Zain Shah

Designing a startup accelerator for engineers

24 September 2013

adapted (generalized) from a Facebook conversation about turning UPenn’s engineering students into successful entrepreneurs.

let’s turn engineering students into successful entrepreneurs.

As students they have: knowledge of how to build a product, or knowledge of how to build part of a product (smaller product). You don’t want to teach them how to build the right product, they learn that through coming up with a product then validating. The problem with going from market to product rather than the other way around is that it’s usually contrived with little motivation and maligned incentives. Anyway, you need to teach them how to validate a product, how to assess a market, how to sell it to customers, how to keep that momentum going and make the right decisions to continue to get more customers and build a better product. How do you teach these things without becoming a business school? You could foster this by finding people who, if they can nudge them in the right direction slightly, will already have product market fit and are bright/independent enough to figure these things out. These students aren’t nearly independent enough for that; they’ll need to be hand-held along this decision making process for far longer/harder than a few meetings over 8 weeks to start automatically thinking this way.

you can think about it for them or select those who already think this way

the latter won’t improve a school’s entrepreneurship numbers (those who can already think like entrepreneurs will do so regardless)

the former will

I guess the success of an accelerator is a function of its ability to teach this way of thinking, the ability of the students to learn it and the applicability of the learning to the startup. YC maximizes this by being very good at teaching, selecting for students who will learn it well, and selecting for startups that already have promise if directed well. to build a good accelerator you need to maximize this function. If you can’t select for startups better or students better, then you have to maximize the ability to teach. Things start to get fuzzy here. I don’t know how to teach better. There’s an equilibrium between thinking for someone and letting them think for themselves, but the second part is on the students mostly, so it’s then just people who think the right way but aren’t too overpowering The only people who can certainly think the right way are successful founders; no one else has any ‘validation’.

The second best thing here is to learn directly from those who verifiably think correctly, then teach exactly the way they do

So far a perfect accelerator is one in which you have a bunch of courteous successful startup founders who know how to make the right decisions for a startup but also know when to let founders make their own decisions and you have very bright, independent but impressionable startup founders, and very promising startups of theirs that will succeed if properly directed by them.

I feel like finding people who are the exact right fit for the accelerator will be challenging, since it can be tough to measure how good a person is at teaching without actually seeing them do it.

It comes down to: find people who can teach the right way of thinking, and who are strong enough teachers that they can teach fairly dependent founders (because they are student founders).

It is, however, very difficult to figure out how good someone is at teaching. I know of two factors that can be evaluated without watching them teach: intelligence, empathy.

Intelligence here is relative to a successful startup founder. Their intelligence will be the proportion of decisions they would make that are the same as a successful startup founder in the same position.

They should also use their empathy to figure out how much they should think for the founder vs. let the founder think for him/herself

How do you feel about seeking the types of mentors you described from YC—some that are supportive and some that generally provide constructive criticism?

there’s an equilibrium that defines the perfect mentor. One that doesn’t push their own thoughts on you too hard, but also thinks for you where it’s helpful. The overly supportive mentors don’t think for you too much; they let you think for yourself and give you positive nudges. The hyper-critical ones push their own thoughts on you too hard, but they’re usually correct. The problem with their approach is just that by not letting you think for yourself you don’t learn how to think for yourself the way they think for you. YC looks like it has people on both sides of the equilibrium no one I know who is perfectly in the middle maybe PG? I don’t know how much their effectiveness suffers by approximating the perfect mentor through an average of extremes over just having a bunch of perfect mentors. It’s definitely optimal to have a bunch of perfect mentors; and sub-optimal to have some super supportive and some super critical, but sub-optimal is the only feasible solution here.

Actually, it isn’t sub-optimal, because when split amongst polar individuals the ratio of supportive:critical mentors can be dynamically constructed based on the independence:dependence of the students.

Encourage the students to get several opinions on every decision. These students are fairly dependent, so you want fewer encouraging, supportive people or at least need to encourage them to lean towards the more critical mentors.

That’s all I have off of the top of my head. More to come.