Dev

A cure for your incubator fatigue: Meet nReduce, the open-source Y Combinator

Incubators are like belly buttons: Everybody’s got one.

Or so it seems from where we sit in San Francisco, where if one throws a rock in certain neighborhoods, one is sure to hit an incubator or accelerator or at least a hackathon.

As a result, we tend not to get too worked up about incubators anymore, but every so often, we come across one with sterling provenance or a particularly unique premise.

nReduce is both of those. The program comes from the gigantic brain of Ruby on Rails demigod Jacques Crocker, and he started off by throwing a hand grenade at the hornet’s nest that is Y Combinator. Crocker originally named his program “N Combinator” and claimed it would be nothing more or less than an open-source Y Combinator.

Of course, the initial announcement of “N Combinator” on the Y Combinator-affiliated aggregation site Hacker News caused a significant poo-storm. After that died down (and Crocker & Co. amiably agreed to change their program’s name), we caught up with the Rails Jedi himself to talk about why incubators needed an open-source approach and exactly how his program, which begins next week, will work.


VentureBeat:So, clearly this is a spin on Y Combinator. Why did you think Y Combinator needed an overhaul?

Jacques Crocker: Everyone on our team [which now includes designer Joe Mellin, marketing expert Paul Eikelenboom, and developer Scott Robertson] is a huge Paul Graham and YCombinator fan. We have the utmost respect for the program.

However the demand for Y Combinator has far outstripped supply. There’s plenty of amazing teams that are either being rejected from YC or don’t fit in the narrow guidelines of a YC company. But they could use some of the energy that comes from a group of startups coming together and working together over a short period. We think there’s an opportunity for startups to band together to build something that rivals YC in scope and one that produces startups of the equal or better quality.

VB: So what does nReduce have in common with Y Combinator?

JC: We’ve taken as much inspiration as we can from the structure of YC. It runs during the same time period, and every week our companies will meet up for Tuesday dinners.

We’ll use these dinners to collaborate, demo, and share our learnings with each other over the past week. We’ll also use these meetings to just talk, drink, relax, and let off some steam.

The second week is prototype day where each team is required to put together something to show the other startups what they are building, and to encourage people to ship something to customers as early as possible.

Like YC, our program will be very difficult. Only the teams that fully immerse themselves and commit to making progress every single week will survive until the end.

Near the end of the program, we’ll put together a demo day which is an opportunity to put together the best two-minute pitch for each startup. We’ll do everything we can to bring in top-notch investors and press to cover us, with the goal of having our startups that outshine even the best that YC can come up with.

VB: What are your criteria for individuals and teams that want to join you?

JC: nReduce does not believe in artificial barriers. We accept any team that can reasonably say they’ll be able to develop and ship every week. We expect many to apply, and no one who really wants to be in the program will be declined.

Any true test of an incubator shouldn’t be about getting in. As with real startups, the test is actually executing. Our startups are required to make progress every week and report their learnings. Every Tuesday each team has to check in with their product progress, and what they’ve learned from customers (or users).

Startups who miss checking in or are obviously not progressing will be dropped from the program. The end group of startups who survive and get to demo day will consist purely of the teams who can ship and build traction.

VB: What’s the process going to be like? Take me through a typical week, as you envision it at the outset.

JC: A typical week for our team (as a participating startup) will be 100 percent focused on our startup and product. We’ll use each Tuesday deadline to motivate us to ship product updates to customers, and learning from our users what they love, and what they hate. We’ll then share these findings with the group.

The online discussion forum will be active with people sharing their discoveries, metrics, and challenges with building and marketing their products.

On Tuesday evenings, we’ll meet up with other startups in downtown SF (other clusters will also form in other startup hubs). In San Francisco each week, we’ll try to bring in a guest speaker who will give a quick talk for 15 minutes and just hang out with us and chat for a while.

VB: You talk about open-sourcing the incubator/accelerator process. Are you actually requiring everyone to open source their code? Or is it more that each team open sources its knowledge to the other teams?

JC: We’re open sourcing the process of bringing startups together and hopefully achieving a better rate of success than individually. Our goal is to test and iterate on this process all summer so that the end result is a repeatable way to bring together any group of startups (large or small), have an effective way to share information, motivate each other, and use the group to generate more interest and attention from the outside world (investors/press/customers) and any one of the startups would have been able to generate on their own.

VB: How has the community responded so far?

JC: We’ve had really amazing feedback so far. A handful of people have stepped up and offered to help organize and moderate the group. The original YC thread that was up for about an hour had 91 comments (a second thread generated 48 more comments). People gave us the usual flack for our hipster, goofy design and ninja icons (which we expected). But overall people were generally positive and encouraging of the idea.

We have over 250 teams registered and 2,000 signups already (startups, mentors, spectators) from just our limited exposure so far. We believe this shows a large demand and interest in our program.

So far received several people emailing with interest to syndicate or extend our model to other cities and locations. We’re happy to encourage this and are working through details for what it will look like.

VB: We just covered a “pre-incubator” earlier this month — is tech culture getting too startup-centric? Is there still value in actually working for someone else, or is everyone going to be a founder for 15 minutes?

JC: I personally think every engineer should be involved in his own startup at some point in his/her life. It gives techies much greater respect for the entire team required for a startup to succeed (including the “biz guys”).

We hope it’s win/win. The more startups out there, the more chances we have for breakout successes that will generate jobs. Founders of startups that fail will be better early employees and have greater respect for the founders of the companies they join. They’ll have gone through the process personally and realize how hard it actually is to build a team, raise money, and create something people want.

Image courtesy of olly, Shutterstock


Mobile developer or publisher? VentureBeat is studying mobile app analytics. Fill out our 5-minute survey, and we'll share the data with you.