A New Online “Pre-Accelerator” from Steve Blank and Startup Weekend
In the past, most early-stage startups went down one of three well-worn paths. They either rented office space from a business incubator, in the hope of running into investors and business partners; applied to an accelerator program like TechStars or Y Combinator, which provide mentorship and networking over a set period of several months in exchange for equity; or winged it and worked independently from their kitchen tables. All three paths have their pros and cons.
But now there’s a fourth way to get started. A coalition of four groups inspired by Steve Blank, the Pescadero, CA-based author, serial entrepreneur, and startup guru, today announced the formation of a four-week, online-only “pre-accelerator” course intended to help entrepreneurs create, refine, and test business models with help from volunteer mentors. Modeled after Blank’s Lean LaunchPad classes, which have been taught at Stanford, UC Berkeley, Columbia, Caltech, Princeton, and the National Science Foundation, the first classes will begin in 25 cities around the world on Nov. 28.
Blank calls the project “the biggest entrepreneurial program ever launched” and says its goal is to “empower hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs and help create 10,000 startups.”
The groups behind the effort are Startup Weekend, the Seattle-based organizer of more than 800 weekend-long startup creation events; TechStars, the multi-city network of startup accelerators; Udacity, the online courseware startup founded by Stanford roboticist Sebastian Thrun; and the Startup America Partnership, a national network of entrepreneurs and investors funded by the Kauffman Foundation and the Case Foundation.
The class, called Startup Weekend Next, will be hosted on Udacity’s website and led by Startup Weekend, which is recruiting local organizers in leading technology clusters. TechStars and Startup America will provide volunteer coaches and mentors for the participating startups. There’s a fee of $140 to $299 to cover expenses; startups don’t have to sign over any equity to participate.
“We were missing a part of the ecosystem,” Blank says of the thinking behind the new course. “The 1 percent are well taken care of at places like Stanford and Harvard and Berkeley and Y Combinator and TechStars. But how do we get the other 99 percent engaged in entrepreneurship and inspire them and give them the basic tools? There hasn’t been something that is the equivalent of Startup Weekend for the masses.”
In fact, there’s already an online version of Blank’s Lean LaunchPad course underway at Udacity, and more than 50,000 students have signed up for it since it began a month ago. The problem with that class, says Blank, is that it lacks the real-world components that make his university-based LaunchPad classes successful.
Students aren’t required to form a team to pursue a business idea, they don’t get direct feedback from instructors or mentors, they aren’t forced to “get out of the building” (one of Blank’s trademark phrases) to get feedback on their product idea from potential customers, and they aren’t required to share their progress with their peers.
Startup Weekend Next has been designed to correct those shortcomings. Part of the key is putting entrepreneurs who sign up for the class in touch with local mentors. “This is why we brought in TechStars and Startup America, so we could get not just random people but experienced entrepreneurs and investors,” Blank says. Since announcing the Startup Weekend Next program this morning, Blank says, the project has already heard from 75 potential mentors—as well as 500 interested students.
Marc Nager, CEO of Startup Weekend, says making sure that students can connect with local mentors “ensures some of the core elements of social accountability and cohort creation that are absent from the purely online courses.” But there’s another key element: training for the local course leaders. Nager says that all Startup Weekend Next organizers will be put though an “intensive training program” involving videos, four to five Skype training sessions, and two webinars with Blank himself. “Early next year we will be doing a large in-person summit with all of the class facilitators to ensure the training method is taught as effectively as possible,” Nager adds.
The idea for Startup Weekend Next emerged as “one of those classic things where entrepreneurs are noodling over an idea form six different directions and they see a pattern and it all snaps together in one day,” Blank says.
Since leading his first Lean LaunchPad course at Stanford in the spring of 2011, Blank has been busy recreating the course for institutions like the NSF and for universities as far away as Delft in the Netherlands, and he says he’s gathered plenty of first-hand evidence that entrepreneurs are thirsty for such experiences.
Recently, Blank joined the board of Startup Weekend, and at a board meeting earlier this year, he says, “Marc was saying ‘We’re thinking about extending our curriculum but we don’t know how.’ I realized I had a curriculum ready-made for this. I’d been teaching not only a quarter-long version but also a five-day version, so I knew I could teach it in a shorter period. Marc came up with something intermediate, which was the four-week concept. That’s good enough to give you the basic skills.”
In Blank’s view, there’s an emerging set of skills that every early-stage entrepreneur needs to know. He calls it an “entrepreneurship API,” in reference to the application programming interfaces that today’s Web and mobile developers use to connect diverse services.
The first skill is the ability to sketch and revise a business model, using the business model canvas thinking tool developed by the Geneva-based management consultant Alexander Osterwalder. The second is “customer development,” an idea developed at length by Blank in his 2005 book The Four Steps to the Epiphany and expanded by Blank and co-author Bob Dorff in their 2012 book The Startup Owner’s Manual; it boils down to the practice of “getting out of the bulding” and collecting feedback about a product idea from target customers. Finally there’s the philosophy of agile product development—an idea borrowed from agile software engineering that emphasizes rapid product development cycles with frequent modifications based on customer feedback.
“Once you know these three things and have practiced them, then we can begin a discussion of how to build a startup,” Blank says. “That is essentially the goal of the class, teaching this entrepreneurial API. If we can graduate people who can talk about business models and customers and pivots and prototypes, it will be a home run.”
Nager says the online course idea was a natural fit for Startup Weekend, which is famous for its trademark 54-hour startup-creation marathons. These weekends have been staged in 350 cities around the world, have been attended by nearly 60,000 entrepreneurs, and are credited with helping to launch 5,000 startups. But “attendees have always asked ‘What’s next?’ after Startup Weekend,” Nager says. The focus of Startup Weekend Next will be “creating more capable teams,” he says.
Startup Weekend has enough staff to support about 30 local instances of Startup Weekend Next in 2012, Nager says, and he hopes that the program will expand significantly in 2013. The core demographic for the program, he predicts, will be the same as that for Startup Weekend: “25- to 40-year old working professionals. We expect to see a high conversion from the Startup Weekend events themselves, and in fact we are strongly recommending that anyone entering a Next program have attended a Startup Weekend before, as it helps ensure a baseline understanding of the methodologies, culture, and community.”
Blank says some of the most important payoffs of participating in a Startup Weekend or the Startup Weekend Next course are emotional. The session gives proto-entrepreneurs the opportunity to work with other people to build a team, to test their mettle, and to decide if the startup life feels right.
“What I saw in the San Francisco prototype course was exactly what I was hoping, which was that about a quarter of the teams melted down and the people said ‘Boy, startups are hard, that’s not for me,’ which is perfect,” Blank says. “It’s great to see all the cultural and emotional stuff that goes on in finding the right team members and figuring out what to do. If you are thinking about this as a career, then spending four weeks and $150, in terms of price-performance, is the best thing ever.”
Here’s a video in which Nager and Blank introduce the Startup Weekend Next concept.