We sat down with Nafis Ahmed, Entrepreneurship Manager at YSpace , to learn about the value their incubator creates for budding startup founders in key industries — plus, we deep dive into how they’re using Disco to democratize entrepreneurship and create generational wealth in underrepresented communities.
What is YSpace and how is it changing the world?
YSpace is a university-backed incubator/accelerator operated under York University. We're a nonprofit organization. so we get to work with entrepreneurs without any strings attached. Our core mandate is to support the development of startups, and we’re changing the world by being the platform that empowers people to change the world.
“We’re changing the world by being the platform that empowers people to change the world.”
What types of startups do you work with?
There are a few core areas that YSpace focuses on:
- Food and beverage or other CPG companies
- Technology ventures
- Diversity-focused streams for women-led ventures and Black entrepreneur ventures
It’s not just the York University community, either. We've been able to build a community that's broader than the community that we're already a part of.
What are your hopes and dreams for YSpace?
We’re hoping to be there on day one when a founder comes to us and says ‘Hey, this is a crazy idea that is going to change the way that we engage with the internet or with cars or whatever the big idea is.’ We want to be that supporting, guiding hand that helps them figure out how they can turn that idea into execution.
What does YSpace’s operating team look like?
We're at about 10 team members, currently.
We have an umbrella: We all report to but there are entrepreneurship managers that each own a different portfolio. I work closely with the technology portfolio and any other special projects. Then we have other members that own the three additional portfolios.
YSpace’s business model:
Because we're a nonprofit institution, we don't take equity out of any of the companies that come into our programs. 90% of our programs are completely free, so it’s a pretty competitive process. You have to apply and go through a certain committee, pitching and all of that fun stuff, to qualify. But once you do qualify, almost all of our programs are completely free.
There are two other programs that are more on the long-term incubation front that do have membership fees associated with them. We also partner with corporate partners or government grant funding, so that’s how we've been able to accelerate some of the other aspects of our growth. We know how financially difficult it is to build a startup, so we always work with companies to make sure we're obtaining great talent within our community.
We compiled the ultimate how-to guides for building life-changing courses, events, masterminds, and learning communities from the best minds in learning. Read them all here.
Walk us through how you design the YSpace experience
Our program is created by whoever is leading that portfolio. So, for example, in our the technology portfolio:
- Inception: We come up with some initial learning objectives. If a startup is going through our four-month program, we help them understand what their major value proposition is.
- Foundation: We're very goal-centric in the way that we work with our ventures. We help them define their goals, then build the foundation. We have an early stage program for the ideation stage, helping our ventures validate their MVP and user group. That program is called Venture Capitalists, and it operates twice a year. It’s a two month program. Every fall and every winter, we run that program for 30-40 ventures.
- Incubation: We have an ongoing incubation program. We see it as more of a lifecycle program. Once you get to a certain stage of working through go-to-market and development and you’re building some traction, you start getting ready to qualify for the incubation program.
- Maturation: Our accelerator program focuses on the market-ready product you're selling. You need to build the playbook around how to sell and scale your product. That's a program that we run over the summer, between May and August, every year.
How do you market YSpace? What channels have been most effective?
We always have a marketing campaign running and we try to tap into different channels to implement it.
Some of the most fruitful recruitment tactics have been getting down to the grassroots level and really connecting with founders and building a relationship before they even start engaging with YSpace. Whether that conversation is led through one of us or from someone in the broader community of other stakeholders, we tap into the venture capital community and other networks to help create those one-to-one connections with us. I think that creates a lot more qualified engagement in terms of the recruitment cycle.
One thing that we're super mindful of is diversity and inclusion. We want that to be a benchmark and a core of our programming rather than an additional. We want to ensure that we're the ones building the pipeline by tapping into specific organizations or channels that tap into other diverse networks that we’re not already a part of.
“We want DEI to be a benchmark and a core of our programming rather than an additional ‘We need to do this.’”
What about YSpace alumni? Are they active?
We’re at 500+ ventures that we've supported since our inception. It's a startup lifecycle, so there will be those that continue making it and those that decide to pursue other options.
Either way, we keep in constant touch with those that are still active and find any other ways that we can support them or invite them to our events. We do a lot of community building. In addition, we keep track of all of our alumni companies and try to be a part of their family or have them be a part of our family, even beyond their engagement with us.
Are alumni a part of your referral program?
Every time we’ve started a recruitment cycle, we tap into our alumni. We explicitly ask them to reshare the opportunity and create those one-to-one connections within their networks.
We try to make the task as easy as possible in terms of our alumni, because we know they're very busy, so we have a templated approach by offering them marketing collateral pieces they can send to make it really easy.
We keep the relationship going with our alumni, so that ask for referrals doesn't become as hard because we still try to keep building value for them beyond their engagement with us. That's the secret sauce, which… is not really a secret sauce at all.
Where is YSpace headed in the future? Moreover, where is learning headed in the future?
There are some really amazing accelerator and incubator programs. Every program will have different values, and we’re focused on creating the most seamless founder engagement in the way that they go through our programming. It’s a service business, at the end of the day. In terms of keeping that going, we want to grow the brand.
I think there's an opportunity right now to scale the way we do our programming to be able to work with some of the international partners that we've worked with and create even more opportunities. We just recently opened a hub in Georgina and East Gwillimbury to serve some of these northern regions or more remote regions that have been underserved in terms of entrepreneurship, so our goal is to just keep doing what we're doing, but amplifying that in the next couple years.
The reason I personally do what I do at YSpace is to eventually democratize entrepreneurship. I believe that entrepreneurship has that power to unlock generational wealth, unlock access to networks, and unlock a lot of privileges that people haven't had access to from all different sorts of communities. I believe that, the more we democratize access to entrepreneurship, the more we can buy back privileges for a lot of communities that haven't traditionally had access.
I had this conversation with one of our founders about how education is and how education could be. I think the way that we learn has changed. The future of education looks very different in 10 to 15 years than the way that we've traditionally always engaged with it, and that’s probably another reason I love using Disco.
“I believe that entrepreneurship has that power to unlock generational wealth, unlock access to networks, and unlock a lot of privileges that people haven't had access to from all different sorts of communities."
Disco – our favorite subject! What were some of the challenges you needed to solve when you were looking for a platform to build your community on?
We were constantly building content and we didn't really have a centralized way to manage that content to make it accessible to our members. We have a lot of members that engage with our content, so we needed to find something that was centralized and a platform that created an intuitive user experience for our members.
There were a couple of great options, but ultimately, Disco aligned really well in terms of some of the features you were offering. We especially love the ease of use.
“Disco aligned really well in terms of some of the features you were offering. We especially love the ease of use."
What were you using pre-Disco?
Zoom. Most of our content is recorded from Zoom recordings that we were trying to get set up on YouTube. We eventually transferred onto Notion which was great, but also limited in terms of what we could really do with it for learning management.
Notion was the last one that we tried before we made the jump to Disco, which has made it really easy for us to manage cohorts and our different programming elements while making sure all of those values we think about when we're designing our programs align. Disco as a tool has made our life easier in terms of management.
What made Disco the learning community platform for you?
You know, we were growing. We had all of these programs, and we needed a centralized way to engage. Different managers were doing different hacks to centralize the content and, ultimately, we tested Disco out with one of our programs just to see if it actually works. Now, we're at a stage where we've incorporated all our programs on the Disco platform. So for us, the tipping point was the ability to enable scaling with our different programs.
Another thing: We're a very small team. Disco enables our team to maximize the way that we support our ventures. We shouldn't be spending hours dealing with the platform or dealing with the content. The best value is when we're working with the founders and working on their challenges, so standardizing a lot of those pieces was important to us.
Disco was designed to help you focus on what’s most important: your learning community and the enriching experiences you’re creating for them. Our features can help you save hundreds of hours of admin time — and here’s how.
What features helped you overcome operational challenges so you could spend more time on your members?
- Course management: Being able to build different experiences and have different cohorts go through them.
- Content uploads and duplication: The core reason why we’re on Disco. It’s seamless enough that we don't have to think about it. It's a really quick and easy process, being able to upload content and manage the content.
- Community feature: We haven't used the community feature just as much yet, but that's the next thing that we're going to start testing out!
- Product updates: I think what's also been exciting is Disco has been building with us as we've been building. Working with a good team that also gets and prioritizes our needs has been an awesome experience with Disco.
How many operational hours have you saved with Disco? (Give us a rough estimate)
We've definitely saved a good one to two weeks worth of putting things together for a single accelerator program by using Disco. If you think about the number of different programs and how often they're happening, that’s a lot of time.
How has Disco enhanced the member experience?
It's not so scattered anymore. The fact that a founder can go on the platform, and look up info they learned four months ago that they really need access to right now, and have that at their fingertips is a great opportunity.
We're obviously still learning how to make that experience even better, so that's part of our learning journey right now. We’re more focused on the community aspects and the learning as opposed to being so focused on the business.
Join YSpace on the Disco network to scale your business and change the future of learning
Disco is the learning management system that supports your community and your business together, not in silos. The future of learning is communal, and that’s the philosophy we’ve based our entire platform around.
Try all of our features for yourself for 14 days to see why YSpace chose Disco as the platform they’re using to scale their incubator program to future founders across the globe.