Lessons to be learned from Paul Graham

y combinator

Here’s a book I missed on publication in 2011, but it’s still well worth reading today five years later.

While Paul Graham doesn’t consider himself a mentor and I think the only time the word “mentor” is ever mentioned in the book is to assert that fact, he is a consummate teacher. While Y-Combinator might be considered an investment fund and/or an accelerator, it’s really a school for startups. Students – the entrepreneurs, or founders as Graham prefers to call them – enroll for one 3-month term. Tuition is 6% of the equity in their newly formed companies. They receive stipends of about $15,000. Graduation requires participation at Demo Day, when founders present their products to roughly 400 investors.

In the spirit of Jean Piaget constructivist learning, students learn by doing – building a product. They also learn from each other, and of course, from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham and his colleagues. But rather than attend classes they attend a weekly dinner and office hours are purely on demand, not required.  They learn to pivot, to fail quickly and start again with a new idea.

Perhaps it’s my background in the higher education market, but Y-Combinator seems to put in practice the learning theories of Piaget and the late Seymour Papert far more successfully than any educational institution I’m aware. And the success rate of his students, as measured by companies raising capital and launching successful business is stellar.

Of course, like many elite institutions such as Harvard and Stanford, the secret sauce is the selection process: only about 3% of applicants are accepted to each
Y-Combinator class. And Graham ruthlessly focuses on a very select set of criteria: young, white, male coders who are unencumbered by spouses, children, mortgages or anything else that might distract them from focusing 100% on creating their product in three months.

What would be very interesting to see would be an attempt to apply the Y-Combinator pedagogy to a broader cohort of student/founders. But who would fund such an endeavor?

In the meantime theres a lot to learn from Randall Stross’ book for both mentors and entrepreneurs, er…. founders.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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