Ten Weeks with Y Combinator’s Startup School: An Insider’s View
In early March 2017, I found out that Y Combinator had announced its first online startup school. That really made me happy, since we’ve tried to get into their offline school twice and received negative responses twice.
Y Combinator (YC) is one of the largest startup accelerators in the world. It was founded in 2005, and now-famous companies like Stripe, AirBnB Weebly, Optimizely, Dropbox, Reddit, MixPanel, Twitch, and others have gone through the program. During the accelerator-program YC invests $120k for 7% of the company. It’s fairly difficult to get into this program.
In 2017, YC decided to expand their horizons and organized their first online school, that’s free, and YC does not invest or take any stake in the companies.
I submitted my application as soon as I found out about the new online school. A few days later I got a letter saying my application had been accepted. Awesome! I was so happy that I even printed out the letter and posted my happy face on Facebook.
On the very same day I was added to a group chat and a closed group. And thus began my time with YC Startup School!
So, what was this school like?
Startup School groups and chats
The first thing we did was join a general chat (AKA the “town square”). There, we could share messages that were visible to all participants of the online school. So on the first day we mostly just got to know each other.
Later on, different discussions were started through this channel: people collected feedback, discussed pricing, looked for developers, etc.
All of the participants were broken up into groups (according to time zones). AcademyOcean wound up in group #25. Each group had its own separate chat, which was a much more comfortable environment compared to the general chat. Everyone got to know each other right away, but just through chat messages; we hadn’t yet seen each other’s faces. A bit later our mentor joined the group and let us know that the first Office Hours would be held on Wednesday and we’d have to attend. But what exactly were Office Hours?
At the designated time, we were sent a link that directed us to a conference call. All the startups in our group were there. Vishal, our mentor, told us what his company does and right off the bat suggested an interesting format for our discussion: each startup would share its pitch, and then Vishal would choose a random group member to summarize what he had heard and what he had gotten out of the pitch. And so on, one by one. Using this format achieves several things at once:
- the speaker tries to convey his message as clearly as possible;
- everyone else is paying close attention, because no one knows who will have to summarize next;
- if the summary doesn’t go well, then the speaker doing the pitch knows that he could have articulated his ideas better;
- after each pitch and summary, Vishal gave his feedback.
I wound up having to summarize first. Incidentally, on top of that, each week Vishal asked one person to take notes to share with the group on how the office hours went, and I wound up being first to do this, too. I have a hunch that this must somehow be related to the fact that AcademyOcean is almost always first in alphabetical lists…).
This is how we looked during office hours:
Our group was very interesting. There were 22 companies represented in our chat, but there were usually 12–15 of us present at office hours. The companies came from eight different countries (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, Romania, Israel, Greece, and Uganda), but they were all based in similar time zones so it would be convenient to have office hours at the same time.
We never crossed paths with some of the people in our group (presumably they didn’t participate), but here’s a list of those who actively participated:
Daniil from Radario wasn’t able to make it to Office Hours one week because he went to hear a lecture in person at Stanford. He sent his greetings. :-)
We all got along very well. Everyone tried to help each other out by giving constructive feedback. Many of us still talk on Facebook. These have been very valuable connections.
Our mentor was Vishal Joshi from Joy. His product went through YC’s offline school, and he told us all sorts of interesting things about how his company grew 30 times over during the Summer 2016 Batch. Vishal has a great deal of experience, so it was helpful for all of us to hear his opinions about our products, positioning, markets, etc.
It was interesting to me that the time our Office Hours were set for (6 PM GMT +3) was early morning for Vishal. I bet it was not easy for him, but he was always on time :-)
Outside of weekly Office Hours, we could talk with Vishal one-on-one. We weren’t able to set up one-on-one chats that often because of his schedule, but the personal calls we did have were very helpful. These conversations looked like talking to a good friend who wants to help you and to share his knowledge.
Btw, I showed the draft of this article to Vishal, and he said that if anyone who reads this article has questions about their startups he will be happy to help. Reach him out via email.
Another interesting feature we had access to was the startup map. Each startup could mark its location on a map and see its neighbors. This was very handy for certain markets, or if you just wanted to make friends with people in companies based in different countries.
For me, one of the most important aspects of YC Startup School apart from the networking was the lecture series. Each week we got access to two lectures (each about 50 minutes long) on various topics useful to startups (how to come up with ideas, how to measure the right KPIs, how to build products, how to get use cases, how to find product-market fit, etc.)
Personally, I enjoyed Alan Kay’s lectures the most: “How To Invent the Future.”
At 77, he is a sharp thinker. He’s an extraordinary combination of engineer (he was one of the fathers of object-oriented programming) and artist (he’s a composer, guitarist, and theatrical designer). I highly recommend getting to know his life story.
Updates and metrics
Another important detail of YC Startup School was the weekly report. Each of us had to choose a metric for our company (number of registrations, clients, or users, or maybe MRR) and set a goal to grow this metric in a week.
In the next Office Hours, everyone discussed their successes. But we couldn’t do this by talking about what we “tried” to do. We had to talk about what we accomplished. In other words, if you reached your goal, you did well. You got an even higher goal for the following week (usually 10% higher). And if you didn’t reach your goal, then instead we tried to figure out why and decide what could be done better next week.
When YC Startup School began, AcademyOcean hardly had any learners, so I chose the metric “number of demos conducted for potential clients.” But closer to the end of the program I changed it to “number of learners.”
If the YC program were starting now, I would choose a metric involving money (for SaaS this is usually MRR).
Virtual Demo Day
The nine weeks flew by. We had our group calls; we talked; we shared our successes and failures; we got feedback; and we grew our startups. It’s very interesting to track the successes of other people’s companies, and this empowers us to grow our own startups.
Then came the tenth week. It was time for us to prepare our final videos. The startups in the offline YC School present their products onstage at Demo Day. We couldn’t do that since, first of all, we weren’t physically at Demo Day, and, secondly, there were far more of us enrolled in the online school, so an event like that would have taken several days. So we had a Virtual Demo Day.
Each team worked on a script for their video. We got feedback on our work and then refined it and added finishing touches. Then we filmed the video and, if there was anything left to improve, we improved it. There were strict criteria for what the video should include when submitted, as well as tips for what it shouldn’t include.
Here’s our first video…:
…and here’s how it looked when we submitted it, after all our edits:
The teams updated their profiles with links to their videos, and at the designated time all the videos went live! Now you can see everyone’s videos here: https://www.startupschool.org/presentations.
After a few days, all the teams that completed the program’s assignments were sent certificates of completion in the mail from YC Startup School.
In summary, I’d like to say that I’m delighted that we made it into YC Startup School. If you have a startup (or are planning to start one), I highly recommend that you follow the Startup School’s updates and submit your application as soon as enrollment begins for the next group.
It was a great learning experience!
Thank you, YC!