Geoff Ralston and Adora Cheung Discuss Startup School

by Y Combinator8/7/2018

Geoff Ralston and Adora Cheung are both partners at YC.

This episode is about Startup School. It’s a free, online course we’re offering that starts on August 28th.

We’re also offering equity-free grants of $10,000 to 100 companies that participate in the course.

Anyone can sign up for the course at


0:10 – What is Startup School?

3:10 – Who are the speakers this year?

4:30 – What are the different paths in Startup School?

6:30 – Success stories from last year’s Startup School.

8:25 – Why offer $10,000 grants?

9:30 – What deals are offered to the startups in Startup School?

10:30 – When does the course start?

12:15 – What are the requirements to complete the course?

14:45 – What are the topics that will be covered?

17:30 – What happens during office hours sessions?

22:00 – Who else is working on this course at YC?


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Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s Podcast. Today’s episode is with Geoff Ralston and Adora Cheung. Geoff and Adora are both partners at YC and this episode is about Startup School. Startup School is a free online course we’re offering that starts on August 28th. We’re also offering equity free grants of 10000 dollars to 100 companies that participate in the course. Anyone can sign up for the course at Alright, here we go. Alright, Geoff and Adora, thanks for coming in.

Geoff Ralston [00:31] – Thanks for having us, Craig.

Craig Cannon [00:35] – We’re here to talk about Startup School. Geoff, could you break down what’s happening this year with Startup School?

Geoff Ralston [00:41] – Sure. Startup School began a couple of years ago with a course Sam taught online called How to Start a Startup. Last year, we evolved it into a course we taught with Stanford called Startup School, and we’re continuing that this year. It’s an open online course that is a way for us to reach as many companies as possible throughout the entire world to help maximize really, the amount of innovation, the amount of value created by startups everywhere in the world.

Craig Cannon [01:12] – Adora, how is the coursework differing this year from any previous version?

Adora Cheung [01:18] – Well, there are a lot of similarities. It’s a 10-week course and you can either audit the course or you can actually be part of the… You can apply to be part of the course. To be part of the course, you get obviously, access to the materials and lectures, you’re put into a group, you get an advisor who you will meet once a week to go over the obstacles that you’re having, but more importantly, to talk with other founders as well who are dealing with similar challenges, and then also, you have access to a community, which will be a forum in which you can talk to everybody else who is taking Startup School. It’s really great, because at the end of the day, what we want to do is reduce the barriers to starting a startup and I come from the middle of nowhere personally. It’s near and dear to me, because I didn’t learn about startups until very late. I would be considered a late bloomer compared to people who are from here. What’s important is to give people who are out there, who are not in Silicon Valley, access to community, access to mentorship, and access to really great knowledge to build their startup.

Geoff Ralston [02:34] – The amazing thing about Startup School is it’s not just the content, this is really unique. It is about the community and the mentorship that every single one of the founders in this advisor track where you get assigned an advisor and you meet with them on a weekly basis. Now, it’s also true that the content this year is going to be different than the content last year. All of the content from the last two years is available online, will remain available online, and is relevant and useful. It turns out also, that the content relevant to starting a startup is both broad and deep. There’s a ton of things to cover. We’re going to cover everything a little bit differently. We’re going to go over similar areas of a startup, how to get going, what the mechanics are, how to think about product, how to think about growth, how to think about fundraising, but we’ll do them all in new and different ways that will be valuable additions to the set of content we’ve already actually made available in a public library that you can get at at

Craig Cannon [03:41] – The speakers for this year, is that list public yet?

Geoff Ralston [03:45] – Well, the list is about to be public. I think simultaneously with the publication of this podcast, so we can start to talk about it, and one of my favorite speakers is going to be Adora. We’re really focusing on YC partners and YC founders for this Startup School, so a number of YC partners are going to be participating. I’m really excited to say that Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston will be taking part in the course and giving some of their wisdom, which is also broadening to founders everywhere in the world. We’re also going to have other YC partners, Sam Altman, who’s the president of Y Combinator, will be giving a talk, Michael Seibel, the CEO of Y Combinator will be giving a talk, so we have an amazing lineup of folks who are going to be out there talking.

Craig Cannon [04:47] – We should just clarify all these questions around the tracks right now. That isn’t necessarily clear for folks who have maybe participated before or just heard a little bit about it. Adora, could you explain the different paths of going through Startup School?

Adora Cheung [05:02] – There are two paths. One is you can audit the course, in which case you just get access to the livestream and lectures and the notes, or you can be, especially if you’re full-time founders, you can just apply and be part of Startup School officially which means, like I said before, you get access to mentorship, sorry, advisors, you get access to the forum, you get exclusive deals, like with Amazon, Stripe Atlas, so on and so forth. You also can qualify to receive a $10,000 (USD) equity free grant from us if you complete the course.

Geoff Ralston [05:43] – We’re going to choose 100 companies that get that, that get that grant based on how they do during the course and the information we’re going to get from the advisors and the progress that company makes. We’re going to judge how promising hose companies are.

Craig Cannon [06:02] – And those companies, could they apply at any stage? Who are the founders that you guys are looking for?

Adora Cheung [06:08] – The most interesting are people who are early stage founders, so either they have an idea and they’re ready to work on it full-time or they are currently working on an idea and anywhere from no users to any number of users is fine. We can be helpful along those lines.

Geoff Ralston [06:28] – Startup School is, it’s fair to say, certainly targeted at very early stage companies. There’s knowledge in the knowledge base that we built in the past and are continuing to build with this year’s Startup School that are probably useful to companies in later stages as well, but for the most part, this is, I think Adora put it well, is about lowering the threshold for people to get started, to really get your startup going.

Craig Cannon [06:59] – Do you guys recall, from last year, were there any success stories that kind of stood out to you?

Adora Cheung [07:04] – We had 38 companies who actually got into our core YC program after going through Startup School. For the most part, a lot of them did a lot of their iteration and talking to users during Startup School and they learn a lot how to do that.

Craig Cannon [07:21] – Which I should pause you and say, that’s a very high percentage of the batch. 38 companies.

Adora Cheung [07:25] – 38 across two classes.

Craig Cannon [07:28] – But still, even across that, that’s 10 percent.

Adora Cheung [07:31] – Success stories… I’m very excited about a few of those companies. One of them is actually, I worked very closely with in my group, it’s Cognition IP. They actually went through MOOC with something in the legal space, which they’re still in, but they iterated towards their current product during Startup School, so that’s really exciting. Cognition IP is their tech enabled patent law firm, so if you need any patents, you should go to them.

Geoff Ralston [08:00] – I should just add, Adora threw in this term, MOOC, which we often use internally to talk about the course. That stands for massively open online course. Most people know that term, but this is how we think of Startup School. It’s a MOOC, it’s for everyone, it’s open to everyone, so no matter what, if you apply to be part of the main course and get an advisor and for whatever reason, and we do have a limited number of advisors, so we can’t take everyone, but you can still take the course. Everyone who applies can audit the course, can go through all of the lectures and see all the content, and at the end of the course, as we said, all of the content is going to be available online.

Craig Cannon [08:46] – Given the success of last year’s MOOC, which Geoff, you were organizing, why did you decide to do the grants this year if it was already working?

Geoff Ralston [08:55] – We want to maximize the amount of innovation in the world. It’s just a hard fact that starting a startup takes cash. To be honest, it’s a bit of an experiment, right? Certainly, it helps to attract companies to come do Startup School. We think Startup School’s good fun. We drive no benefit unless they apply to Y Combinator and get into Y Combinator, except that we think it makes the world a better place to have more startups. It’s good if more do Startup School and we think that the most promising startups that don’t get into Y Combinator, but still have a shot, have a better shot if they have some capital to work off of, so our fervent hope is that by giving 10,000 dollars to these 100 startups will have startups that might otherwise die, not die. And succeed and thrive and become viable companies.

Craig Cannon [09:56] – Just to clarify the deals you mentioned earlier, what are they explicitly so people know?

Adora Cheung [10:02] – The exclusive deals? We have cloud credits from Amazon web services and Digital Ocean and maybe some others, and then every company that comes through will be able to incorporate and create a bank account through Stripe Atlas. They’re an amazing company to work with.

Geoff Ralston [10:21] – Clerkly for incorporation?

Adora Cheung [10:24] – Yes, and we’ll have a bunch of others, but those are the highlights.

Craig Cannon [10:28] – Cool. Applications are open right now and…

Geoff Ralston [10:34] – They’ve been open for a week.

Craig Cannon [10:35] – They’ve been open for a week or more when this podcast comes out.

Geoff Ralston [10:38] – Two weeks.

Craig Cannon [10:38] – Two weeks.

Geoff Ralston [10:40] – Once the podcast is up, it’ll be two weeks, and I do want to really encourage people to get their application in. It turns out, this is a really popular thing and lots of people are applying. We’re already thrilled by the response, it’s great. We have thousands and thousands of companies already applying.

Craig Cannon [10:58] – When will the course begin?

Geoff Ralston [11:00] – The course is going to begin the week of August 27th. It’s going to actually have a live, in-person component in Mountian View, California at the original YC offices on Pioneer Way, but also, obviously, we can’t take everyone there, since there will be many thousands of people taking the MOOC so all of the lectures and the slides will be online, made available online shortly after each lecture.

Craig Cannon [11:36] – Who can attend in person, how does that work?

Geoff Ralston [11:39] – We’re actually working through that. We think the demand is going to be super high and we want to be as equitable as possible. It’s really interesting, Craig, the startup companies in circle, the companies from around the world, but it’s also true, there’s a good number who are in the Bay Area, so we don’t expect or really even recommend people travel to come and try to come to the course, because that actually will probably detract from your startup, you should be focusing on the startup itself and building your company and talking to your users and building your products, not traveling out to Mountain View. But for people who are local and who want to come in, we’ll have some mechanism for them to reserve a spot and come in and actually attend the lecture in person.

Adora Cheung [12:30] – Just to clarify, or to add on to that, is the live is just an option, it’s not a requirement for course completion or to qualify for the 10,000 dollars.

Geoff Ralston [12:42] – But there are requirements. We, I’m sorry, Adora was about to say that, but we, to be eligible to take part in presentation day at the end where you can present your company.

Craig Cannon [13:01] – To who?

Geoff Ralston [13:01] – Hopefully there’ll be an audience of investors in the community to take a look at what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished, but also, to be eligible for the 10,000 dollar grant, you need to attend nine out of 10 of the weekly group meetings with your advisor and you need to consume at least nine out of 10 of the… Nine out of 10?

Adora Cheung [13:28] – Yes, nine out of 10.

Geoff Ralston [13:30] – 15 out of 20 of the lectures that occur on a weekly basis.

Craig Cannon [13:33] – Alright, okay, gotcha.

Geoff Ralston [13:35] – The course, Adora mentioned this, the course runs for 10 weeks starting on the week of August 27th and it runs through the end of October. Not coincidentally, that is right in the application period going into the interview period for our Winter 2019 batch. We actually will help people apply to YC. We’ll give you, maybe not insider information, but accurate information about how to think about creating an application and having your best shot at having your company considered for membership in that batch.

Adora Cheung [14:14] – There’s a lecture dedicated to that.

Geoff Ralston [14:16] – There’ll actually be a lecture dedicated to helping people do that. Look, it’s hard to get into our core YC program. The admission rate is somewhere between one and two percent. We think that alone is a great reason to come through Startup School. The main reason Startup School will help you get into YC, however, is not because we have a lecture dedicated to that. The main reason it will help you get into YC is because we sincerely believe it’ll make your startup better.

Craig Cannon [14:49] – Right, and you’ll have the focing function of working with a group over 10 weeks.

Geoff Ralston [14:53] – Well, that’s part of it. It turns out that the focing function of working as part of a group and having community over 10 weeks makes your startup better, it makes you focus, it makes you achieve, it makes you grow, so we expect those things to really be relevant to the companies that are applying.

Craig Cannon [15:09] – In addition to this section on applying to YC, what else is in the curriculum? Let’s go from the beginning of the first course and then just go from there.

Geoff Ralston [15:19] – Yeah, this is hard, because we have to do it from memory and it’s 10 courses, but it follows an arch that will be pretty familiar to folks. We’re going to start off by talking about some of the really basic ideas behind starting a startup: why you do it, how you should think about it, how you should even mechanically go about doing what you need to do. Some of these things, every part of doing a startup is hard, but sometimes, just getting over those first small steps is the key things to actually getting on the road to building your startup. Then we’ll spend a fair amount of time talking about product. What is a startup without, what is any company without a product? YC’s motto, it turns out, is make something people want. We’ll spend a fair amount of time talking about what it really means to make something people want, to find sort of the proverbial product-market fit. Then we’ll go on to talk about how do you think about getting users and growing once you start to have a product that’s reasonable, and then we’ll spend a fair amount of time on that, and we’ll spend a fair amount of time on things like how to think about running your company and hiring people and then we’ll transition to talking about fundraising, how that works, how you think about cap tables. Then, as we get towards the middle part, we’ll talk about applying to YC, which is sort of right in that. A lot of people think about YC as a mechanism for fundraising, although I tend to argue, it’s much less about fundraising, that’s a piece of it, and way more about

Geoff Ralston [17:13] – making your startup more likely to succeed. And then we’ll have some cool stuff at the end that will revolve around…

Adora Cheung [17:18] – Thinking big.

Geoff Ralston [17:18] – Thinking big.

Adora Cheung [17:26] – About the future.

Geoff Ralston [17:28] – Thinking about the key things that make startups succeed and fail. Even psychological and emotional things, because as anyone who’s done a startup, Adora’s been through this in as intense a way as you possibly can, a startup is an emotional rollercoaster. It’s really complicated and hard and coming out the other end as good a person or better as you entered in the beginning is really a hard challenge.

Craig Cannon [18:00] – What about those sessions with advisors? Around YC, we talk about office hours and group office hours and advisors and all that stuff. It’s not always clear what actually happens during those meetings, and then, to be clear, these are online sessions with your advisors.

Geoff Ralston [18:16] – Online.

Craig Cannon [18:16] – They’re happening weekly, correct?

Adora Cheung [18:19] – Mhmm.

Craig Cannon [18:21] – What’s actually happening during them, because following the course work is interesting, which is like the traditional model if you’re working with a TA for example, but in reality, they’re more talking about what, product growth during the whole course?

Adora Cheung [18:35] – I would say the course work is a little bit more on the theory side and abstract in attempt to teach everybody something relevant to what they’re doing and then, in group office hours, it comes down to more tactical things and very specific things. We’re going to try to group you with fellow founders who are working on similar industries and obviously, hopefully, similar locations so you don’t have to get up at wacky times for this, but most importantly, the general structure is you come in and you describe what has happened, and briefly, what has happened in the past week, have you met your goal, if not, what was the main obstacle and how can the group help you? The mentor actually is not there to, I would say, tell you exactly what to do, they’re there to facilitate the conversation, because in most cases, a lot of the things, a lot of the problems you run into, other founders have run into in just different forms, and so, it is other founders who will probably help you the most. That’s what we’re hoping for.

Geoff Ralston [19:44] – The important aspect of the hours, even though they’re done in group, is that they’re actually individual attention for each company. Each company gets to spend time talking about what they’re working on, what progress they’re making, what problems or barriers they’re running into. As Adora points out, it’s both the advisor and the other founders within that context who can help and take part in the community of startups trying to be successful. It’s actually the coolest part. I just, actually, it’s worthwhile saying just a word on the advisors who more than anything make this work. It’s really a testimony to the power of the YC network that YC founders are so interested. I don’t know how open I should be about this, but I’ll just say, we don’t pay these folks to do this.

Adora Cheung [20:42] – Thank you.

Geoff Ralston [20:42] – They volunteer their time for a free course to spend time with companies that they’ve never heard of before and to help them be successful. These folks are amazing. They’re, in many or most cases, working on their own startup at the same time, but they dedicate their time, their very valuable time, to help these strangers make their startup work. It’s really, more than anything else, what makes Startup School powerful and interesting beyond sort of any online course you can follow and any book you can read about how to start a startup. This is way more real, way more effective, and I would say way more substantive to the future success of your startup.

Craig Cannon [21:37] – It really helps to stay locked into the course, because churn has been a huge problem with many MOOC’s, right? It’s not uncommon to have less than 20 percent of the class…

Geoff Ralston [21:46] – Five percent.

Craig Cannon [21:49] – Five percent is standard.

Adora Cheung [21:49] – Single digit percentages.

Geoff Ralston [21:51] – Last year, 56 percent finished and our goal is higher this year. And I think Adora pointed out, you only get a chance at the 10,000 dollars if you finish, so we expect, that is one of the reasons we put this in place at the tail end of the course, because we think that is going to incent people to finish, because we thin it’s good for them to finish.

Craig Cannon [22:17] – Right, right.

Geoff Ralston [22:18] – And your startup then has a better shot.

Craig Cannon [22:20] – Right, so before we move on, we should also shout out the people at YC that were working on this with you guys, because it’s not just you two

Adora Cheung [22:26] – No, not at all.

Craig Cannon [22:27] – running it, so who else is working on it with you?

Adora Cheung [22:29] – Well, Steven Pham has…

Geoff Ralston [22:29] – Steven’s the main, I mean, Steven does more than anyone. He’s amazing, he worked on it with Sam last year and he worked on Startup School, too, didn’t he? Or How to Start a Startup, too, as well, but he’s amazing, he recruits the advisors, he puts everything together, he makes it work when it works, so he’s sort of the guy.

Adora Cheung [22:49] – And then we have two engineers who are working with us as well, Ramon and Kyle.

Geoff Ralston [22:55] – And the YC software team.

Craig Cannon [22:58] – Because there’s a whole software side to this, obviously.

Geoff Ralston [23:00] – For the most part, we build this ourselves. We use our own software and we manage with our own stuff. It’s actually non-trivial to put together software that makes it scalable to work with thousands and thousands of companies. Obviously, we have smaller scale, but even with YC when we have hundreds of companies we’re working with, we need software to help us scale and at this level, we need it all the more so, and so, they did an awesome job last year, we’re improving it again this year. We got lots of feedback from the companies and from the advisors on how to make the software even better, so Kyle and Ramon have been amazing.

Craig Cannon [23:40] – On the personal side, for you guys, when you were startup founders, which of these classes did you think would have been most valuable to you? What was the thing you knew least about where you could’ve learned the most?

Adora Cheung [23:55] – Probably all of it when starting out.

Geoff Ralston [23:58] – I’m from a slightly different generation, and when I wanted to start a startup, there was nothing available. We’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating, the content’s awesome. If you go to that URL I mentioned for the library and you start going through there, it’s incredible. There’s also a lot of startup content elsewhere on the web and some of it, not all of it, but some of it’s pretty good, too. I happen to believe that the startup content that’s been put together, both at YC, it’s a mix of Startup School content and other content that’s been generated and some external content that we think is particularly good and we point to, but that coupled with the community and the mentorship that startup school represents, that alone is worth the price of admission, which is free. But that alone is amazing and game changing as far as I’m concerned.

Craig Cannon [25:04] – You haven’t answered the question.

Geoff Ralston [25:10] – My answer is…

Craig Cannon [25:10] – Having a community.

Geoff Ralston [25:12] – The community and the focus and having that, for me, again, the content

Craig Cannon [25:16] – Is great.

Geoff Ralston [25:18] – is fantastic, but that..

Craig Cannon [25:18] – You have nobody around you.

Geoff Ralston [25:20] – I think I answered the question.

Craig Cannon [25:23] – You’re right, you did answer the question, my bad. Adora, same.

Adora Cheung [25:27] – In general, when you think about YC, it’s all about the network and it’s a community of high quality entrepreneurs and you can’t get that anywhere else and so, you want to do this for Startup School as well. You can live anywhere and plug into a network. This will be the highest quality place you can be at to talk with people about your startup.

Craig Cannon [25:49] – Alright, thanks guys, thanks for taking time.

Geoff Ralston [25:51] – Hey, thanks a lot, Craig, it was fun.

Adora Cheung [25:52] – Yes.

Craig Cannon [25:54] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can find the transcript and the video at, and if you have a second, it would be awesome to give us a rating and review wherever you find your podcasts. See ya next time.


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