In 1999, Steve Jobs overhauled the headquarters of Pixar – arguably one of the most creative and imaginative companies in the world.The innovations that came out of the Pixar shop stemmed from Jobs’ emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration. In planning the Pixar office, Jobs deliberately arranged the meeting rooms, bathroom, mailboxes, and cafeteria in the central atrium – forcing writers, engineers, and artists to intermingle. The brainstorming that came from these spontaneous, diverse run-ins led to ideas that grew into blockbuster hits like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and more. The New Yorker quoted Brad Bird – director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille – on Jobs’ role in encouraging collaboration. According to Bird, Steve Jobs “made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.” [1]

At 3 Day Startup, we call this synergistic phenomenon cross-pollination, or collaboration with diversity in mind. Cross-pollination sparks creativity, serendipity, and interdisciplinary friction – essential ingredients of successful student startups.

With this insight in mind, 3DS purposefully embeds cross-pollination into our learning laboratory. Furthermore, by controlling for variables such as competition, diversity, and community feedback, we provide university students with the optimal environment for entrepreneurial learning.

Here’s our recipe for success.

3DS promotes cross-pollination by fostering a non-competitive learning environment.

3 Day Startup is unique compared to other university entrepreneurial programs in that its not a competition. Rather, 3DS is a living laboratory for entrepreneurial experimentation. While programs such as case competitions are great at introducing university students to entrepreneurial problem-solving, 3DS is different by design.

By design, the program intentionally removes barriers that inhibit teams from supporting one another. Therefore, there are no “winners” at a 3DS program. This lack of cut-throat competition encourages individuals to be more generous with their resources – allowing for the cross-pollination of ideas, skills, social networks, etc.

(This isn’t to say that a 3DS program is without competition – teams must compete against the mercilessly short time frame.)

While some believe that cut-throat competition is the optimal environment for innovation, we disagree with this notion of a zero sum game. In economics and game theory, a zero-sum game is a situation in which one person’s gain is another person’s loss. At the end of the “game”, the net change in benefit (or wealth creation) is zero for all parties involved.

We’ve discovered that an environment of non-competition drastically enhances cross-pollination. In fact, the idea of an interdependent community, as opposed to a group of fragmented competitors, is the hallmark of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems. Austin’s own Capital Factory is a great example of this. Through its investment of human and financial capital, physical coworking space, partnerships with the city, and centralized location for community events, Capital Factory fosters a thriving community for entrepreneurs. Capital Factory operates with the big-picture understanding that nurturing entrepreneurial activities and “passing it forward” helps the city at large. By investing in entrepreneurship, local economies benefits from “rapid job creation, GDP growth, and long-term productivity increases”. [2]

During a 3DS program, the emphasis on collaboration, not competition, dramatically affects how participants interact amongst themselves. Because student teams compete against the clock and not each other, we’ve seen collaboration that would never have occurred in a different setting. We’ve seen participants check each other’s code, contribute valuable ideas and feedback, serve as a “floating” designer for multiple teams, teach one another technical skills, and connect teams with experts from their own personal or professional networks – all in the span of three days.

3DS promotes cross-pollination through “staged” serendipity.

“Staged” serendipity is the purposeful creation of an environment with artificially high talent and interpersonal diversity.

Similar to what Steve Jobs spurred at Pixar, other leaders have encouraged serendipity to increase the effectiveness of their organizations. For example, Tony Hsieh of Zappos is applying this concept to his Downtown Project,  an ad hoc urban revitalization of downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh is using his fortune to turn Vegas into a quirky oasis for entrepreneurs and artists. In fostering the “most community-focused large city in the world,” Hsieh advocates the importance of being “collisionable”. The CEO schedules his meetings in coffee shops, bars, and coworking spaces – increasing the opportunity for spontaneous bump-ins to occur. [3]

When diverse individuals are in physical proximity of one another and intermingling, the likelihood of innovation increases. Like the accelerating collisions of atoms in a confined space, the quantity and quality of ideas increase with the addition of more people. Specifically, a high density of individuals from different backgrounds, technical expertise, and social groups amplifies creativity and the power of networks.

At 3DS, we’re deliberate in staging serendipity throughout the entire program. When students apply to get in, we take into account factors such as classification, academic disciplines, and skill sets to create the optimal talent pool. Because of this, 3DS is a petri dish for uncommon groups – undergrad and grad students, liberal arts and engineering, marketers and programmers – to interact. Before the start of the three day weekend, we host workshops to introduce participants to one another and get them interacting early on. During the 3 days, students form self-selected teams from the eclectic talent pool that we’ve constructed.

After the program ends, we continue to influence serendipity by promoting intersystem collaboration among 3DS-affiliated universities. A great example of this isour alumna Alisa Wills. Alisa is the co-founder of Partender, a company that emerged from 3DS University of Florida. When Partender took off, Alisa relocated to New York. Afterwards, she moved to Israel where she became a citizen, organized a 3DS program in Galilee, and served as a mentor for 3DS Technion – the esteemed Israel Institute of Technology. Recently, the 3DS team sent her to the U.K. where she facilitated a program during London Technology Week. Because of the interconnectedness of the 3DS network, Alisa was able to share insights from her entrepreneurial ecosystems and learn best practices from new ones.

3DS promotes cross-pollination through community feedback sessions.

During a 3DS program, teams give preliminary, intermediate, and final pitches and receive feedback from participants and mentors. The community feedback sessions are valuable because, in trying to articulate a pitch, presenters find gaps in their own knowledge. They then get the opportunity to fill in these gaps by interacting with peers and mentors who hold specialized knowledge. On the flip side, observers learn by critically evaluating the ideas pitched by their peers. Through peer-mentoring, students mutually benefit regardless of which “learner” role they take on. For example, a business student pitching an idea can get feedback from an engineering student about the feasibility of building a new product. Conversely, an engineering student can flex their strategic business muscle when giving feedback on a pitch.

In addition to feedback, the dissent of ideas also encourages intellectual growth and creative solutions. Dissent, or disagreement, is actually a productive force because it requires “us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints”. [1] Like rocks in a tumbler, ideas are polished by bumping against one another. Through community feedback sessions (aka the “grind”) students gain multidisciplinary insight from talented peers and mentors.


[1] The New Yorker’s Brainstorming Doesn’t Work Really Work

[2] Harvard Business Review’s The Big Idea: How to Start an Entrepreneurial Revolution

[3] Wired’s How Zappos’ CEO Turned Las Vegas Into a Startup Fantasyland