All posts filed under “Cambridge MBA

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My dissertation – Ycombinator & its spawn – How to do it right

I, like many geeks, love the Ycombinator programme. It was really the first of its kind, and was started by Paul Graham and his friends in 2005.

About YCombinator (YC)

What is it? A three-month long programme to help start startups. Founders (you) get ~$15-20k in “seed” cash so they can live without any other commitments for the three months, in return for ~6% equity in the business. (Thus, being accepted immediately values your business at ~$300k, not that this really matters.)

During those three months there are weekly dinners with the ~15-30 other companies accepted into the programme. YC specifically doesn’t offer office space, but these regular dinners and office hours with Paul Graham provide regular contact and guidance from other startups going through the same issues you are. These dinners also feature guests/speakers from across the startup/tech industry.

At the end of the three months is a Demo Day, which is attended by some of the top VC’s and angel investors in the US. (I’ve heard anecdotally that as YC has established its brand, Demo Days have become much better attended.) So in addition to helping get your startup and demo ready, YC puts you in touch with an incredibly ecosystem of VC’s and advisors to take you to the next stage.

My dissertation

Since Ycombinator became successful, there have been efforts around the world to try and copy the “secret sauce” which makes YC a success. These include:

But while each of these other programmes are broadly similar to YC, they’re actually fairly different. What I consider to be broadly similar is:

  • For small teams of startup founders to work on their own ideas
  • Defined term of programme
  • Funding – for living expenses while on programme
  • Education – intense period of product & business advice
  • Contacts – help you make appropriate contacts to help you in the next stage
  • Demo Day – opportunity to pitch to potential funding sources and advisors

My Goal

I am writing my dissertation in order to put a “framework” around the YC “special sauce.” If you’re thinking about setting up something like YC, what do you need to include and what do you need to avoid? How do your goals for the programme help or hurt its eventual chance for success? What will truly help entrepreneurs, and how do you make sure you do that in the programme?


So this is what I’m going to be spending a lot of time on this summer. I hope to release an early draft or two openly to get comments, and then release my final paper when it’s finished at the end of August. I hope that providing a way to think about YC will help other people as they set up similar programmes, hopefully world-wide!

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Wow, it’s been a while…

I haven’t been posting much lately. I got a little snowed under with work and it broke me of what had been a semi-regular habit.

Not going to say much here other than that I got a paid internship for this summer in London! It’s ten weeks starting at the end of June, and I’m really excited. (I’m holding off on saying the name of the company until I’ve got everything signed, sealed and delivered! E-mail me directly if you’re curious.)

Other MBA classmates have been getting jobs, even in some hard-to-get finance areas, but it is a bit more bleak than a couple of years ago. I still believe that if you’re willing to reset your expectations you’ll still get a great job and be set for a great career.

That’s all for now… hopefully more soon.

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Simon Murray speaks at Judge Business School

This week our MBA class got to hear from Simon Murray. While his name may not ring a bell like some of the other speakers we’ve had this year, he was an absolute thrill to listen to.

Simon has had a fascinating career. He skipped his A-levels (similar to SATs for the Americans reading this) to join the crew of a merchant ship as it sailed around the world. Eventually he found his way to the French Foreign Legion, where he served for five years in Algeria. Passing up the option to become an officer in the Legion, he came back to the UK. Simon eventually became a hugely successful and highly regarded businessman in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Probably the most prominent of his current activities is being on the Board for Vodafone. More recently, he became the oldest man to reach the South Pole unsupported, at the age of 63. (It was a two-month trek!)

Career Advice

Simon had some really interesting insights for us as we approach our future careers. Specifically, one of his key points was that when thinking about jobs, we need to separate what we want TO BE from what we want TO DO. As long as you’re doing something you like, it really doesn’t matter who you become. (And if you’re doing something you like you tend to be really, really good at it!) What YOU DO is what YOU BECOME, so live your life to become the best at whatever you enjoy.

Another of his main points is that you have to grab opportunities as you see them. It was just a chance meeting that originally got him connected in Hong Kong, and Simon talked about how grabbing it was a seemingly small thing but an event that was a key to his future success.

Simon had two quotes that I thought were really interesting. Take them as you will:

  • “Don’t go where the path may lead. Go where there is no path and leave a trail.”
  • “On bad roads you meet good people.”

Finally, he told a story about trying to get to the heart of what a potential candidate really wanted to do with his life. Simon, not getting an answer, finally asked him what he would do if he had the next day off with nothing to do. The guy (a recent university graduate) thought about it, and told him “windsurfing.” Simon at the time owned a company that made windsurfing sails. The new graduate was sent to that company and became a great success and has gone on to very significant successes since. That concept, that we decide what to do in our career based off what we would do if we had a day off, is interesting. As Simon mentioned, it may lead to unexpected places, but as long as we do what we enjoy it should be fruitful both personally and professionally.


Simon was a fantastic speaker. His mix of great stories and fascinating personality made it one of the top tier talks this year. I’m definitely going to have to buy his book and learn a bit more about his early years in the French Foreign Legion.