How YSpace is Using Disco's Accelerator Software to Democratize Entrepreneurship
Disco’s Customer Stories highlights the world-changing impact customers are making with their respective learning communities.
We sat down with Nafis Ahmed, Entrepreneurship Manager at YSpace, to learn about the value their accelerator program creates for startups and budding startup company founders in key industries — plus, we deep dive into how they're using Disco's accelerator software to democratize entrepreneurship and create generational wealth for startups 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 work with entrepreneurs and startups without any strings attached. Our core mandate is to support the launch and development of startups, and we're changing the world by being the platform and accelerator 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 software is a crazy idea that will change how we engage users with data or 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 to 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 that we all report to, but there are entrepreneurship managers that each own and manage a different portfolio. I work closely with the technology portfolio and any other special projects. Then we have other members that own and operate the three additional portfolios.
YSpace’s business model:
Because we're a nonprofit institution, we don't take equity from any companies that come into our accelerator programs here. 90% of our accelerator programs are entirely free, so it's a competitive process. To qualify, you must apply and go through a committee, pitching, and all that fun stuff. But once you allow it, almost all our acceleration programs here are free.
Two other programs are more on the long-term incubation front, with membership fees associated with them. We also partner with corporate partners or government grant funding, so that's how we've accelerated 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 industry and our community.
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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 goes through our four-month program, we help them understand their primary value proposition.
- Foundation: We're very goal-centric in how 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. We run that program for 30-40 ventures every fall and winter.
- 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 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 we run every year over the summer, between May and August.
How do you market YSpace? What channels have been most effective?
We always have a marketing campaign running and try to tap into different communication channels to implement it.
Some of the most fruitful recruitment tactics have been getting down to the grassroots level, 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 feedback 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 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 building the pipeline by tapping into specific organizations or other communication channels that tap into other diverse networks 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 launch and continue making it and decide to pursue other options.
Either way, we keep in constant touch with those still active and find other ways to support them or invite them to our events. We do a lot of community building. In addition, we keep track of our alumni, launch other companies, and try to be a part of their families or have them be a part of our family, even beyond their engagement with us.
Are alumni a part of your referral program?
We tap into our alumni every time we've started a recruitment cycle. 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 easy.
We keep the relationship going with our alumni so that asking 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 a secret sauce at all.
Where is YSpace headed in the future? Moreover, where is learning headed in the future?
There are some amazing accelerator programs and incubators. Every program will have different values, and we're focused on creating the most seamless founder engagement in how they go through our programming. It's a service business. In terms of keeping that going, we want to grow the brand.
I think there's an opportunity right now to scale how we do our programming to work with some of the international partners 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 of years.
I personally do what I do at YSpace to eventually democratize entrepreneurship. I believe that entrepreneurship has the power to unlock generational wealth, access to networks, and unlock a lot of privileges that people haven't had access to from all sorts of communities. I believe that the more we democratize access to entrepreneurship, the more we can buy back privileges for many 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 how 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 centralized and a platform that created an intuitive user experience for our members.
There were a couple of great software and app options, but ultimately, Disco aligned well with some of the tools and features you offered. We especially love the ease of app 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 to launch. We eventually transferred to Notion, which was great, but also limited in terms of what we could do with it for learning management tasks.
Notion was the last one we tried before we made the jump to Disco, which has made it easy for us to manage cohorts and our different programming tasks and elements while ensuring all of our data and those values we think about when we're designing our programs align. Disco as a tool has made our life easier regarding management tasks.
What made Disco the learning community platform for you?
You know, we were growing. We had all of these programs and 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 worked. 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 innovation programs together.
Another thing: We're a very small team. Disco enables our team to maximize the way that we support our ventures. We shouldn't spend hours dealing with the platform or the content. The best value is when we're working with the founders on innovation programs 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 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 acceleration programs and processes, 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, look up the info they learned four months ago that they need access to right now, and have the tools, data, and resources for that at their fingertips is a great opportunity.
We're obviously still learning how to improve that experience, so that's part of our learning journey right now. We're more focused on the community aspects and the learning as opposed to the focus on being so focused on the business.
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