Announcing: On Deck Fellowship #4 — the world needs more founders.

 min read
April 16, 2020
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Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

This article is the first in our annual series Year in Preview.  In the 4 years since we launched the On Deck Founders program, we’ve seen +1000 companies get started and raise over $2B in funding.

This cohort kicks off on June 13th.

On Deck is the first place world-class tech talent goes to explore what’s next. 

In the last 9 months, 450 On Deck Fellows and Alumni formed ~160 startups, and collectively raised ~$80M of venture capital (and counting), including many of the greatest funds and investors in the world. Three cohorts of Fellows have helped each other navigate the “idea maze,” form better-aligned founding teams, fast-track early hires, and otherwise collaborate and support each other as they grow.

Today, we're excited to share our plans for the fourth cohort of the On Deck Fellowship (ODF4). 

Being “on deck” — the state of being between things or planning to start something new — can be filled with uncertainty.

Typically, our Fellowship announcement post would start off by recapping what’s been happening in ODF3, and then proceeding to highlight what's coming for ODF4. 

However, these are atypical times.

As we are witnessing entire industries collapse and unprecedented levels of unemployment, it's fair to ask, "is there any room for optimism right now?"

We believe so – now is a particularly excellent time to start a company.

Software is no longer just “eating the world” — it’s running the world. It’s the connective tissue holding our society together, a lifeline for billions of people.

When going through times of great change, new problems emerge. New norms create new needs. Old problems reappear where previous solutions no longer cut it. 

The world needs founders now more than ever – people willing to rush headlong into uncertainty, identify opportunity in the midst of chaos, and build the infrastructure for a displaced workforce, society, and economy.

But starting a company is hard even in the best of times. As we enter this new era of uncertainty, On Deck exists to:

  • Help talented people get started as founders. Find meaningful problems to solve, form relationships with potential co-founders, and build a network of advisors, mentors, investors and friends to support them along the way. 
  • Help experienced founders move faster. Community is a superpower: use On Deck to build stronger founding teams, better products.

Read on to learn:

  • How the On Deck community has flourished online.
  • What’s included in ODF4?
  • What’s new in the fourth Fellowship? Introducing “Explore” and “Build” tracks.
  • Introducing the On Deck Directory, built on Cosign.
  • Who we are, and why we are doing this.
  • Timing, costs, what we look for, and other FAQs.

On Deck, online. How the third Fellowship mobilized for the COVID-era.

In late February, we made the decision to flip all ODF3 in-person programming virtual, exercising what seemed to be an abundance of caution.

What happened next blew us away. Despite—or perhaps, because of the virtual-only programming, this cohort has been our highest NPS and most engaged yet.

Since 2016, On Deck has been all about “getting in the room” with highly curated groups of talented people — what we call “engineering serendipity”

Over the last five weeks, we’ve learned that the “room” didn’t actually have to be a physical place.

In early March, the 150 members of the third On Deck Fellowship cohort — themselves selected from over 1,600 applicants — dove headlong into a virtual “kick-off retreat”, featuring virtual car-pools, 1:1 icebreakers, rap battles, charades, and more. 

In the five weeks since, Fellows have hosted and participated in 100+ hours of programming (including 10-15 expert-led “breakouts” per week), welcomed a lineup of guests for virtual “fireside chats”, and joined a series of hackathons, virtual HIIT workouts, trivia nights and more.

The community has mobilized to help fight COVID, with Fellows working on projects from ramping up testing to sourcing PPE to helping support and direct economic support to those in need, and other diverse initiatives.

Fellows have raised money in a time when money is hard to come by, formed amazing teams, and are solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. The On Deck Fellowship has not only evolved to the climate — it has thrived — and we couldn’t be more excited for what this group will build. 

What’s included in ODF4?

  • An 8-week program for explorers and builders, with hundreds of hours of live programming and curriculum.
  • An engaged online community and access to the On Deck Directory where you can connect with over 600 fellows and alumni. 60%+ of ODF1 and ODF2 alumni have been active weekly throughout ODF3.
  • Content library featuring all recorded programming from past cohorts.
  • A three day in-real-life retreat (scheduling to be confirmed due to COVID-19, see below).
  • $50k+ worth of value from our partners (i.e. $10k AWS credits, $20k Stripe credits, and discounts with 30+ products/services you’ll actually want to use) 

Introducing “Explore” and “Build” tracks, and a full founder curriculum.

Over three cohorts, we’ve noticed Fellows typically fall into two broad categories which we’ve taken to calling “Explorers” and “Builders.”

The first two Fellowships were intentionally very hands-off, following the motto: “get the best people in the room, and get out of the way.” As we’ve grown, we’ve seen the role programming plays in fostering culture and relationships. With the success of ODF3’s collaborative virtual “breakouts”, and taking inspiration from top MBA programs like Stanford’s GSB, we’re excited to introduce a full elective “curriculum” tailored to each of these two groups. 

Explorers are typically experienced engineers, product managers, and designers who join ODF with imminent intent to start a new company or join a founding team, but haven’t yet crystalized their plans. They may have a few ideas for things to work on, and are looking to test, validate and iterate until they gain conviction to go all-in on one. Many have just left their past roles/startups, are coming off an exit or sabbatical, or are about to take the leap from their current job.

The ODF: “Explore” track curriculum will focus on ideation, idea validation, and co-founder matching — how to think about different sectors, identify opportunities across industries such as fintech, biotech, consumer; and who to build with once you do.

Builders are typically repeat founders and experienced operators, or come from deep within industries such as banking, logistics, healthcare, and beyond. They already have a powerful vision for the future, and will do whatever it takes to bring it to life. They know that On Deck can be their founder superpower, whether rounding out a founding team, accelerating first hires, ramping up user interviews, or accessing the collective knowledge of the community.

The ODF: “Build” track will focus on tactical knowledge and skills, covering topics from growth to technical recruiting to fundraising, and beyond. The community will be your accelerant, enabling you to surround yourself with experienced founders who have been there, done that, and can guide you on your journey.

The best bit? Since tracks are elective, Explorers can become Builders, and Builders can become Explorers. 

Sometimes explorers land on an idea and shift gears to scaling/growing it — transforming into builders overnight. Sometimes builders invalidate their ideas, realize what they’re working on needs to pivot, and switch back to being explorers. 

Introducing the On Deck Directory, built on Cosign.

As the On Deck community grows, so does the “liquidity” of talent — the likelihood there’s someone else with the specific combination of skills, motivations, and timing for you to partner with and build a great company continues to rise.

We hear countless stories of Fellows connecting across cohorts, of alumni pairing up with new Fellows, and leveraging these connections to accelerate their growth. 

With ODF4 we’ve finally outgrown our no-code stack and built a beautiful “directory” product for Fellows to use. Think of it as an internal, private “Linkedin”, built on top of Cosign, helping you discover and connect with other Fellows (and the people they’ve cosigned) based on keyword searches and tags.

Who we are, and why are we doing this?

On Deck is the first place the best people look when thinking about starting or joining a new venture.

Founded in 2016, On Deck emerged out of a need for talented people to have a safe space to talk about their ideas and desire to start a company, freely and confidentially. So much goes into successfully launching a company, we saw a need for a thoughtful, highly curated community that truly supports the growth of entrepreneurs and their visions.

Our ultimate goal is to help more people build better companies, through forming stronger, better aligned teams; fast-tracking early hires; and helping founders construct a community around them at the very earliest stages.

We’re a startup ourselves, backed by some of the world's top investors, and united by On Deck guiding values. We’re 8 people today: David, Erik, Julian, Brandon, Emma, Max, Brian and Shiraz, and actively hiring — get in touch

Applications to the June 2020 Cohort are open until May 25th.

Timing, Costs, and other FAQs.

  1. When does it start, and when do I have to apply? 
  2. What does it cost, and what does the fee cover? 
  3. Is it worth it?
  4. Do you have scholarships available?
  5. Is this all virtual? 
  6. How are you incentivized to find great people?
  7. How do you assess candidates? 
  8. What stages are most fellows at?
  9. Do I have to be in San Francisco to join?

1) When does it start, and when do I have to apply?

The Fellowship kicks off June 13th. 

All applications must be received by May 25th, but we have interviews underway now, so we’d encourage you to get your application in sooner rather than later.  

2) What does it cost, and what does the fee cover? 

Joining the Fellowship costs $1,490 if paid upfront, or $400 per month over 4 months.

We believe great founders don’t need funding to get started building a company. Indeed, many in our community come from high paying senior engineering and product roles, and/or have had past success as founders — people for whom personal runway is no problem — but giving away equity too early doesn’t make sense.

The program fee covers:

  • your admission to the 8-week program, with hundreds of hours of live programming and curriculum.
  • lifetime access to the online community and access to the On Deck Directory. Nearly 40% of ODF1 and ODF2 alumni have been active daily on Slack during ODF3.
  • lifetime access to the content library and archive 
  • a three day in-real-life retreat (scheduling to be determined due to COVID-19, see below)
  • $50k+ worth of value from our partners (i.e. $10k AWS credits, $20k Stripe credits, and discounts with 20+ products/services you’ll actually want to use) 

And ultimately: the life-changing opportunity to build relationships with a group of high potential co-founders, early hires and lifelong collaborators, in your cohort and across the alumni community.

3) Is it worth the $$? 

The Fellowship is an objectively valuable experience. Some people compare the impact to doing an MBA at a top college, which can cost $100-200k. Others compare it to accelerators such as YC, which “cost” a lot more in equity or opportunity cost terms. We see example after example of Fellows who changed the trajectory of their careers, and lives after participating in the Fellowship. You’re welcome to ask them! Visit the On Deck Wall of Love

4) Do you have scholarships available? 

Yes. Our goal is to make the Fellowship accessible to the absolute best talent, no matter what their situation..

While many eligible applicants do have the means to support themselves, many others don’t. We’re excited to be able to offer scholarships to join the Fellowship, and have made a budget available to people who have been adversely affected by COVID layoffs and startup shutdowns. 

We also have a number of fully sponsored places available thanks to the generosity of alumni and partners, and are working on other options to provide further assistance to those without means to support themselves.

There are no fees to apply so please submit an application to be considered for the fellowship — you’ll have the option to request financial assistance if you receive an offer to join ODF4.

5) Is this all virtual? 

During the COVID-19 lock-down, we were forced to go virtual only — but we’ve learned to wield this new format to great effect, and at this point are confident we can deliver a better program virtually than we could constrained to physical space.

That said, we’re committed to bringing everyone together for a unique, three day retreat, as soon as the coast is clear. But we have to acknowledge that this may not be for some time. It will likely be more like an IRL ODF4 reunion!

6) How are you incentivized to find great people?

Simple: our reputation, and a desire to uphold the trust of our community above all else depend on it.

It’s right there in the tag-line: On Deck is the first place the best talent looks when thinking about starting or joining their next venture.

The best talent doesn’t need money, and doesn’t want to give away equity before they’ve crystalized what to build, who they’re building it with, and who the right partners are.

By charging Fellows for participation, you become our customer. This sets us apart from most investors, for whom LPs are “customers” and founders their “product.” Since you are our customer, and not our product, our single focus is giving you the best experience possible.

7) How do you assess candidates? 

Our screening criteria starts with: “do we think this person is fully committed to starting a company in the next 3 months”

Beyond that, we’ve developed a framework for assessing candidates on one of the following vectors:

  • ‍Raw entrepreneurial potential and network — Previously founded or was an early technical employee of a notably successful company, and is now moving on to a 2nd/3rd/etc venture.
  • ‍Technical excellence — Has deep technical experience (2–3 years+ as an engineer with reputable technology companies), and/or has been recognized as a research leader within applicable technology fields (e.g. machine learning, STEM).
  • Product leadership — Has held senior roles at notable companies, and can point to examples of products they’ve built/scaled to hundreds of thousands of people.
  • ‍Industry insight — Worked in X industry for Y years, and has in doing so developed some unique insights or unfair advantage they possess vs. all others.

8) What stages are most fellows at?

On Deck Fellows are at a variety of stages: anywhere from planning to start a company within the next 3 months, to launched and funded and looking to add team members or a co-founder. See “Introducing ‘Explore’ and ‘Build’ tracks” above for more information.

9) Do I have to be in San Francisco to join?

No, you can be anywhere in the world! The On Deck team is based in San Francisco, and the Bay Area is the spiritual home of On Deck. 

Even before COVID-19 we saw rents climbing and the infrastructure for remote teams getting better. A time is coming where the place you live matters far less, as to the quality of startup you build.

Today, we believe it has never been more important to be deeply connected in San Francisco, but never less important to actually build your company there.

Once it’s safe to run On Deck IRL retreats again, we strongly encourage you to join us in the Bay Area!

All programming will be optimized for Pacific Time (US), but participation is easy to coordinate from across the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia and the Pacific. One of the most engaged fellows in the past cohort was in Nairobi! 🇰🇪

This cohort kicks off on June 13th.

Note: If you’re an experienced professional looking to gain clarity on your next move, check out Execs On Deck

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