Inside Startup School

by Kevin Shockey

Many say that success in business and life often is a matter of
timing. In the case of
Y Combinator
and its recently completed
Startup School, I would have to concur
completely. As Michael Mandel, Chief Economist for
BusinessWeek, shared during his presentation at
Startup School, most economies can be defined by four words: "Boom, Bust, Boom, Bust".
He also said that he believes the Internet is entering a new Boom cycle.

Y Combinator is a new kind of venture firm specializing in funding
early stage startups. The company funds startups in batches instead of taking
the usual approach of funding startups individually. Startup School is Y
Combinator's initiative to help more potential entrepreneurs understand the
process of moving from an idea to a company.

Recently, Y Combinator finished work with its first batch of startups from the
Founders Program
. A group of eight companies started this program back in May
2005. Paul Graham, the founder of ViaWeb, which sold to
Yahoo in 1998, author of Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer
and a partner in Y Combinator, said, "if I had to guess now, I'd predict three or four of the
eight startups we funded will make it".

According to the final report of the
Group on Venture Capital
, a joint effort between the Department
of Commerce and the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry,
there is a fundamental failure in the provision of early-stage financing
for startups in both the US and the EU. So it would seem that Y Combinator and the
Startup School are timed well to fill a clear need. As many of the
speakers at Startup School would agree, filling a clear need is key
to the success of any startup.

As a participant in Startup School, it was amazing to witness approximately 500 aspiring
entrepreneurs gathered for this program. Demand to participate was even more
impressive. I heard from Jessica Livingston, a partner with Y Combinator,
that over 700 people applied. The school was held on the campus of
Harvard University in Hall B of the Science Center.

Although the school was held at the tail end of a week-long autumn rain
spell, October 15, there seemed to be few no shows--and with good reason.
Startup School featured a first rate line-up of experts on the topic of
starting technology companies. In addition, the speakers included representatives
from both Yahoo and Google.

For many, the highlight of the line-up was a presentation by
Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple
Computer. Steve delivered a presentation full of energy and insights into
an historical era of the computer industry. He poignantly stated what many
of the speakers pointed out when talking about innovating: "To me, goodness is having
the fewest parts." In other words, keep it simple.

According to Livingston, the list of speakers invited originally
consisted of people that spoke to the participants of the original Summer
Founder's Program. Additional speakers were added to fill in gaps to
ensure that participants heard about all of the aspects Y Combinator
feels are important to know when starting new companies.

Startup School actually was Paul Graham's idea, and it came about even before the first Summer Founders
Program. Livingston recalled that Paul approached her about doing the
Startup School. Along the way, the Summer Founders Program emerged as a
result of their development of Paul's original idea. Following
the success of the original batch of startups, though, they still felt strongly
about trying to help more potential entrepreneurs, especially for
free. Ultimately, Y Combinator felt the best way to help was to
educate people. Essentially their observations are that many of the
people Y Combinator talks with are brilliant but generally are
terrified by the concept of forming a business. This was confirmed
by one of the Summer Founders. In the concluding session of the Startup
School, which included some of the original Summer Founders, Aaron Swartz
shared that when he was explaining his plans for the summer, he did not
tell people that he was going to be working on starting a company. He
would tell people only that he would be working for a company, because
it seemed so absurd to think he was starting a company.

In summary, Y Combinator's Startup School included a stellar group of
startup experts and a lot of concise, easy-to-use startup advice. I'm
sure that many of the attendees left with a new perspective on starting a
company. Another idea that was repeated by more than one speaker was to follow
your passion. By merely attending Startup School, I believe that many in
attendance are on their way to doing exactly that. I met people from Canada, Mexico,
Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Atlanta, and I'm sure many
other places even farther away from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Traveling
thousands of miles with your own money to hear about starting a company
seems like a great definition of passion, don't you think? I'm convinced
that many future startups will emerge from this first class of Startup
School attendees. I'm also convinced that many of them will apply for the
Winter Founders
, although they should hurry. The October 25th deadline is
approaching quickly.

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