Teaching entrepreneurs with less mentorship, more apprenticeship or why YC works

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I believe that humans have and always will learn better by doing. We can label it experiential learning or project based learning (not case studies) but at a very simple level it is learning through doing something with an “expert” guiding the process. Learning by doing is essentially apprenticeship but we don’t use that label because we have strictly narrowed it down to the trades which ignores the historical context:

Each age tends to create a model of apprenticeship that is suited to the system of production that prevails at the time. In the Middle Ages, during the birth of modern capitalism and the need for quality control, the first apprenticeship system appeared, with its rigidly defined terms. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, this model of apprenticeship became largely outmoded, but the idea behind it lived on in the form of self-apprenticeship—developing yourself from within a particular field, as Darwin did in biology. This suited the growing individualistic spirit of the time. We are now in the computer age, with computers dominating nearly all aspects of commercial life. Although there are many ways in which this could influence the concept of apprenticeship, it is the hacker approach to programming that may offer the most promising model for this new age.

The context of the above quote is a series of posts in support of a book about great masters in history, placing Paul Graham amongst them. The article gives some great insight into Paul Graham’s path to building YC and how it represents a model for modern day apprenticeship. This, I think, is lost in the proliferation of YC clones that are now being targeted as a bloated trend destined for a shake out.

What has bothered me for a long time with the proliferation of structured mentor programs throughout startup ecosystems is just how overworked the mentors are. One mentor could have 30-50 ‘companies’ assigned to them. On the other end the entrepreneur has to compete for attention and insight as well as deal with contradictory information that usually comes out of context from the wrong person (btw, I think Clarity.fm is going to help fix this). It’s hard, takes a lot of thinking, and I believe the return is low outside of very specific situations.

When TechStars cloned the Y-Combinator model it missed one important detail:

“Paul gives these kids money, but he also gives them a methodology and a value system,” YC investor Fred Wilson said to Inc. about Graham. “I don’t mean this in a negative way, but Y Combinator is more like a cult than a venture capital fund. And Paul is the cult leader.” – Inc.com

By being a cult of a certain ‘group think’ YC is exploiting peer mentorship, expert mentor opinion, and the master/apprentice relationship it is kinda like grad school. Where the student enters many years learning how to be a researcher like their supervisor. The best Phd supervisors are the ones that also imprint their methodology and value system on their students. I believe you can identify them by the personality similarities in their grad students and the peer relationships that are formed between students that last a lifetime. Their own path to true mastery continues past their graduation.

Retooling that process of building great researchers to building great founders is something that Paul Graham likely did subconsciously as he does have his PhD. He mastered the process, added his own bits, and keeps improving on it.

The methodology and values YC educates is one way, there are others, but there likely isn’t better process to educate entrepreneurs. Those that work closely with one or two “mentors” already know this. In reality they aren’t just a mentor, they are the master and you are their apprentice.

There are no shortcuts or ways to bypass the Apprenticeship Phase. It is the nature of the human brain to require such lengthy exposure to a field, which allows for complex skills to become deeply embedded and frees the mind up for real creative activity.

YC kick starts the exposure and focuses it. Your peer group helps re-enforce discipline, Tuesday dinners gives you a weekly check point with intellectual offerings outside of the thing  you are thinking about all day/week/year, and a due date of a demo day gives you something to work towards. The process continues outside of the 12-14 weeks with the YC team ready to support and guide at any time. The peer group of YC founders stays connected and, I would guess, does the bulk of the recruitment now.

What part of YC is the secret to its success that the clones haven’t copied? It could be the atmosphere and purpose at the start (running out of his living room) created the right culture that mixed with YC’s selection process a it evolved that picks mostly the right people that don’t want shortcuts, want to learn, want to grow. They focus on the founders not the funding or office space or mentors or the demo day. They build a community of like minded people that are constantly learning, perfecting their skills, developing mastery in entrepreneurship.

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