Note: All reviews by NextCohort are independent. We do not have any commercial relationships with the course providers that we review
By Viktor Vecsei
OnDeck Founders (ODF) is the flagship fellowship program from the OnDeck suite of courses.
It is a ten week, remote, cohort based fellowship that focuses on recreating the magic of Silicon Valley in the cloud, designed for those interested in the early stages of a new tech venture. ODF is designed for those who are:
Exploring an industry or a topic that they want to make an impact on
Looking for other people to start a company with
Ideating, developing and testing an idea
Learning the ropes of running a business
Cohorts have a threefold focus:
Learning: Fireside chats from prominent tech ecosystems participants, workshops to cultivate “Founder” skills, and peer learning from other talented, credentialled and experienced Fellows, OnDeck wide hackathons
Networking: an extremely active Slack group, an intense focus on collaboration and networking via 1:1’s with others from their own course as well as the larger OnDeck ecosystem, access to an exclusive and detailed internal directory of current and past On Deck Fellows.
Accountability: Induction into Masterminds - small, focused groups of Fellows who hold each other accountable and provide support. Support from Program Directors.
This review of the OnDeck Founders programme is based on detailed interviews with past fellows and dozens of first-hand reports.
What is the program experience like?
The first step is onboarding onto the systems and into the community. Participating Fellows highlighted a strong onboarding and orientation process that helped them get a sense of what they could expect in the coming ten weeks and tips on how to succeed. Communication from the Program Directors was consistent and clear, so they always knew what to expect, what was expected of them, and how they could get the most out of the program.
The program itself is unstructured - there is no core curriculum. Instead, a buffet of asynchronous and synchronous learning options and resources is available for Fellows to choose from, all with a general focus on validating an idea and building a business.
Notable features are:
Live talks, interviews and fireside chats with leading domain experts. These are also available recorded after the events concluded.
Product feedback and pitch sessions.
Office Hours offered by other fellows
Access to various perks (such as AWS, Stripe and Notion credits) and a library of useful resources that focus on the early stage of business building
OnDeck also run a recurring, hackathon-style event called 'Global Build Weekend', where OnDeck Fellows from various cohorts assemble into teams and work on a smaller-scale project together. Build Weekend features a 48-hour building period and a pitching competition with seasoned VC’s as judges.
Alongside the learning there is a strong focus on community. Many features of the program are designed to help foster community, creating meaningful new connections and spur serendipity:
An exclusive Slack workspace to connect with the cohort and the larger OnDeck network
Thematic ice breakers to bring people with similar interests together to act as a jumping off point for new connections
Mastermind sub groups that meet weekly to discuss previously submitted topics and questions and to support each other and keep each other accountable
1-on-1 discussions with like-minded fellows that occur naturally or facilitated through random pairing through Slack
Previous OnDeck Founder fellows mentioned that the biggest positives of the fellowship were connections made with other founders. The spirit of giving is strong in the ODF cohort groups, where insights, tips and high quality feedback is easy to come by from a diverse group of fellows. Most participants bring a 'let's roll up our sleeves and create' attitude that fosters a positive environment for experimentation and building.
Potential improvements suggested included more hand holding and 1-on1 support from experience leads in the mould of mentors or a program concierge. Another recurring issue was the handling of post-program cliff off period - some fellows reported that after the program ends the next steps were not always clear and that extra effort was needed to figure out how to stay connected to their network.
OnDeck showcase with feedback from Founders alumni on their website (source: OnDeck)
Who is On Deck Founders for?
Becoming a Founder is a process with two distinctive phases: exploring and building. Exploring is when Founders evaluate ideas and business models, and look for a co-founder. Building phase consists of talking to customers, prototyping a minimum viable product for testing, acquiring first users and generating revenue. Founders in either phase can benefit from the ODF program.
The Fellows we interviewed that were in exploring mode reported the following positive outcomes:
They evaluated ideas and found out what they didn’t or shouldn’t want to build
They explored new ideas and possible solutions to problems with together with other like minded peers
They built long term relationships with other fellows based on their shared interests
Those who went through the program with a specific idea or were taking the first steps in developing their business reported gaining:
Access to beta testers and feedback on the product, drawing from cohort participants, ODF alumni and directory
Encouragement, insights and ideas from a tight-knit group of fellows in their mastermind sessions
Frameworks and insights from domain experts teaching different aspects of building a business, including validating your product idea and fundraising
Whether ODF is a good choice for you also depends on how much time you can commit to the program. As little as five hours per week can yield dividends, if you are looking for specific improvement areas while building your business. Ten hours or more is necessary if you plan to attend live talks and build long-lasting connections. At least 20 hours per week is ideal to allow for deeper discussions, exploration and serendipity.
In summary, aspiring founders who enter the program when they are truly ready to become Founders reported better outcomes. Entering with a rough game plan and a specific idea to develop helps with having your expectations met and getting the most out of the program. If you aim for expanding your network, meeting potential co-founders and getting feedback from peers during your building process, ODF is most likely a great fit for you.
When OnDeck Founders might not be a good fit for you
Too early in your Founder's journey. Fellows joining ODF without a specific idea or a prospective co-founder lined up reported that discovering both during the programme proved to be a difficult endeavour.
Advanced stage in your Founder's journey. If you have already validated your idea, perhaps reached product-market fit, have an established team and already started your fundraising process, the time you would allocate to ODF activities is likely better spent on building your business.
'Sales obsessed’ mentality. Giving more than receiving is a mantra at OnDeck that comes naturally to successful fellows. If your number one goal is to recruit people for a specific project or plan to use the program to pitch your service to other participants, we suggest rethinking your plan.
Time crunch. Juggling family, kids, a full time-job and an OnDeck fellowship can be a handful. OnDeck indicates their program 'is a buffet', but if you can't commit more than a couple hours a week you might be better off deferring your plans. Fellows with too many commitments have reported 'fear of missing out' , feeling overwhelmed, and not getting the most out of the program. Options like taking a sabbatical or being very deliberate about carving out time relative to other activities that are less important are ways to tackle this problem.
Finance. If the course cost is personally significant considering your financial situation and you’re not 100% sure about the value propositions we have outlined, then you might regret jumping in head first. We have verified that scholarships with meaningful contributions towards the tuition fee are available at OnDeck, so if you think everything else fits the bill, reach out to them and enquire about the options. Payment plans are also available for all OnDeck programs.
Location and culture fit. International (non-US) fellows with a significant cultural and time difference from the US reported mixed experiences. OnDeck is continuously working on improving the experience for non-US fellows. Nonetheless, previous experience shows that international fellows that are looking to build with fellow founders across time zones and cultures might find it harder to have their expectations met. The extent this can be an issue largely depends on your flexibility and area of interest.
Expectations of a family-like atmosphere. While OnDeck cohorts typically are great for meeting people and forging new relationships, size of cohorts tend to be on the higher end with close to two hundred participants. If you prefer to have a smaller, tight-knit group of people around you while you are learning the ropes, a program like DayOne could be a better fit for you.
People that match any of the above descriptions may still find a lot of value in the program. If you are about to apply to ODF in an early, exploratory stage, however, we advise adjusting your expectations, or consider waiting until you have ideas that you can explore and develop. Also, if multiple potential barriers are present for you, e.g. you are not US based and have limited time to spare, a different fellowship or course might be a better choice for achieving your goals.
More than 300 companies were founded by ODF alumni so far (source: OnDeck)
Your background and ODF fit
Common questions from prospective OnDeck Founder applicants revolve around specific backgrounds, like education milestones or having a certain level of technical skills. There is no clearly set requirement for getting accepted to the program, but On Deck prefers candidates that can demonstrate some experience, advantage or edge that will help them become successful founders. Some examples:
Previous founder experience, or leadership position at a successful company
Specific insights and experience in an industry that act as a catalyst for novel ideas in the field
Deep technical expertise with at least a couple of years of experience at a tech company
What if none of the above fits you? You are not immediately ineligible. We suggest giving your application a shot; highlighting milestones in your education and career that back up your 'raw potential' could help.
Is it worth the time and money?
This question is very hard to answer universally. If you read through the previous sections and concluded that the program aligns with where you are right now in your Founder journey, the answer is most likely yes. Fellows that applied with a specific idea and were looking for education, coaching and community to develop and kickstart their business gave ODF glowing reviews. These Fellows mentioned they would not trade their experience for any other method or program and considered their On Deck cohort to be more than reasonably priced.
On the other hand, if you have just a vague idea on where to focus your attention, or just plan to test the waters as a potential founder, you might need some more time and thinking to do before applying to ODF so you don't waste your resources.
Tips for applying successfully
The acceptance rate to ODF varies across different cohorts, but reportedly stands at approximately 15-20%. Based on direct experience, we recommend the following before filling in your application:
Getting specific with the industry, vertical or niche you want to work on. Even if you don't have a specific project in mind, having a couple of ideas in your pocket helps you formulate your vision and goals in your application.
Getting familiar with the core OnDeck principles. For example, OnDeck’s "give more than you receive" approach is great for community building, yet it might not be a good fit for everyone (and that's OK).
Preparing for your first interview. Your future program lead will want to learn more about your background, your goals and assess your fit to the program. Connect with past and current Fellows for tips via DM’s on Twitter and at HelloFellow.
The initial application takes no more than 15 minutes (source: OnDeck)
OnDeck is one of the pioneers of educational communities, founded in 2016 by Erik Torenberg and Julian Weisser with a mission to replace a part of university education with cohort based online fellowships. They run 15+ different programs and have completed more than 30 cohorts across the board. They secured $20 million in Series A funding in 2021 to help their growth.
Check out our Directory, which includes every cohort based course available online. If ODF doesn't suit you, you may find one that does.
Viktor is a writer, researcher and privacy advocate. He is a cofounder of NextCohort.