I Had 10 Dollars

Because, why not?

Gary Chou - Orbital

Gary Chou - Orbital

Home Of A New Boot Camp For Launching Side Projects

Posted Photo by Aditya Mukerjee.

I normally begin by asking my guest they do for a living, but your experience has been quite varied and that wording doesn’t seem adequate. Would you mind just giving us a quick overview of your professional background?

I’ve worked in tech companies for most of my career, mostly in functional roles in product and design. My last salaried job was at a venture capital firm here in New York, Union Square Ventures, where I was brought in to foster a network amongst their portfolio companies.

During my time at the firm, I moonlighted as a teacher at the School of Visual Arts’ MFA in Interaction Design program, where I taught a course called Entrepreneurial Design.

After my 2-year term ended in early 2013, I took some time to travel and reflect on what I’d learned. I knew I wanted to work on my own projects, and I had come to appreciate the value of space as a catalyst for ideas experiences. So, in late 2013, when the opportunity to take over Kickstarter’s old office came up, I jumped on it, and relaunched it as Orbital.

I spent most of March and April cleaning and fixing the space up along with help from friends. In May, I announced Orbital Boot Camp, a 12 week program to help people launch their side projects, which began in mid-June. We’re about a third of the way through the program now with 26 students who are working on creative, civic, educational, and commercial projects.

Orbital Boot Camp isn’t skill focused, meaning that the participants are supposed to join with all the necessary abilities to execute their ideas. I feel like we’re really used to thinking of classes as leading to skill acquisition. How do you normally express the value of Orbital being process or experience based?

That’s right. I think there are lots of great instructional learning programs emerging, particularly around learning to code, but there aren’t as many experiential learning opportunities out there, and that’s what the Boot Camp is all about. It’s in the experience of making things that you can be presented with the lessons and challenges that are specific to you. If you can do so while you are in a supportive environment, getting regular feedback, and learning from others, the odds of successfully learning something are much more in your favor.

You wrote in a post, “There are 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.” In your mind, what are the biggest differences between these two things?

The initial creative process comes prior to knowing whether you have a product or even a startup or business. How do you prove to yourself that this is something worthy of your time? Can you establish that others want this to exist, too? You’re still figuring it out, and what you really need is to just get started.

If your idea survives this phase, then there’s the question of how you plan to sustain your idea. Maybe the right path is to raise money, but perhaps it’s to open source your idea, or to launch it as a Kickstarter project, or perhaps even to sell it.

How did you assemble the curriculum?

The course is based on the Entrepreneurial Design course that I’ve taught at the School of Visual Arts’ Masters in Interaction Design Program. Christina Cacioppo co-created the class with me in 2011, and she’s responsible for much of the original syllabus. I’ve made a few modifications over the years after seeing what did/didn’t work. Christina Xu and Leland Rechis co-taught with me this past year, and made it even better.

For the Boot Camp, we scoped down the assignments given that most students have day jobs or are already very time constrained. Also, the students apply with an existing idea that they want to launch, so they’re ready to just get down to it.

You’re a month into the program now. Have there been any surprises with the program’s structure? Have you made any adjustments to how class time is used, or spotted anything you already know you’d like to change for the next class?

The truth is, it’s been a surprise just seeing who showed up. We made the decision to run the Boot Camp in mid-May, so we only had two weeks to accept applications and one week to interview candidates.

As it turns out, having a short window was a great filter, because it self-selected people who were highly committed to their projects despite having jobs or other demands on their time.

We had more qualified students than available slots and ended up with a great, diverse group of students who are working on a wide range of projects: civic, commercial, creative, educational.

The syllabus and structure of the program has held up pretty well so far, but we’ll see how it goes the rest of the way.

I think a lot of people will focus on the idea of launching a side project to the world, but it’s not necessarily clear to someone who casually checks out the program that there are smaller assignments that don’t seem directly connected to launching. For example, there’s an assignment to hire someone to work with off of TaskRabbit, and another to post something that garners twenty retweets. How do you see these assignments fitting into the greater context of the run up to the project launch?

One of the biggest lessons from working at Union Square Ventures was that we’re living in a world that is becoming increasingly connected via networks. For example, Twitter is an amplification network that enables individuals to broadcast messages; oDesk or Amazon Mechanical Turk are labor networks that enable you to get more done faster.

Just as it’s important to become proficient at coding or photoshop, it’s increasingly important for independent creators to learn to leverage these emerging networks. There’s a difference between being a proficient user of the Facebook UI and understanding the cultural dynamics of how Facebook works in order to leverage it (or not) for your own purposes.

The other thing is that it’s incredibly important to get comfortable working in public. Doing so allows for possibilities to emerge that you might not otherwise encounter if you’re working in a more closed way. So, the assignments and the blogging requirement are ways to help people get used to that.

One of the most interesting aspects of the boot camp is that it concludes with a talk about the lessons each participant learned instead of a demo of their project. What, to you, are the biggest benefits of that format? What made it a better fit than a demo day event?

When you’re just getting started with an idea, the focus should be on learning vs. achievement.

There’s so much to understand, and we often have to negotiate the vision we have in our heads with the reality of how people behave in real life. So, there’s a broad range of possibilities here. You might figure out that you don’t really want to work on your idea. Or, you might discover that the real opportunity is just one small part of the idea you originally started with. Both are equally valid. You need to let things emerge, and then you need to have the time and space to reflect, synthesize, and then act accordingly.

Ultimately, this is about helping people develop their own intuition. And that’s where having a set of classmates is so incredibly valuable: you’re sharing what you’ve learned and then you get to benefit from their lessons, too. You never know what impact that will have.

Without a doubt, Orbital exists because of teaching Entrepreneurial Design at SVA. As I’ve taught over the past three years, I’ve also witnessed and learned from the narratives of 30+ students. It’s had a tremendous effect on me, and I would never have predicted that this would have come from that.