Why I Launched Orbital Boot Camp

There are a plenty of places to help you develop your startup idea or product, but not a lot of places to help you navigate the initial creative process when you are just getting off the ground.

That’s what Orbital Boot Camp is all about.

It’s a 12-week intensive course to help people launch their side projects, where the output is not a demo day, but a public talk on lessons learned. There’s no equity exchange. Students pay to be in the program or are covered by scholarships.

The program provides: a space to work, instructors and coaches who will help students navigate their respective uncertain paths, and a community of like-minded folks who are all in the same boat. It also runs on evenings and weekends, accommodating those with daytime responsibilities.

The proposed projects may end up being funded companies, open source projects, art experiments, or educational programs. They may or may not make money. They may not even live on after the program ends. All of these outcomes are completely valid.

I’ve learned a lot from my short time in venture capital, but there are a few themes that particularly stick out in the context of the Boot Camp:

  1. The creative process is hard enough as is. To place additional expectations on an idea before it’s born—for example, whether it will or won’t be a venture-funded business—is a distraction and puts the cart before the horse. How your idea eventually sustains itself is indeed an important design consideration, but all of that is secondary to the simple act of figuring out what it is you really have and whether it is really what you want.
  2. It’s important to respect and appreciate the irrational as much as the rational. I could talk for hours about this topic, from investment decisions to product design, but the crux of it is this: while we may have control over conditions, we have no control over outcomes. It’s important to leave space for things to emerge.
  3. There’s tremendous value to working out in the open. Enabling people to find you achieves the same result as a strategy where you instead set out to find them. By embracing this philosophy, we are implicitly freeing ourselves from our own unrealistic expectations of having to know all.

I’ve designed the boot camp with these considerations in mind. The focus is on the experience rather than the outcome. Success is based on learning rather than achievement. All of this requires that people are willing to engage with each other openly.

While my time at Union Square Ventures has informed the design of the boot camp, what inspires it comes from moonlighting for the past three years teaching Entrepreneurial Design in Liz Danzico’s program at SVA.

(I should note that Entrepreneurial Design itself was inspired by what Christina Cacioppo, the course co-creator and my former Union Square Ventures colleague, and I learned from working at the firm. Everything informs everything.)

The course was designed to help the students understand that in an age of networks, it has become increasingly possible for skilled individuals to realize their own creative ideas rather than solely that of others. The course is best known for challenging students to make $1,000 using the Internet. And that, they have, launching all sorts of projects that satisfied the constraints of the class while also finding a way to express themselves.

It’s been an incredible privilege to teach in the program, but it took me awhile to fully appreciate it.

After moving on from Union Square Ventures in early 2013, then teaching through the spring semester, I did a bit of traveling. In doing so, I shared stories of my students’ feats in countless public talks and private conversations.

As I did, I began to notice a pattern. I’d introduce the class, the focus, the $1,000 Project, and then I’d begin describing some of the students’ projects. About 2 or 3 projects in, the audience would noticeably shift. They would be intently listening, but you could tell that their mind was elsewhere. I could tell that for many, they were thinking: “Hey. I could do that, too.” Eventually we’d switch gears and start talking about their ideas for launching their own side projects.

The students’ work has clearly inspired others, and seeing the effect their narratives have had on others has in turn inspired me.

Many people have asked me why I’m doing this and what I get out of it. Externally, I imagine that my actions appear altruistic simply because the usual markers of a profit motive are absent.

But I look at it somewhat differently.

From a practical sense, the Boot Camp is an attempt at creating an economic engine for Orbital, my new workspace where I plan to collaborate with others on my own project ideas—kind of like a modern day guild. If the Boot Camp proves to be viable and sustainable, I’ll have greater freedom to pursue whatever interests me on my own terms.

On a personal level, I’ve reluctantly realized that I’ve learned a lot from teaching. It’s forced me to crystallize my views and defend my positions in a way that I hadn’t had to do previously. I think teaching is one of the best ways to continue to learn once you’ve left academia—or in my case, a particularly thoughtful investment firm. We tend to think about self-sufficiency solely in financial terms, however I think it’s just as important to always be learning.

The Boot Camp is also an intellectual experiment. What will emerge if you remove the expectations of a financing and focus solely on navigating the creative process? What happens when you start from a broader base of ideas, irrespective of their fundability, whether they are civic, social, creative, or commercial in nature? How does having a more diverse environment of creators, whether it’s by age, ethnicity, gender, affect how we look at things? What happens if you treat the ideation phase as an educational process vs. a competition?

There’s a cultural motivation, too. At a macro-level, we are amidst a transition from an industrialized world to a networked one, where the laws of physics are fundamentally different than what we grew up with.

Everything is changing—how we work, how we learn, how we sustain ourselves, how we organize. It is not certain that this change will lead to positive outcomes for everyone, but it is certain that change will happen.

In the face of such uncertainty, I think one way forward is to take an indirect approach. Rather than attempt to create direct solutions, could you instead help more individuals learn to create their own opportunities—whether they are businesses, community organizations, services, or simply fun creative projects?

And, could you construct the program such that the exhaust of this education fuels the creation of even more narratives of individuals learning to leverage networks (whether their projects succeed or fail) that are more broadly relevant to people outside of early adopters?

I’d love to see more educational opportunities like this that foster experiential learning in addition to the many great resources we have around instructional learning.

There are many great educational programs, like the MFA in Interaction Design at SVA, or upstarts like Austin Center for Design and the School For Poetic Computation (and many more) that do this today.

The Boot Camp follows in that ethos, and for all of the reasons mentioned above, I hope we’ll continue to see even more do so, too.