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Airbnb Cofounder Buoys HEC Paris-Ecole 42 Launchpad

The third edition of the Startup Launchpad 2017 reached its halfway stage last week. Students from HEC Paris and Ecole 42 enjoyed a rare fillip when this year’s Launchpad patron Nathan Blecharczyk paid a long-planned visit to Ecole 42 headquarters in northern Paris. The cofounder of Airbnb spent the entire afternoon sharing his experiences as well as meeting up with last year’s patron Xavier Niel.

Nathan Blecharczyk - Startup Launchpad - HEC Paris

“It really feels like a boot-camp here,” said Nathan Blecharczyk, admiringly, as his eyes swept across a vast neon-lit room with rows upon rows of the latest Apple models and students staring at the screens, disheveled from weeks of sleepless nights and intense exchanges. “Everyone is super-focused. It’s very regimented,” Nathan continued, pointing to the screens Ecole 42 have strapped up to monitor the students’ every activity. “And I identify with that. During Y Combinator, Joe, Brian and I were really regimented – we lived together at that time and we synchronized everything together. So we woke up each day at 8 and went to bed at midnight. And we had the same time-table and worked on the same table. We did that six days a week, we had no other distractions in our lives. Well, that feels like the atmosphere I felt when I walked into this room and saw the sea of screens and everyone very focused and intent on their work.”

Throwback to His Y Combinator Days

The emotion experienced by the CTO of Airbnb was perhaps reinforced by the dozens of towels hanging on stairwell banisters as if at a public swimming pool. “The students virtually live here during the Launchpad,” explained with a smile HEC mentor Valérie Hawley. The Brussels-based engineer is a former Master in Management graduate who has been part of the dynamic pedagogical team for the workshop for the past two years. “There is an intensity which means they have to shower down before plunging in again. It’s that or relaxing at the play-stations Ecole 42 has set up on each of the three floors.”However, the students all took a time-out to share Wednesday's conference exchange with Nathan Blecharczyk. Over 120 of them packed into the school auditorium for a 45-minute discussion with the 33-year-old which included quizzes and the Why-challenge. Blecharczyk seemed to revel in the atmosphere: “I always come away from these events energized,” he confided shortly afterwards, “because I remember how I felt back when I was starting. I remember the role that mentors and those who came to speak to us had when I was in Y Combinator. It played in our own success story. And so I feel very fortunate to be here and hopefully provide that for this group.”

Joining Forces with Xavier Niel

Another member of the audience was glowing and that was last year’s patron, Xavier Niel. The entrepreneur, founder of France's second-largest ISP, is on the point of opening the world’s biggest start-up campus, Station F, in central Paris and he had taken Nathan Blecharczyk on a visit that very morning. “Nathan is a great inspiration,” Xavier Niel said after the afternoon conference.” I like Airbnb, it’s such a great company, its management has been coming to our school these past 3-4 years. And I’m happy to have Nathan here, in the role of patron of this great promotion.”The aim of the HEC/Ecole 42 Startup program is to connect its participants to the Paris digital ecosystem and Nathan’s informative and informal approach seemed to come at the right time for them. “This is a crucial moment in our startup projects and we are questioning ourselves about continuing or not” explained one student during the post-conference cocktail. “And Nathan’s there to encourage us to continue, not to give up.”“What marked me the most,” piped in a fellow-participant, “was his last sentence. When he said the most important thing is choosing the right co-founders. It confirmed my choice of association.”

The Importance of a Successful Professional Marriage

Nathan Blecharczyk applauded the Learning by Doing philosophy the students have made their own these past five weeks. Since its instigation, the heads of the program Guillaume le Dieu de Ville and Stéphane Madoeuf have enjoyed the fruit of this approach with 13 startup companies out of 30 still in business a year after they were born from the 2016 Launchpad promotion. “Nathan’s visit was a powerful symbol because he had spawned his entrepreneurial career as a student,” underlined Guillaume, who masterminded Blecharczyk’s visit. “And he’s kept this simplicity and accessibility which makes him so endearing.”For Valerie Hawley, Nathan’s visit was key to providing participants with the inspiration needed at such a challenging moment. “The students have already worked hard, already got feedback from various stakeholders of the ecosystem and have confronted their ideas with the market,” the mentor explained before listing what she feels were the most crucial messages he shared: “Learning from failure, choosing your best co-founders in what he calls “a professional marriage” - and maintaining a close relationship to the user experience in any startup.” Indeed, Nathan Blecharczyk continues to rent out an annex of his house 300 days a year and says he experiences Airbnb locations about 30 times annually.Meanwhile, Startup Launchpad students turn to preparing pitches to what Guillaume calls “business angels” and other entrepreneurial actors from Paris, London and San Francisco. Busy times still lay ahead for this year’s promotion in their final push to emulate the success of their young but already-illustrious patron...