Our Ycombinator Startup School Experience

Last Friday something remarkable happened: Ycombinator hosted the world's largest startup demo day ever. "Presentation Day" was the closing event of a 10-week MOOC Ycombinator calls "Startup School".

13321 startups from 141 countries applied to Startup School, 2820 were selected, 1584 graduated & 797 presented online. We participated with FitChat. 

Like most participants I think we can safely say that our experience was positive, albeit very different from usual startup accelerator fare. Let's review the program now that the dust has settled a little. So what did we get out of Startup School?

Mentoring

Startups were divided in cohorts of about 20 & assigned to a dedicated mentor within the network of YC-alums. Ours was Jason Chen. He did a great job hosting the weekly video call & generously made his time available in 1-on-1 office hours. 

What’s unique about the YC network is that most mentors are actively building their second or third startup. It’s refreshing to hear your mentor talk about the issues they’re struggling with that week. 

Most of the advice came in the form of pattern recognition: “Don’t do that right now.” & asking the right questions.

In our business we like to say that “Consulting is solving the right problem & Coaching is asking the right questions.” The mentoring YC provided was squarely in the latter category. Thanks a lot Jason! You have no idea how valuable your input was!

Confidentiality

“What happens in Startup School stays in Startup School.” There was a very clear gentleman’s agreement to respect each other’s privacy & at no point were we pressured to talk publicly about our startup. This made it possible to talk openly during office hours & contributed to the long-term value of the Startup School network.

There was no pressure for “Presentation Day” or to apply for YC funding. If you wanted the opportunities were there, but ultimately the choice was yours. This was in stark contrast to what I’ve seen at other accelerators who often in order to “look good from the outside” turn into a startup circus.

Hands-off

There was weekly video call with about 20 startups and your mentor but other than that the program was pretty much hands-off. There were no celebrity mentors, no required classes, very little homework. If you needed help you ask for it, otherwise, you were expected to continue build your product or talk to customers. Refreshingly simple.

Cohorts

Our group started out with a little less than 30 startups & in the last call maybe half of those were still around. The first few weeks of video calls were pretty crazy & hectic. 

All kinds of startups were blended together: early-stage, late-stage, solo-founders, different verticals. I feel this may have reduced the quality of actionable advice but on the other hand it was inspiring to see that no matter the level of funding or vertical every founder still struggles.

The real value we got out of the weekly video calls with our cohort was accountability, a little external push & validation. Sometimes it felt more like “Founder Therapy” than “Startup School”.

Weekly Metric

Each startup was expected to report a weekly metric in an online tool on the startup school website. For most startups this was active users or revenue. Defining and tracking that weekly metric was surprisingly useful (& hard!). There’s tremendous value in having a single KPI to keep you accountable & focussed. Defining the “right” metric for your startup proved to be hard, especially if you were pre-launch.

Video Lectures

The weekly video lectures have been pretty much hit-or-miss for me. About 20% of the vids made 80% of the value & the others felt just like filler content. High-quality filler content, sure, but not always applicable to our situation.

Networking

Ycombinator built a decent online networking tool & chat environment for the participants. With 4000 people in the chat it was a little overwhelming though. The chat will stay up & I expect to get some more value out of the connections we made there.

Credits

Each startup received about $5000 in Amazon & Google credits. And if you asked through the YC network, ex-YC alums were happy to give you deals on their products.

Suggestions

Here are a couple of ideas for how I think Ycombinator can improve the format.

Cohort Size. 20-30 startups in a single video call is insane. This naturally got better as fewer and fewer people tuned into the calls every week though, so one solution would be to be a little more aggressive in culling those who don’t meet the weekly requirements.

Cohort Verticals. I know a lot of people would like to see the startups to be grouped together by vertical & stage (pre-launch, launch, seed). I actually found it inspiring to see startups at all stages & from all verticals. Keep it the way it is!

Presentation Day & Graduation. It was pretty cool to prep the final video & see it live on the Startup School website, but I think this can be done better. Here’s a crazy idea, listen me out. Startup School was pretty international & I’m sure plenty of venues (coworking spaces, startup offices) would be happy to host a “Presentation Day Binge Watching Party”. At 800 2-minute presentations that’s just a little over 24h of video, you could split that up into a couple of “parties” worldwide.

Post-Graduation. I would love to continue doing the weekly video calls in some kind of self-guided way. I'm trying to put together a group of 5-10 Startup School graduates who want to continue to push forward & meet up every week. Would be cool if YC provided some guidance/help in organising that. If you're interested in joining such a video call, get in touch.

The FitChat Method

You probably ended up here because you want to get fit, or at least fitter than you are today. Maybe you want to lose some weight, sleep better or start running.

The good news is that all of these goals are withing reach. The bad news is that most people give up on their fitness goals within the first 3 months.

I think I have found a solution for that problem. A method that just keeps you going. Here it is:

  • Pick a daily measurable goal. Like 10K steps, 350 active calories burned, etc ...
  • Share this goal with just one friend & ask them to reciprocate with their own goal.
  • Every day, report on your progress in your favorite chat app. FB Messenger, iMessages, whatever works for both of you.
  • Once a week have a short phone call or video chat to review the week & adjust your goals.

That's it. Simple.  I've personally used this method to reach the following goals:

  • I lost 5Kg & didn't gain them again. (Daily Metric: measure weight with Withings Smart Body Analyser every day)
  • I changed my sleeping habits to wake up before 06.00AM. (Daily Metric: wake up before 06.00AM)
  • I became more productive by counting daily work sessions (Daily Metric: 12x 25-minute session per day)

Why does it work? I kinda stumbled onto this method myself, but here's my take on why I think it works:

Daily metrics that are measured & reported automatically work best. A daily metric forces you to think small & using wearable tech like Apple Watch or FitBit means you can't cheat.

Accountability works better if it's reciprocated. You don't need to work on the same goals, but it's great to have an accountability partner with skin in the game.

One-on-one accountability works best: you're trying to change a habit so this means you are going to fail initially. Announcing grand goals publicly tends to work initially but setting private goals with people you respect tends to work better in the long run.

The weekly face-to-face evaluation tends to spur you on. You simply don't want to face your partner & disappoint.

Chat. There's just something about chat that makes it all very personal & encouraging. If you're in a funk your accountability partner is right there in your pocket, a tap away.

I'm building FitChat to help you apply this method in your life.