Tech insiders have long known about the Tuesday night dinners hosted by legendary startup accelerator Y Combinator, in which the chosen few teams in each Y Combinator class gather, chat, nosh on crock-pot meals, and hear an educational, off-the-record talk by a Silicon Valley tech titan.

Now it is opening the doors to these events to the hoi polloi, and for free. All you need to do to enroll is open your web browser. (Alas, you're on your own for the actual meal.)

Bringing a version of these exclusive discussions online is Y Combinator president Sam Altman's first significant move since he took over at the accelerator's helm earlier this year. He told me the decision to create an online version of startup school, through a partnership with Stanford University--where the class will be called CS183B, or How to Start a Startup--was fairly straightforward.

"At Y Combinator we are limited by class size, and in the people we can fund," Altman said. "We thought more good startups would be good for everyone, and maybe we could fund some of them."

Call it an attempt to scale Y Combinator.

The steward--if not quite "professor"--of the Stanford course will be Altman himself. (He co-founded mobile-app company Loopt, and  was part of the very first Y Combinator class in 2005.) He explains that he will keep his lectures to a minimum, in order to feature specialized--and sometimes famous--speakers at most class sessions. They'll include Y Combinator staples, such as Paul Graham (who will talk about how to have ideas) and Adora Cheung (a part-time Y Combinator partner and co-founder of Homejoy), as well as big-name investors such as Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway, who will discusst how startup founders can raise outside funding. The occasional boldfaced name entrepreneur--say, Aaron Levie of Box--will cameo.

Altman hopes all of this--a full fall semester of classes at Stanford, or 20 online videos amounting to 1,000 minutes of educational programming--will give prospective founders an advantage.

"There's maybe 30 percent of a startup that can be taught. The rest is specific to the startup," Altman said. But, he added, "learning that 30 percent is a huge leg up."

It's just the latest audacious move by Altman, who has been president of Y Combinator since April, when its founder, Paul Graham, stepped aside. Altman told USA Today in August that he's committed to stepping up its efforts to recruit black entrepreneurs, a group who today account for less than 1 percent of applicants. He also announced that the prestigious accelerator program would be in the future on the hunt for health-care companies--a new area of investment. Biotech and nuclear-energy startups have already made appearances in Y Combinator under Altman.

Altman studied computer science at Stanford, and says when he got the idea to create an official course about starting a startup, he contacted his first computer science professor, who helped the idea take shape. The actual course shaped up to a twice-weekly course (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:15). The online versions of the lectures will be available online.

I proposed to Altman that in many ways, the role of a professor is the opposite of that of an entrepreneur: It's one entrenched in a (usually) massive institution, inherently laden with bureaucracy. But Altman countered with something that sounded straight out of a fast-growth playbook.

"Most of what we do at Y Combinator is teaching," he said. "This is just trying to do it for more people at once--and internationally."

Published on: Sep 16, 2014