Startup School, a free 10-week online course organized by Y Combinator, just graduated its second annual class. In my opinion, it’s the perfect program for early-stage startups. The lessons and accountability make the time investment well worth it.
In this post, I’ll dive into exactly why I found the program so valuable, including my top takeaways.
Think of Startup School as “YC light.” In many ways, it’s like the full YC program, minus relocating to Silicon Valley and a $150,000 equity investment. What was included this year:
- Weekly group mentorship sessions
- Several video lectures per week
- A forum for mutual support and accountability
- Goal tracking
- Deals from service providers (e.g. Microsoft Azure and Stripe Atlas)
- An opportunity for 100 companies to a receive an equity-free $10,000 grant
The video lectures—from some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley—are available for anyone to watch.
YC accidentally sent acceptance emails to more companies than it had allocated space for. They turned a mistake into an opportunity by deciding to accept all startups that applied (more than 15,000!) into the program.
It’s great to see YC taking a taste of their own medicine and scaling their insights far beyond the startups they invest in.
Before I get into my top insights from Startup School, I think it makes sense to put my startup journey into context.
My company, SimpleBulb, is addressing the problem of unhealthy light. Our first product, Bedtime Bulb, is a low-blue light bulb for healthy sleep. Bedtime Bulb is used in the evening to reduce sleep interruption from artificial light.
The idea for Bedtime Bulb did not come out of left field. It was preceded by a lifelong obsession with light and multiple attempts to solve the issue of nighttime blue light. You can learn more about the backstory in this post.
When Startup School began at the end of August, I had a product and a few dozen pre-orders in hand. Early users loved the product, which I am grateful for because it can be difficult and expensive to iterate on hardware. The metric I decided to track was the weekly number of units sold.
I was planning a Kickstarter launch at the time, but I was daunted by the challenge. Historical data showed that most of the top campaigns were fully funded within the first two days and then “rode the wave” of media promotion and other follow-on effects. Because Kickstarter is not the best platform for organic discovery, I would have to drive massive amounts of traffic to the campaign—this can be incredibly costly and challenging.
During the first group office hours session, I introduced my startup and what I planned to do during the program. Our group mentor, Martin Poschenrieder, a YC alum (Founder of testmunk, YC S12), was very kind but asked challenging questions. Just hearing myself explain the pre-order program and Kickstarter plan out loud made it sound really complicated, and I realized I had to do something much simpler.
YC core tenet #1: launch early
One of YC’s core tenets is that you should launch before you think you are ready, even if you are embarrassed about the product’s state. I had a product that worked well that early users loved—well beyond the stage of embarrassment—so what was I waiting for by delaying the official launch?
The group convinced me to just go sell, and within two weeks the product was in stock on Amazon. It turned out to be a great move, as we’ve sold hundreds of units to date with a weekly average growth rate of 28%.
The lesson to go sell was so simple and obvious, yet I had tried to overcomplicate it. By choosing to sell, I am able to get more customer feedback, prove demand, and iterate more quickly.
That first office hours session was so immensely valuable, I could have stopped there and been in an excellent position. It’s not to say the rest of the program wasn’t helpful—it was by far. But showing up for office hours with an open mind, tracking metrics, and watching lectures for 10 weeks helped me in a way that is perhaps a little less obvious.
Some literature says that it takes 66 days, on average, to form a new habit. Startup School lasted 10 weeks, or approximately 70 days. Perhaps this is no coincidence.
Coming out of Startup School, I feel so much more motivated to continue pushing for weekly growth. I know the roller coaster ride is far from over, but I feel I have more of an open mind to take whatever comes our way. I’ve created a startup habit.
Startup School is over, but I’m taking with me new friendships, new ideas, and a lot more motivation to work on my startup.
Bedtime Bulb has now launched in the U.S. and Canada. In ten weeks, we’ve scaled to the point that we might sell out before the next factory shipment arrives. We’re actively working on future offerings and refining our messaging. And we’re about to launch our seed fundraising round so that we can scale the product line, build a diverse team, and ultimately change the world through healthy light.
Different startups are bound to get something different than we got out of Startup School. But if you show up every week with an open mind, you are bound to have a positive experience and to form your own startup habit.