Entrepreneurs Arthur Camara and Benny Giang would love to get into Y Combinator, but even if they got through the exclusive Silicon Valley startup accelerator’s competitive application process, they’d still have one big problem: they live in Vancouver, Canada, which is not exactly a short commute to Mountain View, California.
Over the past month, though, they’ve been getting a taste of Y Combinator life from home. Since early April, Y Combinator has been running a free, 10-week online course called Startup School: it’s meant to replicate a bit of the accelerator experience by combining online lectures from tech-world luminaries about starting a company with online mentoring from past Y Combinator participants and support from fellow Startup School students. At the end, there will be an online demo day where founders can share what they’ve built with others.
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The course won’t take the place of an in-person startup accelerator, but Y Combinator—whose alums include Airbnb, Reddit, and Dropbox—sees it as a way to offer far-flung companies advice and feedback about getting a tech company off the ground without them having to uproot their lives and move to the Bay Area. (Y Combinator requires companies that participate in its full-time program—which runs in two three-month sessions each year—to move there.)
“There are so many companies out there that don’t have the same resources that anyone in the Bay Area does, so we just want to make that more accessible to them,” says Steven Pham, who works on special projects at Y Combinator and is running Startup School.
And beyond that altruistic-sounding goal, Startup School may also help Y Combinator spot promising entrepreneurs it wouldn’t otherwise come across.
There was a lot more interest in the course than expected: in total, 13,500 startups applied to take part, and 3,000 were accepted, says Pham. There are about 30 startups per advisor. Anyone can view the lecture videos on YouTube or on Startup School’s site—they are taped in front of an audience at Stanford University as they are also for a startup-building class Y Combinator is hosting there—and the four that have been uploaded so far have gotten over 80,000 views altogether.
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So how useful is it? Several weeks in, the course has been really helpful, say Camara and Giang, whose startup Toby helps people manage browser tabs. They have been in touch with a lot of other entrepreneurs in the program, and they think the lectures—which have titles like “How and Why to Start a Startup” (given by Y Combinator president Sam Altman and Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz) and “How to Execute” (given by 23andMe cofounder and CEO Anne Wojcicki)—are engaging.
They’re also excited that their mentor, whose startup, Bufferbox, was purchased by Google in 2014, is Canadian.
There are, of course, plenty of drawbacks to not working in person with others who are trying to build their startups. It can be hard to prioritize the online course, since Giang and Camara are spending most of their time readying for private “beta” tests of Toby with companies, yet they also have to submit weekly progress reports and check in with their mentor. And Camara says he misses that personal connection you get when you meet someone in person and can work with them face to face.
“You don’t get that,” he says. “But the upside is they can reach out to a lot more people.”