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.

Startup Weekend Next logoThe 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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “A New Online “Pre-Accelerator” from Steve Blank and Startup Weekend”

  1. 4Gbill says:

    The Blank methodology is a part of what is the fourth generation (4G) of innovation theory and practice that was first practiced in 1978 with open innovation to create the first supplier of modern software engineering tools as a start-up spun out of Bell Labs, first published in a paper in 1995, published in 1998 in a book, Fourth Generation R&D, and recently published as a chapter in Wiley’s Encyclopedia of Technology and Innovation Management. There are 12 principles and practices in 4G. The Blank methodology teaches one of them – the innovation process which includes an iterative process of development, interacting with customers to uncover latent needs and then testing prototypes with users, and simultaneously iteratively building and testing business models. The other 11 principles and practices overcome barriers and fill gaps to increase the yield and speed of innovation while reducing the cost. These are test questions given to students of 4G. Why did AT&T in 1985 underestimate the size of the market for cell phones by a factor of more than a 1000? Why would 4G have produced a correct estimate? What company used 4G at the time to get a correct estimate? Did Facebook use the core of 4G? Does Apple use parts of 4G?