As a recent graduate of the first TechStars NYC class, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my thoughts. This blog post isn’t going to sing the praises of TechStars – Eli (Thinknear), Kevin (Red Rover), Matt (Nestio) and Vin (not even part of TechStars!) have already done that quite well. Instead, I’d like to reflect on some of the key differences in accelerator programs.
Most people talk about TechStars and Y Combinator and interchangeably. But most people don’t understand that the programs are radically different accelerator models: In short, Y Combinator is an isolationist model [for lack of a better word I use isolationist, but the negative intention of the word is not intended]. TechStars is a collaborative model. And what’s right for one startup might not be right for another. (note: I haven’t actually been through YC. My knowledge of that program is entirely second-hand.)
This core difference, isolationist vs collaborative, manifests itself in a few key forms that are worth discussing:
Office space: In Y Combinator, you work out of your house. YC says this is the “ideal setup for the initial phase” and believes “it is no coincidence that so many successful startups have started this way.” This means your exposure to other teams is limited to weekly dinners and self-organized social events. Which means you’ll stay intently focused on the code you’re writing and the problem you’re solving.
In TechStars, you’ll work side-by-side with other companies in a shared office space. This means your experience will be very social — you’ll make thirty new best friends. These friends will help you see things in new ways, generate ideas, and solve problems. They’ll make great introductions on your behalf. And most importantly, they’ll be there to support you when times get tough. But being in a shared office space means you’ll be surrounded by activity and distractions.
Location: Y Combinator takes place in Silicon Valley. TechStars takes place in four major cities around the world. If you’re a very technical company (a la clustrix) making a product for high-tech silicon valley companies, the valley is probably a great choice. If you’re focused on something media related — like ThinkNear and OnSwipe — NYC may be the better place. And if you’re building a pure consumer product, your location may not matter at all.
Mentorship and events: YC offers “regular office hours year round for startups who want to talk about what they’re building, or get advice on dealing with investors.” TechStars takes mentorship to another level. You’ll spend your first month “mentor dating” — meeting with TechStars’ incredible set of mentors and getting feedback and criticism on your idea. You’ll get so much advice in fact, that you may experience what TechStars calls “mentor whiplash.” Regardless, you’ll have ample access to the program organizers David Cohen and David Tisch.
“The Davids” are a perfect Yin and Yang: Tisch is passionate, visionary, and inspiring. Cohen is logical, grounded, and sees through bullshit in a way that few people can. Both perspectives are tremendously valuable, especially when paired. Obviously the mentorship that TechStars offers is valuable, but realize that your first month will be spent mostly in meetings rather than intensely focused on building your actual product. That’s almost certainly not the case with YC.
Size of the program: In TechStars, you’re one of ten companies. In Y combinator, you’re one of forty. TechStars’ intimacy obviously gives you more attention, exposure, and access than YC. But the YC “network” is bigger — your alumni network will consist of 300 companies versus TechStars’ 80 alumni companies.
Demo day: TechStars puts a lot of emphasis on demo day. A LOT. In fact, as soon as you enter the program you’ll begin pitching and helping refine other teams’ pitches. The final NYC Demo Day is held at Webster Hall where you’ll spend 8-10 minutes on stage addressing 800 people. Holy cow. Now I’ve never been to a YC demo day, but it’s my understanding that the whole event is a lot less formal and the pitches are basically cookie-cutter (as pointed out in a blog post by @bryce) and done in a rapid-fire manner. The shorter pitches mean YC companies will spend less time preparing for them and more time focused on building their products. Of course it may also make for a harder time at demo day standing out from the crowd.
At the end of the day, Y Combinator and TechStars shouldn’t be considered interchangeable – they’re very different models of accelerator programs and each has its own unique strengths.
If you haven’t already applied, applications for TechStars NYC summer 2011 are due on Thursday. Apply here.