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Friday December 19, 2014
Posted: Jun 26, 2014

The Internet: The Great Equalizer, or What I Learned at Y Combinator’s Startup School

The Startup Line — News and insight about Maine’s entrepreneurs and innovators
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Hipmunk, emceed Y Combinator's Startup School in New York City on June 18, 2014.
Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit and Hipmunk, emcees Y Combinator’s Startup School in New York City on June 18, 2014. (Photo/Elizabeth Chabe)

Elizabeth Chabe grew up in Machias and started her first company when she was nine years old. Since then she’s started several others, some of which have landed her in trouble (read on to learn more about that).

Now 29 years old, her most recent startup is High Touch Courses, which aims to create online courses for middle and high school students who want to learn about computer programming, web development and video game design — or, as Chabe told me, “everything they need to know to launch their own tech startup.”

While that larger vision is in the works, Chabe and her team decided to launch a “fail fast, fail cheap version” in the form of a summer camp in Orono co-located at the University of Maine. During four week-long sessions beginning July 7, kids will learn about coding and game design from teachers like Chuck Carter, who helped develop graphics for that blockbuster video game of the 1990s, Myst. There’s even a week dedicated to computer hardware architecture where kids get to build their own Raspberry Pi (if you don’t know what a Raspberry Pi is, check it out). I want to attend this summer camp.

Elizabeth Chabe, CEO of High Touch Courses
Elizabeth Chabe, CEO of High Touch Courses

Rather than failing fast and cheaply, the summer camp idea has taken off. High Touch Courses, which already employs eight people, broke even on its camp program last month and has already needed to expand the number of spaces available because of high demand. The original goal was for 30 kids a week, which they’ve expanded to allow 45 kids a week.

“We’re pretty stoked,” Chabe said.

It’s a promising company I wasn’t aware of until recently. Keep an eye on it. The online education industry is booming. It is a $56.2 billion business industry and is likely to double in size before 2015, according to eLearningIndustry.com.

But, to get to the point of this post… In the middle of Maine Startup and Create Week, Chabe reached out to introduce herself and tell me about a trip she was about to take to New York City for Y Combinator’s Startup School. The event is a spin-off of Y Combinator, which is a business accelerator program in Silicon Valley that counts companies like Reddit, Dropbox and Airbnb as alumni.

Chabe applied for and was accepted into the Startup School program, which took place during one afternoon. She traveled to New York City on June 18 to attend the event, partly to learn, partly to impress potential investors, and partly hoping she could impress the organizers enough to help her get into Y Combinator’s accelerator. No word yet on whether she was successful on the latter goal.

I asked Chabe to reflect on her trip to Y Combinator’s Startup School for The Startup Line, and she kindly agreed. Below is her dispatch from the event.

Let me start with my conclusion: the Internet doesn’t care how old you are, where you come from, your educational pedigree, or how much money your family has. It cares only about your product. This was not so much learned as it was reinforced by the likes of Fred Wilson, Sam Altman, and David Lee at Y Combinator’s Startup School.

Last week, I was among a handful of applicants accepted to attend Y Combinator’s Startup School in NYC. Between lectures from startup founders and investors, I had the opportunity to rub elbows with my kind – the so-called “odd ducks” who, like me, have been starting companies since before they could (legally) drive. The Internet didn’t care how old we were then and, judging from the hundreds of millions of dollars represented in the room at Startup School, it doesn’t care how old we are now.

As a bit of background, I started my first company when I was nine. I tried again at 11 and again at 12. Every day of middle school, my mom would drop me off and after waiting patiently for her to drive away, I’d walk to the University of Maine at Machias. There, I packed my day full of classes, taking copious notes, to sell to college kids for $20 a pop – big dollars for a 13-year old. I took the business online, selling through an email list. The Internet didn’t care how old I was.*

What I didn’t know then was that there were other kids around the country doing the exact same thing: starting companies, armed with only a computer and an Internet connection. Our relative success hedged on a single factor: the strength of our products.

I founded my latest venture, High Touch Courses, to provide support for kids who want to become technology entrepreneurs, regardless of whether they are from potato country or Down East. We kick off this July with our Summer Technology Camp for middle and high school students, and our online courses launch this fall. We are developing a private boarding school focused on technology entrepreneurship and co-located on a Maine university campus for 2016.

I pitched High Touch Courses to over 50 startup founders and investors at Startup School and got the same response over and over again: “Why didn’t that exist when I was a kid?”

To paraphrase Marc Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, software is eating the world. The Internet is where the high-growth, high-margin businesses are. The Internet doesn’t care how old you are, and all that is needed to access it is a laptop and a connection. I want to help Maine kids take advantage of this movement. This is the mission of High Touch Courses.

My next step is to give the Internet my new product, the success of which will be measured by how fast we get our first 100 users, our ability to scale, and, of course, our quality. High Touch Courses’ instructors and partners believe not only in the strength of our product, but that Maine is the place to launch it. Y Combinator’s Startup School showed me that I’m on to something.

*Note to the kids who might read this: Truancy, I learned, didn’t pay: I spent that summer copying Bible verses and vacuuming classrooms to make up for 70+ missed days.

Keep an eye on High Touch Courses, another one of Maine’s promising startups.

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