By attending Startup School, you'll get infected by a burning desire to start something big. If you already have an idea what to start, the event can be a great place to connect with others to start it with, or get advice from others who have done it before. If nothing else, you'll get to talk to many interesting people while munching on delicious food. If you have a chance to attend, you should definitely go for it.
I just unpacked my bags from a trip to Startup School London and thought I'd share the experience.
Startup School is a series of events organized by the seed accelerator Y Combinator. To participate in the event, you need to apply beforehand. Excitement starts to build even as you write the application. In addition to visiting the event, I wanted to meet an old friend who had moved to UK. He could just take a bus to the event site in London, but I would be flying all the way from Japan to get there.
The application for each person is separate. We both put our applications in and hoped we would get lucky and both get picked. I had no doubt my friend would, as he is a brilliant young guy with a PhD (I'm pretty sure the chances of your startup succeeding would be instantly higher if you got him to join). For myself I had already visited the event once in San Francisco and wasn't sure if they would like to pick the same person twice. I figured if the event got very full, then perhaps they would prefer someone who had not seen it before.
When I told people I was applying for Startup School, I got questions like "what are you going to pitch there?". Maybe there is some confusion on the difference between Y Combinator and Startup School. I remember being a bit confused myself when I heard about it some years ago, as the "school" part in the name makes it sound like a serious commitment. A less grand but more descriptive name might be "Startup Day".
While Y Combinator is a program that provides you with $120k in funding and mentorship to help get your company started, Startup School is a one day event. The connection between these things is that Startup School is organized by the people behind Y Combinator. You get to meet or at least hear the presentations of many people who have gone through the Y Combinator program. At the event you also have a chance to meet others who are thinking of also starting their own companies, or have already started something small but are keeping their eyes out for bigger opportunities (I would be in this group).
It is basically impossible to attend Startup School and not go home at least a bit inspired to start something new.
Since I would be flying in all the way from Japan, I needed to finalize some other parts of my two-week Europe tour and was planning things around the event before I even knew if I would be accepted or not. I felt relief when on July 3rd I finally received the email "Your Invitation to Startup School Europe" and my friend received the same. Yes!
I flew to Europe and enjoyed the Finnish summer for a bit before taking the flight to London. The day of the event rolled around and we did the early morning trek from my friend's place to the event location. I wasn't sure what to expect, maybe these international events would be tiny compared to the main event in California?
We arrived at the event place, called "The Brewery". It was soon clear that this wouldn't be a tiny event, as we encountered a large swirling mass of startuppy people flowing around the space. The Brewery seemed like a rather luxurious setting, with both an area for hanging out outside and several spaces inside for the lectures and catering. There was a catering area, after which was a catering area followed by a catering area.
Before coming to the event I received a secret code by email. At the event place there were check-in machines where you enter the code and have a label printer spit out your name tag. Neat system.
While snacks are not the main thing, it is a bit difficult not to mention again, given the great variety of free food and drinks (both soft drinks and otherwise) on offer. There were healthy food options available, not just the usual pizza. The salmon was tasty and there was some fancy yogurt drink in small glass bottles provided as well. Staff was constantly moving around, tempting you with all sorts of delicious treats. I think there were five different types of desserts, too.
In short the concept is lectures with intermissions consisting of mixing with other participants. As the very first thing you find yourself in a big room with a bunch of people holding cups of coffee, all looking around to find someone to start a conversation with. You quickly become an insta-extrovert as random people start talking to you and you in turn get into the habit of talking to everyone.
The space was large enough that I managed to lose my friend a couple of times during the mixer parts. One of us would go grab a snack and before we got back to each other, we'd find ourselves in conversation with someone else. Or I would go find my friend again and end up getting introduced to someone he found during his quest for a cup of coffee.
As all the people joined the event because they are interested in startups, starting conversations is very easy. I am not the type to easily start talking to random people, but found myself quite easily saying hello and having a chat with other attendees. "Hi, I'm <your name here>" followed by a handshake seemed to be the common opener, followed by a question along the lines of "so, what's your project?".
One funny thing was that on several occasions when I introduced myself as having a candy shop in Japan, many people had already heard about Candy Japan. One person I just randomly met was even a subscriber to the service and astonished that I just happened to sit next to him for the presentations. His kids had been enjoying the twice-monthly candies and he had already been joking that his friend Bemmu was sending them from Japan. We made a short video so he could surprise his kids even more and show the "friend in Japan" who was behind the shipments.
The talks in this London event were quite similar in format to the San Francisco version.
The biggest difference from the SF event was the absence of Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston (Y Combinator founders and authors of the excellent books Hackers & Painters and Founders at Work). I can understand they would be too busy to attend every event given their real work advising a huge group of startups, especially if these gradually expand to cover more and more countries.
The speakers familiar to me were Adora Cheung of HomeJoy, Paul Buchheit who helped create GMail/AdWords and Justin Kan from justin.tv (he didn't give a talk, but was available in the great Q & A session). I really enjoyed Adora Cheung's talk about the early days of HomeJoy and how they went through many ideas before finally finding something that works and almost having to give up on that as well. She has clearly fought hard to make her company a reality.
Almost every talk was good, but I find in my mind they are merging into one generic startup story. Late nights of coding in poverty, sleeping on a bed of nails purchased on credit card debt and then finally hustling up to their eventual success and being acquired for quantillions of picodollars. I still like these type of talks, they definitely put you in a kind of "I CAN DO IT!" mood.
The talk I was most looking forward to was Paul Buchheit, since I had seen his past Startup School talk on YouTube before. I like how he is so humble and openly admits that what he is telling you is not necessarily the absolute truth on things, but just some observations based on his limited world view. This manages to have the opposite effect on me and I end up taking his advice more seriously than usual. Being involved in the early days creation of GMail and AdWords helps build his credibility, too.
He seemed to have gone through some transformation since his previous talk. It was more Jonathan Livingston Seagully than before, in tone feeling like this talk just might contain the secrets of the universe. Until he realized he forgot to turn on his slides, at which point there was laughter and the first real connection with the audience. From there on the tone changed completely and I felt like I was seeing the good old Paul again.
AFTER THE EVENT
After the talks during the mixers the speakers were available for chatting. Many people were taking advantage of the opportunity and the speakers were totally circled. I couldn't get close enough to hear what was going on.
There was time for more talking with other attendees and apparently some afterparties too, but I had a flight to catch the next morning. Next time for an event like this I feel like it would be a good idea to find a place to stay somewhere closer, to make it more convenient to continue talking until the morning hours.
By visiting the event I was definitely infected by a desire to do something bigger. If I had such a project in mind already, the event would have been a great place to get advice or find others to join forces with. If nothing else, I got to talk to many interesting people and munch on some delicious food. I'm glad I attended.