From the CEO

Organizing the World’s Ambition

 min read
August 17, 2021
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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.

A few weeks ago we released the On Deck Series A Investor Memorandum to the public. Written ahead of our January 2021 fundraise, the memo laid out our vision for On Deck as "Stanford for the internet”— a “modern education institution” and digital campus where top technology talent and ambitious builders go to start or join a company, develop new skills, build relationships, and accelerate their careers.

To say a lot has happened since would be an understatement. We’ve had our heads down, building. We launched nine new fellowships, kicked off 24 cohorts, 3x’d our team across 30+ countries, and 4x’d our business.

Today, we are excited to give you a behind-the-scenes peek into what’s coming next.

Below we share five independent ideas at the core of On Deck, and attempt to weave them into an updated, ambitious vision of the future:

As Stanford was to Silicon Valley; On Deck will be for the Internet.

Here it goes:

  1. Silicon Valley is a mindset.
  2. Education is continuous: Find your people, learn to build, build to learn.
  3. Stanford University was the linchpin of early Silicon Valley, organizing ambition and making it legible to the “market.”
  4. Organizing the world’s ambition.
  5. The Market for Solutions.

1. Silicon Valley is a mindset, and it lives on the Internet

Silicon Valley is a magical place. Over the past 50 years, it birthed and scaled most of the major technology companies of our era.

But in 2020, something changed. The world undertook a grand experiment called "working remotely" ...and it worked! As society settles into a new normal that in many ways resembles our pre-COVID world, our work lives are not likely to follow suit: an Andreessen Horowitz survey shows that up to 90% of startups will continue to hire remote employees and maintain distributed teams.

Millions of people are now building their careers and reshaping their lives around a very modern idea: distributed by default. The idea that where you work is where you live—something that was fundamentally true throughout economic history—is no longer the norm. Frankly, if you’re scaling a breakout company, distributed is just a better way to build — On Deck is a testament to that.

Silicon Valley is a bundle of talent, capital, and culture. Famous for its high concentration of top technical talent and venture capital firms, but there’s also something else: the mindset. It’s not just the radical thinking and risk-taking that makes SV special. It’s the support for that kind of philosophy and behavior, the relentless ambition and curiosity, and the positive-sum mentality — all creating a culture of empowerment. Silicon Valley is where weird ideas are encouraged, where people are celebrated for taking big swings even when they fail, and where people pay it forward and share learnings with the next generation. 

That mindset has now gone global. 

Today you can learn skills, showcase your expertise, build a reputation, and forge key relationships from anywhere in the world — and the tools accelerating these trends will only continue to improve.

2. Education is continuous: Find your people, learn to build, build to learn

The old way of doing education is broken—we can all see that. The top U.S. colleges were all founded 200+ years ago, established to train citizens to be productive members of an industrial-era society. Coasting on institutional momentum and credentialism, costs spiraling, most have long since detached from reality.

We now live in an accelerating, post-internet economy. The half-life of the average professional skill has fallen to five years, and less than three years for technical skills*. To get ahead—or even just to not fall behind—you need to be constantly learning. The notion that we still attend school for 15-20 years before joining the workforce and then never go back is absurd and outdated.

So how, and where do we optimally learn? Over the last decade, many have tried to unbundle the university. Massive open online courses (“MOOCs”) unbundled the education component, but largely fell short of the hype, failing to grasp a critical component of the process:

Learning is defined by who you learn with — the context, respect, and perspective you develop among the camaraderie of the “classroom.”

On Deck is special because it re-bundles community with learning and a commitment to outcomes. We help you create the ideal environment to maximize your potential: connect with experts and peers who are working on the same problems, run experiments, distill best practices, and build on top of the group's collective insights to accelerate progress together.

On Deck helps you find your people, so you can learn to build and build to learn, together.

3. Stanford University was the linchpin of early Silicon Valley, organizing ambition and making it legible to the “market”

When we laid out our plans for a “modern education institution”, we weren’t talking about just any old institution. We were building Stanford for the internet. 

Stanford makes for a convenient metaphor: helping investors, prospective fellows and team members take an immediate stride of comprehension, setting expectations of quality and culture, developing a compelling narrative for the future of education, and invoking an emotional response among those whose careers entwine with the brick & mortar analogue. Not to mention operating revenues of $6.1 billion in 2020—a big business to disrupt.

But the real reason goes a few levels deeper.

Stanford University's most significant contribution to early Silicon Valley was that of organizing, catalyzing, and amplifying the ambition of those who wanted to get into the technology industry.

Since the 1960's, if you were smart, ambitious and wanted to get into banking, you'd move east and attend Harvard or Yale; If you wanted to get into technology, you'd go west to Stanford.

Sitting atop the usual structured array of academic programs and departments, the University became a marketplace of ideas, talent, and capital.

Competitive entry, a strong entrepreneurial cultural undercurrent, and proximity to inspiring role models reduced the cost of coordination such that talented people could find one another, complementary ideas, and capital to pursue their ambitions faster—and with more success than outside its walls. In a 2001 research paper, IBM Co-Founder Gordon Moore credits the University with "creating firms that accounted for half the revenues generated in the Valley between 1988 and 1996", and with making "an exemplary contribution to local labor market needs.” The location of the infamous Sand Hill Road running along the back of Stanford campus is testament to this power.

4. Organizing the world’s ambition

Google’s early years were defined by a now-famous slogan: "Organizing the world's information."

At the time, the nascent web featured a lot of specific information: millions of web pages and all the content they contained — siloed, and indexed on giant lists like

Google’s breakthrough innovation with the “PageRank” algorithm was mapping the relevance of pages to one another using hyperlinks, building an "influence graph" for information.

On top of that, Google built a search engine that became the discoverability tool of the modern internet. 

Early on, On Deck recognized that every participant in every program has a specific “persona” based on skills, background, stage of exploration, transition, and career maturity or development. We have mapped hundreds of these personas, based on career stage, goals, seniority, interest in developing specific skills, and more.

As On Deck grows, we are launching ever more specific programs to serve these personas — reflected in the secret master plan: building a series of adjacent communities that each bootstrap “supply” to another's demand. This allows each to remain focused, intimate, highly relevant.

On top of those communities, we are building vertical marketplaces for matchmaking and cross-network connections. Whether you're looking for a co-founder, engineer, a full-time opportunity or hire, your first angel investors, a freelancer, executive coach, advisor, or something else to marshal your ambition, our marketplaces have you covered.

Like PageRank for Google, the connections between communities and their members create "relevancy" pathways—building a graph of who is relevant to who—and reinforcing loops that encourage Fellows to invest in developing their On Deck profiles (6,000+ and counting).

Sitting atop this foundation is the holy grail: search.

Among our communities, On Deck is the increasingly common answer to the question: "where do you go when you're looking for someone?

On Deck is becoming the engine for ambitious builders to discover talent, capital, customers, and knowledge – by which they find their people. 

5. The Market for Solutions 

We believe the following three statements are simultaneously true, but shouldn’t be:

  • There are trillions of dollars of value locked up in unsolved problems. People around the world need affordable housing, access to quality food, ROI-positive education and up-skilling to take on modern jobs, cheaper healthcare, and improved financial literacy. Companies need better R&D, leaner operations, more efficient customer acquisition, carbon-free energy and transportation options. New breakthroughs in any of these areas would unlock massive value for society.
  • Financing is cheaper than ever. 10 years of ZIRP and a global savings glut have left financial markets famished for yield. Corporates continue to gorge on debt, yet rates have stayed low. In the VC world, a competent-seeming team can pick up a few million dollars at a $10M valuation with little but a pitch deck. Titanic amounts of capital are begging to be unleashed on value-creating activities.
  • There is substantial “human capital” sitting on the sidelines. Right now, many of the world’s most ambitious people are held back from starting companies by corporate and cultural convention, or are lacking the access to timely knowledge, well-aligned talent (co-founders, early hires), capital to keep afloat while iterating on ideas/validating, and support infrastructure to get started. The opportunity cost of this wasted human potential is a trillion-dollar drain on society.

One way to try to frame this contradiction is as a market failure. In this market, there are three players:

  • Customers — people who have problems they’d pay to solve ("ideas")
  • Builders — people or organizations with the ability and willingness to solve problems ("Talent")
  • Capital — money looking to make a return by financing Builders.

When this market clears — that is, when a Customer/Idea, a Builder, and some Capital get matched up — the output is a potential solution to a customer’s problem, with a funded company planning to scale it to the world.

Full credit to Charles Cushing for inspiring the "Market for Solutions" with his July 2020 post

Weaving it all together

On Deck is a network of networks — a global community where ambitious, talented people start and scale companies, accelerate their careers, learn and build together.

Humanity primarily progresses through technology; great technology companies all start out as startups—but for everyone starting a company today, there are hundreds more sitting on the sidelines. The opportunity cost of this wasted human potential is a trillion-dollar drain on society.

Silicon Valley is a mindset, not a physical location. On Deck captures what made Silicon Valley great — an abundant ecosystem of talent, capital, and ideas, plus a spirit of service — and makes it available on the Internet.

As Stanford was to Silicon Valley, On Deck will be to the internet: helping hundreds of thousands of talented people find the right collaborators to build with, and access a rich talent asset for future hiring; find the right problems to work on, and validate them with access to early customers and advisors; access capital from the right backers at the right time, with innovative early financing products and connections to downstream investors, and learn the right skills at the right time, and access knowledge as they need them.

Whether you're just starting out or ready to give back, we help you find your people, act on your ambition, and broaden your impact.

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

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