The words “mentor”, “mentoring” or “mentorship” occur six times in the article
Y Combinator will accept 10,000 startups to prove there’s nothing magical about Silicon Valley by Michael J. Coren on Quartz.com. That’s no accident, as it’s clear that mentoring is key to scaling Y-Combinator up by two orders of magnitude. Y-Combinator was started in Boston by Paul Graham in 2005 as a strictly face-to-face, relationship-based incubator. (For more the history of Y-Combinator see my post about the book The LaunchPad by Randall Stross.) The YC model remained the same as it moved to Silicon Valley and has stayed the same until this year. Meeting with Paul Graham, weekly dinners amongst the founders, and Y-Combinator staff, mentoring sessions – all was conduced F2F. In fact, if you were accepted into the increasingly selective Y-Combinator program you had to move to Silicon Valley, period.
For now, YC can only turn out about 300 companies per year through its bi-annual program in Mountain View, California. In technology terms, YC itself has not really scaled. Most of what it does remains analog and manual: mentoring in classrooms, weekly dinners, and a program requiring everyone to live in California for months at a time.
Is it possible to scale a program that was 100% based on real time, in-person interactions and relationships?
Well Y-Combinator is giving it a try through its Startup School, a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) billed as a free online version of YC, promised to “teach people about how to start a startup, and equip them with the needed resources.”
The first cohort of 3,000 companies from 141 countries will be given a chance to “replicate much of the YC experience” through a virtual program with mentors, collaboration with peers, and video lectures…”
The companies use custom-built software to collaborate, pour over their weekly metrics, and attend weekly mentoring sessions with YC alumni (200 volunteered to meet with participants). This volunteer rate is a real testament to the lasting value of the network of relationships Y-Combinator has built with its alumni. Mentors hold group sessions with founders on Google Hangouts to hash out problems.
Sandiep Medisetti, founder of alumni relations startup Almabase. says his mentor, a YC graduate who volunteers several hours per week, has been instrumental in solving customer-relations challenges for Almabase’s 100 or so clients.
Accelerators supply young companies with education, mentorship, and financing for a few months to speed up their growth. The ratio of mentors to startups at the moment is 30:1, (although YC plans to increase this). It’s not clear how they arrived at this ratio, other than it’s the standard instructor to student ratio found in classrooms in public education, nor why they want to increase the ratio.
Y-Combinator claims only 20% of participants have dropped out after eight weeks (companies must complete 90% of weekly updates and office hours to stay in the program) compared to a typical attrition rate in MOOCS of 87%. However, it will take at least a few “semesters” to ascertain the graduation rate. And beyond how many founders actually complete the Startup School MOOC, how many of those ventures will go on to launch and succeed? That will take years to determine.
But Sam Altman, President of YC, stated in an interview in early May that: ““The original, long-standing goal of YC is that startups are good for the world and individual, and how can we get more of them?”
YC is at its heart an educational institution, whether they subscribe to that description or not. But unlike educational institutions, YC is driven by data and metrics, so I believe we can look forward to transparent reporting on how The Startup School succeeds in its ambitious goals. As someone who has viewed several of it’s video lectures and been a bystander as it gets off the ground, I’m impressed. However, YC is still depending on the lecture method – a staple of higher education, but one that’s effectiveness has been in question for years. The hoary quote I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand still remains true. I believe YC is going to have to move beyond the canned video lecture method to a more interactive way of teaching if it is going to meet its ambitious goals of scaling the YC model to tens of thousands of students.