Unpacking VFA's secret sauce in getting 20somethings to start companies

Why focusing on cultivating friendships is more effective than prescriptive guidance

I’ve spent the past two years at AWS working with accelerators, venture studios, and programs like On Deck and Antler which help smooth the onramp to starting a company. 

All of these programs do different things well. But I’ve yet to see a program that has replicated the alchemy of Venture for America (a fellowship I did) in its ability to turn 20somethings into startup founders.

For those who don’t know, Venture for America is a 2-year fellowship program for aspiring entrepreneurs founded by now-famous Andrew Yang in 2012. The idea was that recent graduate spend two years working for startups in cities with emerging startup ecosystems –  Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, and more – which would prepare them to start their own companies.

So far, over 200 Venture For America Fellows have gone full-time on their own startups before their 30th birthdays – with many VFA Fellows co-founding companies together. 

While many entrepreneurship programs support aspiring founders who have already decided to start a company, part of VFA’s magic has been getting people with high-level entrepreneurial aspirations (but unsure how to become a founder) to go from zero to one.

Getting people to start companies is a messy thing. I’ve seen programs try to take a prescriptive approach, and it doesn’t quite work out that way. Even VFA tried to be more prescriptive than it needed to be. The alchemy of the VFA experience that creates founders wasn’t all intentionally designed – some of it was by accident. 

In today’s post, I’ll try to reverse engineer the alchemy of the VFA experience which led to so many 20somethings starting their own companies, as there are lessons here on how to build entrepreneurial communities that result in the outcomes that matter – people starting companies.

The three main ingredients in VFA’s secret sauce are: 

  1. Attracting a values-based community and reinforcing those values

  2. Forging deep, non-transactional friendships which cultivate a collective entrepreneurial spirit

  3. Creating the space, opportunity, and pressure to overcome the inertia of starting something

Attracting a values-based community and reinforcing those values

VFA prioritized mission-alignment in the recruiting process. By the very nature of the fellowship (moving to cities like Detroit or Cleveland and working for startups that wouldn’t pay that much), it attracted people who valued entrepreneurship, opportunity-creation, and risk taking. The interview process is peculiar and rigorous. If you don’t deeply value entrepreneurship, you won’t make it in.

During the 5-week training camp which kicks off the fellowship experience, these values are put front and center and reinforced with VFA’s credo. Back in 2013, we would read the credo together each day (which felt a bit cult-y, but was effective), and one of the fellows in our class share a story of what this credo meant to them. This is the credo: 

My career is a choice that indicates my values.

There is no courage without risk.

Value creation is how I measure achievement.

I will create opportunities for myself and others.

I will act with integrity in all things.

The constant reinforcement of these values gave us all confidence that we were amongst like-minded people. We came from experiences in college where outside forces (family expectations, careers our peers were pursuing, advice from career services advisors) pushed us to take more traditional approaches to our careers. But through the credo we were given validation and permission to be our unapologetic selves. It enabled us to be more vulnerable with others who thought similarly. The credo served as a foundation for forging deep friendships quickly within a short 5-week training camp.

Reciting the credo each morning felt awkward. But as awkward as it may feel, the constant reminder that everyone in the room shared the same values created a strong foundation where community and deep friendships were forged.

Even eight years later, I was having coffee with a VFA friend and we were talking about our careers. She quoted a line from the credo when talking about how she thought about a recent career decision. It reminded me of something that’s easy to take for granted – that these shared values which were once indoctrinated in us 8 years ago have served (and will continue to serve) as the foundation for the friendships within the VFA community.

Forging deep, non-transactional friendships which cultivate a collective entrepreneurial spirit

Just like getting married, finding a co-founder is a difficult thing to approach transactionally. My personal belief is that the way to find co-founders is to develop friendships where you have (1) trust, (2) mutual professional admiration, and (3) mutual joy collaborating – months or years before you’re actually looking for co-founders (I wrote about this more in Don’t look for co-founders; make friends). 

VFA forged deep, non-transactional friendships between its fellows – years before they would actually start business together. 

Some of this was by design; some of it was accidental.

The part that was by design was the 5-week training camp which kicked off the fellowship experience. Building on the foundation of the shared values which were constantly reinforced, we were pushed to get vulnerable with each other, we worked together on difficult challenges, and we partied together. It was an intense 5 weeks that initiated strong ties between people who shared the same entrepreneurial values. But that was just the starting point. If the fellowship experience ended after that, many of the friendships that were formed would have dissolved. Instead, they were forged in fire. 

The VFA experience was amazing, but it was not easy. A bunch of 22-year-olds move to cities like Detroit where they don’t know anyone (other than each other) and they make $36K/yr (back in 2013) working for often poorly-run companies (they are startups after all).

It was a peculiar and difficult experience that few could relate to, except other VFA Fellows. We needed to lean on each other to navigate the VFA experience. Over the course of the two years, the friendships that were catalyzed during training camp grew deeper as we all continued to spend time with each other and depended on each other to navigate the challenges we were facing.

Over the two years, having deepening friendships with other like-minded people created a collectively motivating entrepreneurial spirit. I was reconnecting with a Fellow from my year who previously started a company and now works at a big tech company. He wants to start a company and reflected on the magic of that dynamic from our experience: 

“I've been thinking a lot recently about rebuilding my builder community – like we had with VFA. I think I underrated how valuable that was because I never thought about that community transactionally – I just thought of it as being very close friends with all those fellows.  Everyone in that community was so interested in starting businesses, so you're constantly talking about building things. At bars or parties, we'd constantly come up with stupid startup ideas. It was constantly on our minds to the point where it becomes motivating. If on Friday night, you're bullshitting about Uber for umbrellas, it's a lot easier to wake up Saturday morning and go sit in a coffee shop at your computer and be excited to work on random stuff.”

The most valuable thing VFA did was make entrepreneurial people become genuine life-long friends. If I had to create a new entrepreneurship program today with the goal of having participants start a bunch of companies down the line, and I could only do one thing well, it would be cultivating durable relationships between like-minded entrepreneurs in the way that VFA has.

Creating the space, opportunity, and pressure to overcome the inertia of starting something

In the first three years of VFA, a disproportionate amount of the Fellow-founded companies (including mine) were founded in Detroit. When I talk about this dynamic with some of the other Detroit Fellows who started companies, we half-joke about the reason why: In 2013, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Detroit.

We had a lot of free time. The work culture in Detroit (for most of the startups there in 2013) indexed more towards a nine-to-five culture than the always-working cultures in ecosystems like San Francisco and New York. When you woke up on a Saturday morning, there weren’t a lot of social activities going on that would sweep you into a day of day-drinking. The winters were freaking cold and we mostly wanted to stay inside. None of us were from Detroit, so we didn’t have high school friends or family members to spend time with.

As a result, we had a lot of space to explore side projects, many of which were bad. Before experimenting with making chickpea pasta in his kitchen, Banza founder Brian Rudolph was working on a “subscription box of subscription boxes” – one of the many not-great startup ideas written on whiteboards in our Detroit apartments.

Compared to our peers in cities like New York, VFA Fellows had more time and space to work on building things, rather than getting swept up in working 80 hours per week at their day jobs or being swept up in the social scene.

In addition to the space we had to build things, VFA provided opportunities and social pressure to build things, which helped fellows overcome inertia of getting started.

There were crowdfunding challenges and pitch competitions that created deadlines and incentives to launching. The participants in these challenges were broadcasted to the rest of the fellow community, kickstarting the social pressure to start something. When fellows saw that their peers were launching something, they felt peer pressure to launch something themselves.

There was a flywheel of FOMO in starting companies. VFA Fellows – all of whom valued entrepreneurship – saw older fellows and their peers starting companies, motivating them to start companies themselves. 

Everything VFA did beyond this to help Fellows start companies – assistance in transitioning to full-time through the VFA Accelerator, access to mentors and investors, cash grants, and other forms of support – resembles what most entrepreneurship communities or accelerators provide. It’s not that differentiated. The real magic behind why so many VFA Fellows have started companies so early in their careers is that VFA forged deep friendship between people at the same stage in their career who share entrepreneurial values and gave them the space, opportunities, and pressure to build things.

I think the key to creating more entrepreneurship long term is focusing on relationships, space, and encouragement, rather than a prescriptive, production-line approach to getting founders to build companies.