The Minimum Viable Business School:
Zipcar Education for Entrepreneurs

by Christopher Meyer on 02/07/2014

zipuThe hotbed of education experimentation in Silicon Valley are the startup academies, accelerators and hacker boot camps.  Grounded in the minimum viable product philosophy that entrepreneurs harness to speed products to market, these new education entities offer a minimum viable education for tech entrepreneurs.

You know it’s hot because the regulators have come out of the woodwork with cease and desist orders. It’s also easy to see why.

You won’t walk out of any of them with a diploma for your wall.  You will get an intense, hands-on experience taught by near-peers with one or two more cycles of experience as coders or entrepreneurs. The accelerators’ thesis project is a business plan and slide deck pitch for investors.

None of these claim to replace the college experience but they do challenge the traditional value proposition. Think of them as 21st century trade schools with the brevity of a Twitter tweet.  Rarely longer than sixteen weeks, the pace is such that if you drop off the back, you’re probably history as hand holding is not their forte.

The obvious question: Are these companies the next Silicon Valley innovation spurred by impatience with formal education’s deteriorating results and sky-high cost? Or, are they just the next educational rip-off?

That’s a big question.  We’ll take a crack at it after we see what they’re up to.  Then we’ll explore their value proposition and future.

Boot camps, Academies and Accelerators

Broadly stated, the new alternatives fit into three categories:

Boot camps

Academies

Accelerators

Focus Software development Entrepreneurship Startup incubation
Example Dev Bootcamp

Hack Reactor

App Academy

Tradecraft

Marcademy

Draper University

Y Combinator

500 Startups

Common characteristics are:

  1. Intensive and short: 12-16 hour days with program duration as short as a week and rarely longer sixteen weeks.
  2. Hands-on: Projects and internships dominate over formal instruction
  3. Near-peer faculty: Most instructors are more experienced colleagues, neither trained or certified for their teaching skills
  4. Network development emphasis: Building one’s resource network is an integral element.
  5. Overlapping financial interests: Some hacker boot camps charge employers hiring fees while accelerators take an equity interest in the startup team.
  6. Fees: $10,000-20,000 boot camps/academies; accelerators take equity

Whereas the boot camps and academies charge individuals tuition, the accelerators attract small entrepreneurial teams with a business concept in-hand that wants to accelerate growth.  Accelerators include the attributes of a small venture firm as they invest money as well as time in exchange for equity.

A Fundamentally Different Value Proposition

Clay Shirky’s The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age details how the conditions that enabled universities to grow and prosper now apply only to elite schools such as Stanford, Swarthmore, the Ivies, etc.

Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million—the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility—are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Self-discovery is an important journey but it’s not a minimum viable solution for finding a job, particularly in tech.  Many kids learn basic coding such as HTML in secondary school.  Few would call four years fast to market.  This combination opened the opportunity for the new alternatives.

Unlike traditional education where the focus is on knowledge transfer and testing through papers, quizzes, etc., the newbies use experimentation and hands-on application.  The intensity and pacing matches the tempo of business and deliberately emphasizes using internships versus maintaining an ivory tower distance.

The personal network that college and graduate education creates is constantly cited as one of the most important benefits by graduates.  That’s great but it’s random.  It’s long after graduation that we learn who became the CEO of GM and who was the best superintendent of schools in Cedar Rapids.

In contrast, the alternative schools focus on teamwork, building work-related connections and interacting with potential customers, investors and employers from day one.  Network building is concurrent with learning and emphasized rather than being serial and serendipitous.

While not cheap at $10-000-20,000 for sixteen weeks, they certainly are cheaper than even one year of college.  Their ideal student has already done some programming, had an entry job and would rather carve their own path than depend on someone else.  Tech legends Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college for these same reasons.

Does the New Value Proposition Fit Students’ Requirements?

The skills needed to successfully start and grow a business are narrower than a traditional business school’s curriculum – undergraduate or graduate.  That doesn’t mean one can absorb them in sixteen weeks.  The new alternatives are fast but value is only there for those who can keep up.  Dropout rates are an acknowledged problem.  You’d better have a few notches in your technical skill set, high stress tolerance along with kamikaze commitment to see them through.

Nor does it suggest that the near-peer teaching quality equals what accredited universities provide.  Near-peers are prone to emphasize what worked for them in their short job history.  Those experience lessons may not be wise across alternative competitive settings.  However, the brilliant instructional skills demonstrated by Kahn Academy are a clear example of where near-peer teaching can be successful.

Touching the critical topics is possible in sixteen weeks but many students complain that they never really land on any.  My experience teaching executive courses at major universities confirms this.  What students can absorb about lean product development in an afternoon session is at best a toe dip.

Perhaps the best indication of fit is the persistent growth that now reaches far beyond the Valley; each listing their rock star alumnae.  One list of accelerators showed 185 programs world-wide with nearly $4B raised from investors.  There are about a third as many boot camps.  About 10% have died.

Where is Zipcar Education Headed?

Most of us own a car and certainly in California, not having one seems crazy.  Unless the hassle of getting a car the moment you need one disappeared.  Enter Zipcar.  I’ll keep my car thank you but if I lived on campus at Stanford or San Francisco where parking is a significant hassle hassle, I might change.

What the boot camps, academies and incubators are telling us is that for tech-centric entrepreneurs, faster and focused entrepreneur education is an unmet need.

I don’t think the approaches I’ve described will survive as currently composed because they can’t scale efficiently.  Near-peer faculty turnover and quality control sets limits.  Nor can they afford the regulatory battle without serious funding or aggregation among players.

What I suspect will happen is an affiliation-based roll-up with local institutions.  Think of the stand-alone surgical center that eventually affiliates with a larger health system.  They keep doing surgery but they have a more secure patient flow and larger resource base to draw upon.  The hospitals aren’t skilled at starting these but they see the cost and outreach value in partnering.

The same pattern could occur with universities and particularly, community colleges.  Rather than having to create an integrated entrepreneurial program, the newbies would provide that in exchange for regulatory cover and insured student flow.

Until then, the boot camps, academies and accelerators are the minimum viable alternative…Zip Car education.

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