professional, and provide engaging real-life examples.
The course is not limited to paid Google products. It also covers what can be implemented for free, such as SEO (Search Engine Optimization). It mentions social media, websites, and other channels that are part of digital marketing but not hosted by Google.
The videos are never interrupted by ads and the interface is clean. If you want to speed up the program you can accelerate the videos by playing them at 1.5 the normal speed (or faster) with close captions, both by clicking on the cog, at the bottom right of each video.
There are other free courses in the Digital Garage but Digital Marketing is a great entry point for business owners and startup founders.
It is very insightful in general to understand at a high level how algorithms rank information in searches or newsfeeds. It is equally valuable to understand which content is shown last or hidden because it was determined to be low-value or spam by the system. This course addresses both topics without getting too technical.
Free course: Google Digital Garage
3. Sustaining and Exiting
Negotiations and execution can get complex very fast for startups. For example, Instagram had 13 employees and was 15 months old when Kevin Systrom, the 26-year-old CEO, negotiated its sale to Facebook for $1 billion, pre-revenue.
Once you are down that path and exploring short-term options, including funding and partnerships, how do you create a solid pitch deck to raise funds, figure out your best path forward or compare scenarios?
Understanding term sheets and the value that the right investors can provide is critical at this stage. Founders will at times settle for “my price, your terms” as they need cash to carry on, accepting major concessions in return.
Some of those terms can have long-lasting effects and give broad control to investors. Other investors will offer standard terms, betting on a strong partnership with founders to create value.
The free Venture Deals course is very valuable in that area. It uses a mix of videos, assignments, and teamwork to test ideas. It is a great way to learn about, create, and review term sheets as well as pitch decks.
The documents introduced during the course are real legal templates that have been used in real-life situations, coming directly from incubators, well-known law firms, and investors.
It is a great experience side-by-side with the book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist written by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, who lead the course. Reading the book ahead of the course is very useful.
Free course: Venture Deals
The Venture Deals course has morphed over the years and has improved after each session. The number of attendees and alums has grown, as many students took the class multiple times and referred others to the program. It has created a strong community.
Earlier this year that community was invited to connect on Mighty Network, which will allow to extend the discussions from the class and connect with like-minded individuals: Venture Deals on Mighty Network.
The concept of the course is very flexible: you can approach it from the viewpoint of a VC or as an entrepreneur. You can also use an existing idea/product/company or create a fictitious one. I have completed the class a few times and each time feels like a new experience, with less focus on the lectures over time and more time spent on teamwork.
The first task is to build a team. You can join the course with your friends, classmates, co-workers or you can connect with other students. When you do so, you just need to make sure there is alignment on the time each team member will put in. Being a free class with many full-time students and busy professionals, it is not uncommon to lose a few participants along the way.
You have the option to join or create a team. I have formed diverse and international teams of investment professionals within my time zone, for example.
There is a lot to be learned from the other participants, for example on how they approach valuation or negotiations. It is a great risk-free opportunity to build new entrepreneurial and investing skills.
One of the most challenging aspects of building a company up is the lack of available resources. It is not only a financial hurdle, it is often a talent and experience gap as well.
Of course, many founders are very resourceful. That is why they launched their business. They can bootstrap many areas of the company and pull favors to overcome obstacles. They are creative problem solvers and relentless achievers.
They are inspiring leaders, which means that many partners, friends, clients, and suppliers want to be helpful. It creates a support system, a circle, rooting for the company’s success.
As startups grow, many new roles become necessary but do not require full-time employees or cannot fit in the budget. That is where advisors come in.
They are usually very experienced, getting paid with equity and sometimes cash. They save the CEO time and effort. They provide valuable insights and introductions. That typically speeds up and improves execution, strategy, and operations.
It is rare though for any leader to have all the experts lined up and ready to help, covering any topics in an unbiased and exhaustive manner.
Not having the right advisors or lacking advisors can be costly, especially on strategic decisions. Listening to the wrong consiglieres and eager colleagues can lead to mistakes. Getting the right advice at the right time can change everything.
Alexis Ohanian humbly shared recently his experience selling Reddit for $10 million in 2006 to Conde Nast at a challenging time.
He commented that he wished he “had more advisors around the table giving me more perspective on the sale” and “had an investor tell me there were other options (like raising a Series A!)”.
Reddit ranks today as the 17th most-visited website in the world and the 7th most-visited website in the US, according to Alexa Internet.
Alexis Ohanian tweeted about selling Reddit for $10 million in 2006, as his mom was dying of cancer
These days, start-up investor Alexis Ohanian is perhaps best known for being married to tennis legend Serena Williams…
Mark Zuckerberg, around the same time, almost sold Facebook to Yahoo! for $1 billion in July 2006 but declined.
Peter Thiel from Founders Fund explained how Yahoo! offered a billion earlier to Google and Ebay but they both declined and thrived.
Facebook’s general counsel at the time, Chris Kelly reached out to Roger McNamee, an investor. His discussion, as an advisor, with Mark Zuckerberg likely changed the course of Facebook’s history.
The Day Mark Zuckerberg Turned Down Yahoo’s $1 Billion
Lead By Allison Fass, Executive director, digital @ Inc. @alliefass At SXSW Tuesday afternoon, Peter Thiel, the…
Mark Zuckerberg once said yes to selling Facebook. This is what followed
Zuckerberg’s hand was weakened by a disturbing development. In mid- 2006, Facebook had stopped growing. The dashboards…
The detailed story can be found in a book aptly tilted Facebook: The Inside Story.
The best way to complete the courses and enjoy the experience is to follow the weekly pace provided by 2 of them (Startup School and Venture Deals), to be in synch with the assignments, the class, and the activity in the forums.
Students can break down their learning into short sessions over months since all the content is delivered on-demand.
The courses do not have any pre-requisites nor do they require any level of education. Completing all 3, with lectures, exercises, and class participation can take from 100 to 150 hours.
All 3 courses are using on-demand videos, so if a concept does not click right away, you can watch the video again or use the forum to ask clarifying questions. Many students have already asked questions so a quick search can also save a lot of time.
There might be a steeper learning curve for some but there is no coding nor complex financial models ever involved. Some might need to spend more time on the materials. Overall the content is very accessible.
Of course, startups often succeed because their founders had or built a great network. Those 3 courses can be helpful, can fill skills gaps, and shorten the empirical process. They cannot replace hard work, dedication, focus, and relying on a solid network.
2 of those courses (Startup School and Venture Deals) offer forums to connect during but also beyond the classwork. Use those wisely to connect with compatible professionals, collaborate and expand your network. It is also a great place to collect feedback, share ideas, and learn from others directly.
Max Dufour is a Partner at Harmeda. He leads strategic engagements for Financial Services, Technology, and Strategy Consulting clients. Connect at email@example.com, on LinkedIn, or visit Harmeda. Any links to external sites can be affiliate links and therefore generate compensation as part of the Amazon Associates Program and other similar programs.