Interview with Gary Chou of New York’s Orbital

Gary Chou’s new Orbital is part co-working space and part accelerator program—though Chou would likely frown at both characterizations. He’s trying to do something genuinely new that combines elements from both concepts but focuses squarely on independent creators—in teams of no more than three, and bootstrapped rather than venture-backed—and giving them the physical and mental opportunity to turn side projects into reality. He’s also open to more than just tech-focused undertakings; Orbital is meant for creators and projects that can be artistic, civic, social, educational, or experimental in nature, not to mention the good old-fashioned commercial variety.

Located in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood, Orbital occupies three floors of what is basically an old tenement building, now made desirable by the city’s rampant gentrification. The space also happens to be the former headquarters of Kickstarter, Inc., so it has proven DNA for being a place where “awesome stuff” is made, as Chou puts it. It’s kind of a remarkable set of offices in a vibrant, thriving neighborhood.

Orbital, New York City
Orbital, New York City
Orbital, New York City

But for now, anyway, the space is only open to students of Chou’s forthcoming Orbital Boot Camp, an intensive 12-week course that gives students first-hand exposure to the process of getting ideas to launch. The curriculum includes instruction, lectures and individualized feedback from Chou and a small team of teachers and advisors. Admission to the program is by application only—the deadline to apply is midnight this Friday.

I found the whole Orbital concept so unique and intriguing that I asked Chou a few questions over email about it.

Orbital is both a space and a course—or a “boot camp.” I want to ask about both, but first, what makes the Orbital boot camp unique?

There are a lot of opportunities to engage in instructional learning either online or offline, but not many opportunities to engage in experiential learning. So much of what we really need to learn emerges only in the moment of making, so the course is about coaching you through that process and helping you make sense of it.

You talk about “getting your idea out of your head and into the world.” How mature—or nascent—do you expect the ideas to be when a student shows up for day one?

I’d expect that the idea is something that the student’s lived with for some time. But nascent ideas are sometimes great, though, because we place fewer expectations on them. You’re much more willing to see where the idea takes you. If you are willing to at least take one step in any direction, you can always course correct.

Does taking that single step mean that each student’s “side project” idea must lead to something more intensive, if not a full time commitment?

I think that’s where the program differs as well. You may very well discover that you really aren’t that excited about the thing that you’re working on, or that what you have is a nice hobby vs. a business vs. an art project. All of these outcomes are valid. That’s also why the boot camp concludes with a public talk on lessons learned, rather than a demo day.

So the expectation is not that the boot camp results in a finished product, but rather that you’ve had the experience of it, been through the process?

That’s right. I think the real lessons come from negotiating the intent of the creator with the behavior of the audience, which is really hard to do, because it means we have to put our ideas out there in their vulnerable imperfectness. Besides, nothing we do is ever really finished unless we’ve decided to stop working on it.

Could this boot camp vision have worked remotely, or on a traditional college campus?

I think what you’re asking really gets at something that is slightly different.

Most of our educational system is still geared towards the acquisition of knowledge and skills—it’s instructional learning. It’s this idea that if you do A and then B that you’ll get C. It’s hard for students to get outside of that because that’s also part of the institution. Go to college, get a degree, and you’ll be prepared to enter the work force.

We’re at a time of tremendous uncertainty. I don’t think we need to do a better job of creating more factory workers, we need to help people learn how to navigate their own uncertain futures. It’s highly individualized learning, it’s very confrontational, and you’re likely to get lost along the way. But that’s okay. Launching a side project is a great way to do this. It’s much more experiential.

That sounds very much in keeping with the Orbital space itself, which is kind of raw and just happens to be the former headquarters for Kickstarter. Is it safe to say that it’s more than just a random space, that it has some “spiritual” meaning, if you will?

Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I jumped on it. There’s a certain feeling in the space that I wanted to preserve, so I’ve done a lot of work to restore rather than rebuild the space. It’s kind of perfect in its imperfection. The stairs are creaky, the floor boards are warped, there are flaws everywhere. But, I think it’s kind of a relief. It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that everything we make must be shiny and perfect, when in truth the process is often awkward and ugly. We could push pixels around forever. So, when you walk around here and think “Kickstarter came from here,” seeing the imperfections of the space helps you stay focused on what really matters.