How to set yourself up for success at the On Deck Fellowship (ODF)
Tips and takeaways learned based on more than 100 1:1's
This piece was updated on April 2021
Finding a co-founder is tough — your talented friends amongst your network aren’t available and finding both a Founder/Market Fit and shared values with someone new is hard. Timing is everything.
A couple of months ago, I parted ways with my recent co-founder. It was then when my friend reached out to tell me about a new program that puts you with 200+ amazing people, all ready to start and ideate right now.
A couple of weeks later, I was part of On Deck Fellowship’s 4th cohort.
ODF is a highly-curated group of builders and operators looking to start their next venture — from early employees of Google, Facebook, and Airbnb to successful 2nd/3rd time founders.
The 10-week program is fully remote and doesn’t have a mandatory fixed agenda, so you decide what to join. The cohort consists of the following types of events:
- Community-led sessions
- Curriculum content from external domain experts
- ‘Socials’ - events to get to know other ODF-ers, e.g. co-founder dating
- Pitch and product feedback sessions
- Office hours offered by other fellows
- On Deck Foundery Weekends/Build Weekends (On Deck’s version of a hackathon)
I’ll elaborate on each later in this article.
As those are the program’s early days, cohort members like myself are still figuring out the mechanics of how to get the most out of this powerful community. When asking other fellows “what is the one tip you would have given someone just starting a cohort?”, they’ve unanimously agreed:
“Success will be determined by the diligence, proactiveness, and time one puts into helping and getting to know others”.
There are many other practical tips I wish I would have known prior to starting the program. In this article, I would outline my key takeaways which are based on over 100 1:1s, multiple group sessions, and valuable best practices shared by other cohort members.
Putting 200 talented entrepreneurs in one group means there is a lot happening. The first couple of weeks at ODF are overwhelming — embrace it.
Nevertheless, you can prepare in advance.
Set your definition of success
ODF attracts two types of entrepreneurs: the first is founders with a clear venture in mind, interested in others’ professional input while building their product or looking for a co-founder and key hires.
The second is people that are early in their exploration process, skilled, yet not exactly sure what they want to build, or who to build it with. I was part of the second group.
What are you planning to achieve? Set clear goals.
Otherwise, you’ll find yourself spending time on the wrong things such as endlessly reading random messages on ODF’s Slack workspace.
Maintain a public page so everyone will be able to instantly know what your goals are and add the link to your On Deck Directory profile. This is essential, as you create a ripple effect and a network of supporters. Here is my public page.
Create a Calendly account
Booking 1:1s is extremely frequent and Calendly is the way to go at On Deck.
- Make sure your calendar is in sync and up to date to avoid double-bookings and reschedules.
- For a better context, I found it useful to add my blurb and public page link to the Calendly meeting description.
- Keep a small buffer in your schedule for meetings you WANT to extend, as sometimes you’ll end up in an interesting philosophical conversation or in a heated bounce of ideas.
ODF is a lot about supporting each other. That’s why it’s more of a community than a program.
Actively look for opportunities to help others by going through the #asks and #amplify Slack channels. Other ways to put your skills into good use are:
Offer office hours
Office hours is where fellows share their knowledge, and expertise in scheduled 1:1 sessions. Except for assisting others, it’s an excellent way to 1) get to know more fellows, and 2) inform others about your skills. Do office hours early on, as being helpful will multiply over the weeks.
Organize community sessions
Community sessions are where former founders and early employees of high-growth companies with deep domain expertise share their craft.
Are you an expert with everything around Marketplaces Go-To-Market strategies? Building the most amazing yet lean MVPs? Gauge interest on the #c-community-sessions Slack channel and schedule a session to share your unique view on a specific topic.
In case you’re looking for a co-founder, find people interested in a similar topic, and present a session together. It’s a great way to test the waters and get to know what it’s like working together with minimal effort and time commitment.
Join feedback sessions
You can join feedback sessions to provide and get open honest feedback on a pitch or a product, either from external experts or other fellows. This is useful for those looking to share what they work on at scale, getting 10x more feedback, and potentially getting people to reach out with new ideas or suggestions to collaborate.
Foundry Weekend is On Deck’s version of a hackathon, inclusive of fellows with any skillset. Technical or non-technical. It includes fellows from all On Deck programs and cohorts.
Apart from being a fun activity and an opportunity to witness how other smart people approach problem-solving, foundry weekends are a great way to de-risk potential partnerships.
I’d recommend finding an idea and first collaborators ahead of the hackathon, as it’ll allow you to hit the ground running and cherry-pick strong team members. Also, consider submitting your idea early so others screening through the ideas sheet can reach out.
Create meaningful connections
As the cohort progresses, you’ll compile a list of people you’d like to connect with. What’s next?
Being able to hold different states on multiple people is challenging, and for some — almost impossible. I’ve taken and iterated a more systematic approach to the process of getting to know people ‘at scale’ while still being mindful and thoughtful with others’ time and asks.
The On Deck Directory (ODD)
The On Deck Directory is the most powerful tool within the community. It’s a sort of an internal LinkedIn to filter and surface fellows who share similar interests.
- Block time to go through the Directory during the first week. It took me ~12h to screen through all 4 Founder Fellowship batches.
- Search for people with overlapping interests, e.g. ‘AI’, ‘Healthcare’, etc., or at a similar stage, e.g. ‘looking for a co-founder’. You can even search for fellows in other On Deck programs such as the No-Code fellowship, or the Angels fellowship — in case those pools are of more relevance.
- Either ‘star’ them in the Directory or copy their profile information into another sheet. I preferred the latter as it provides more flexibility with adding notes.
- Reach out to schedule 1:1s. You want to have meaningful chats with as many fellows as you can in the first weeks so both of you will have each other in mind as you meet others.
Before the call
In a batch of 200 fellows, people are being reached out by many, especially as everyone is visible to thousands of previous cohorts’ fellows. Be clear with why you’d like to connect, even if it’s just for a chat.
Consider something along the lines of:
Hey [name], hope all is well. [a few words on how did you come across his/her profile and why you’d love to connect]. [a few words on scheduling time]. [link to your ODF Slack intro]
If you’d like to stand out, record a personal Loom with the above-mentioned framing. This extra effort will go a long way.
Be mindful of your capacity and others’ time. With some, this might be your first and last touchpoint and you want to leave a good impression. Don’t overboard it with too many 1:1s on the same day, you want to keep it personal. My daily limit was six, and that’s already intense.
As the cohort progresses, you should be having fewer new 1:1s. Instead, double down with those you had great vibes with, those you can help, and those that can help you.
For some, being asked to book a time via someone’s Calendly link can come across as entitled, especially if you’re the one asking for the meeting. Consider using the following framing:
“Feel free to send me your availabilities or, if that’s easier, book a time on my Calendly [your Calendly link]”
As for the duration, intro calls are either 15, 25, or 30 mins, with 30min being the most common option.
Before each 1:1, physical or virtual, learn about the person you’re about to meet. Go through her/his Directory profile and Slack intro message. While doing so, curve out points that can be relevant for your chat. I’ve used this following template, provided with an example:
- Name John Doe
- General background Business background working @ Google and Facebook, 2nd-time entrepreneur, ODF #4
- Icebreakers Used to live in Berlin for 3y, also an engineer turned AI PM
- How can I help? He asked for feedback about his MVP and input on his ML pipeline architecture
- How can I be helped? Feedback on my online marketing strategy
- Anything else? Joining his hackathon project?
During the call
Genuinely listen and echo other people’s thoughts; look for opportunities to help. For example, if the other person is looking for a technical co-founder in the Healthcare space, and you just met one two days ago — offer to make the connection.
Don’t forget to take and store notes for every contact and interaction. I do that in Notion where each contact has its own page.
After the call
Keep up the momentum, your next action will determine if this connection will manifest into a meaningful one. Take the time to write and share a summary of your call. By doing so, you’ll make it easier for both to follow up and support each other.
- Add the On Deck Directory as a search engine in Chrome. You’ll then be able to type od followed by a tab to search for a person’s name. Here’s a video explaining how.
- If you’re short on time, consider joining live sessions for which you have concrete questions. Otherwise, you can watch the recordings later — I do that with 2x the speed.
- Keep track of the people you’ve interacted with. Consider using Notion, Google Sheets, Roam Research, or any other tool for that matter. Honestly, none of them is a good solution as a personal CRM but it’s something.
- Slack reminders are a powerful tool to avoid context switching by reminding yourself to follow up on a message you’re interested in.
- Slack tips for big active workspaces
- For fellows that are outside of North America — most of your calls and program sessions will be held in Pacific time, thus night time for those based in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Here are some tips to avoid cranky days.
The On Deck Fellowship can be many things. For some, it’ll be the place where they’ve found their co-founder, for some it’ll be the network from which they’ve hired their first employees, and for others — it’ll be this amazing network of builders with the “give first” attitude.
Either way, it goes way beyond the 10-week program and I can’t wait to see how this one evolves.
P.S. I’ve summarized this article into a short checklist