There’s something to be said for close proximity to mentors and investors in the early days of a startup. The immediate, local access can make or break relationships, and can prove invaluable in solving early-stage problems. Work gets done faster, when a team is all in the same place. There’s a reason the most successful startup ecosystems all have a central geographic hub.
Taking it to a whole new level, though, is the aptly named Unreasonable at Sea project. In a partnership between Semester at Sea and the Unreasonable Institute, Unreasonable at Sea will be bringing 10 companies around the world, setting off in January and travelling to 14 countries for 100 days, helping them to understand new markets and economies, and providing them with mentorship as the ship travels from port to port.
The idea has been in the works since 2007, when Daniel Epstein, the co-founder and CEO of the Unreasonable Institute and the head of the project, realized that there were hundreds of problems affecting countries all around the world, but entrepreneurs didn’t really understand them because they’re “effectively living in a bubble,” according to Epstein.
Combined with the personal realizations that charities aren’t as effective as businesses in changing the world, and that potential founders weren’t directing their energy towards bigger problems, Epstein decided to start the Colorado-based Unreasonable Institute, and then the Unreasonable at Sea project. The accelerator program is aimed at solving the big problems that normally go unsolved, trying to make the world a better place.
Not surprisingly, it’s an uphill battle.
Logistically, the company is taking on something that is much harder than the likes of TechStars and Y Combinator. There’s the basic step of organizing mentors, finding applicants, and getting the funding for program itself. And then there’s all the actual help in company building. Unreasonable’s reward is an equity stake of between four and eight percent in each company.
The twist on the program though — and what sets it apart — is that it’s on a ship. Sailing around the world may sound nice, but hold on to your hat, because there are serious problems with a ship-based accelerator. And we’re not even talking about the potential for typhoons and hurricanes here.
First off, entrepreneurs and ship residents are coming from a variety of countries. While that’s great for having a nice mix of backgrounds, it is a visa nightmare. Dozens of people, all have different restrictions for each company, and all with different backgrounds. I’m taking a leap of faith in assuming that PandoDaily readers are mostly international travelers, and so everyone should understand what a big deal (and what a hassle) that is for the project.
There isn’t an easy solution to this problem, and Epstein didn’t pretend he had one. “Some entrepreneurs may not be able to exit the port in some cities,” shrugs Epstein. “But even if some people are only allowed into nine or 14 countries, they’ll still have a great experience with mentors on the ship.” It’s not a perfect solution, but as long as Unreasonable at Sea is upfront about the potential pitfalls, and entrepreneurs enter the situation willingly, then it shouldn’t be too big of a surprise for people involved.
A related issue to the diversity is language. The ship is only accepting people who speak English. This makes sense from a logistical standpoint, but has the side-effect of potentially limiting the applicant pool. On the up side, translation will be provided to everyone in every port they are in, which wouldn’t be possible if there was no common language.
Another issue is what it actually means to live on a ship. Sure, there’s the cramped quarters, but that’s to be expected. More troublesome is the lack of reliable Internet access. For technology startups, that’s what I like to call “a huge freaking deal.” The ship will have Internet access, but not broadband. That is rightfully scaring away some potential startups. There’s the upside that teams can really form a tight bond and sharpen problem solving skills in such constraints, but it’s also a potential deal-breaker for startups that need to be “always on.”
The final issue is that there is limited space on the ship. This means that larger startups can’t bring along everyone, and even for startups that have five or six people, the company might need to leave one person behind. It’s not clear how easy it will be to make a team gel with one another, when they’re scattered all of the world. It will also be hard to accomplish tasks like hiring, especially if you’re 75 days in on the way to a new port, and you can’t interview your America-based candidate.
To be clear, these aren’t problems that Unreasonable hasn’t considered, but they’re still big problems nonetheless. Unreasonable at Sea maintains that as long as it is up front with entrepreneurs about the potential setbacks, that it shouldn’t be a big deal.
Despite the setbacks of being on a ship, there are also some big advantages. The mentors of the program include people from companies like WordPress, Google.org, HP, and Google. Having face-to-face time with them would be good enough, but founders will actually be living in the place as them for weeks at a time, with little else to do other than work and get advice. If you thought Y Combinator’s weekly dinners were useful, this is mentorship on steroids.
It’s risky for everyone involved. But if the startups are successful, they won’t merely disrupt small things like mobile photo-sharing, they will change the way people around the world actually live.