On Deck (tagline: where top tech talent goes to explore what’s next) is a company that runs learning experiences as fellowships. It started off in 2015 focused on community building for and by founders in major tech hubs around the world and launched its first On Deck Fellowship (ODF) cohort for founders in 2019.
On Deck’s aim is to build ‘a modern education institution,’ having publicly announced raising a $3 million round Aug 2020 to build ‘a platform serving the many strands of identity of ambitious people who want to change the world.’
As a founder and a participant in On Deck’s Founder Fellowship, Cohort 4 Jun-Aug 2020 (📢 shout out ODF4), I got to experience their core offering first-hand.
As an education entrepreneur, learning experience designer, community builder and investor who has been working at the frontier of education innovation globally for the last decade, I’ve written up a short analysis breaking down what I think makes it such a powerful learning experience.
On Deck’s power comes from its 1) people, 2) community, 3) programming, 4) automation.
On Deck has been leveraging all of the above to 5) launch new verticals.
If you’re still curious it it’ll be a good fit, feel free to reach out to me to chat more. Or, if you’re already convinced, you can use my referral link (I get nothing out of it, but you get bumped up the line if your profile fits):
👩🏾👨🏻 1) People
Thanks in no small part to Julian Weisser’s leadership, On Deck focused first on people. They have built a machine and focus on screening people for:
- Ability (for the founder fellowship, are you someone with skills, experience, network to start a company)
- Culture (for all fellowships, the focus is on those who will give to and enhance the community, not just those who will take)
- Stage (for the founder fellowship, are you at a point where you’re focused on starting or growing your company in the next 3 months)
They involve current fellows and alumni in the interview process, which helps improve filtering without needing to scale resources. They also rely on referrals from participants to generate and fast track more participants for future cohorts:
🌱🤝🏼 2) Community
On Deck fosters community by running cohorts of people with ability, culture fit and at the same stage.
Cohorts are around 200–250 fellows.
On Deck fosters community by:
- Creating avenues for connection: virtual kickoff, build weekends, mastermind groups, speed (cofounder) dating.
- Make it easy for fellows to run sessions.
- Use tools that are all about facilitating connection:
- Slack (including one of the best channel hierarchies I’ve seen)
- Directory (powered by a Slack sign in and Airtable back-end)
- Process to host a community session (now largely automated)
- Calendly (every fellow used this for scheduling time)
In late 2020, On Deck began running overlapping cohorts, (e.g., having one cohort start while the other is still ongoing).
As a participant, you only get what you put in, and a huge part of what you’re getting out is access to a community of people of a threshold caliber, with orientation to giving, and at a similar stage of starting a company.
Thus, you have to spend a lot of time reaching out and connecting. It’s hugely advantageous to lend and become known for your expertise. For example, my fellow
The power of people + community, and their initial founder vertical is huge.
It’s like the PayPal mafia or the early YC community on steroids.
You have all these founders, many of whom are ex Facebook, Uber, Google, etc.
Example: We had a Facebook ads issue (our account kept getting deactivated for no discernable reason), and I put an ask out to the community on Slack.
- Someone I had never met in Cohort 7 (who started Dec 2020) responded within an hour.
- Within 24 hours, they sent the issue to a friend at Facebook who escalated it.
- Within 48 hours, the issue was resolved.
👩🏾🏫📅 3) Programming
All programming is optional. There is a core weekly ‘course,’ where first 4–5 weeks for the founder fellowship was around ideation, lean startup, product-market-fit, then later more actionable stuff like go-to-market, testing and no-code tools (to help you increase build measure learn cycles, ability to build faster and validate ideas).
In addition, there is a buffet of On Deck organized plus the fellow-organized sessions, including:
- Lawyers come and talk about structure your company and VC deals.
- VCs come to chat about their thesis or specific verticals (fintech, etc), or ‘request for startups’ they’d like to see.
- Startup founders (aka fellows) get to pitch their ideas to fellows and investors.
They also record all sessions, and have created a searchable database for all fellows current and alumni. If you cannot make it synchronously, you can always go back and watch the recording asynchronously.
Example: I was looking at doing market sizing exercise, and the first place I went went to search was the On Deck sessions database. I found exactly what I wanted, presented by other fellows.
I also organized a session on the future of edtech by inviting serial entrepreneur and angel investor John Danner of Dunce Capital to do a fireside chat (twice, once moderated by Bhaumik, and once moderated by yours truly).
⚙️🤖 4) Automation
While their team has grown tremendously, they power a ton of community, programming and communications with a small team by using a lot of low and no code tools.
🚀🎨 5) New Verticals
Starting halfway through 2020 (around Founder Fellowship Cohort 5), On Deck began launching a number of other verticals, having now launched or tested a dozen other programs (‘Labs’) for writers, podcasters, chiefs of staff, designers, the future of mobility or climate change, and more.
My impression is that, in true spirit of customer validation and product-market fit, they only launch verticals as they validate demand and get the right program director in place. Again, the power of their initial vertical is that they source many program directors from their past program cohorts.