This blog post is for people recently admitted into a MBA program who want to start a company post graduation. While there are many great blogs out there to help entrepreneurs and early-stage start-ups (for example, Dharmesh Shah’s blog OnStartups is an amazing resource), I hope to fill a gap where I saw one when I started at MIT two years ago.
This is not so much about entrepreneurship as it is about making the most out of graduate school to hit the ground running come graduation.
This post is by no means a guaranteed recipe for success. A note on the term ‘success’: I am proud of the progress we have made with Locu and while there are clear metrics that will show whether our start-up will be a success, there’s a word to be said about personal success. To me, this term is tightly linked to happiness (for an expert opinion on the topic, please consult my friend Jeff’s blog on happiness). And, while often stressed, I am happy.
About two years ago, I came to Boston to start my MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. I had no idea about what would be the best approach to find a great idea and team to start a company (I later learned that team is often much more important than idea). Here’s an attempt to capture some of the key take-aways that in retrospect made my time at MIT worthwhile or – if unaware of them before – I would have found useful knowing when I started.
1. Find your niche
If you are at a place like MIT, there’s a high risk you will be overwhelmed (like me) at first by the sheer quantity of ideas and projects available at your fingertips. Cross-campus lab classes (a good selection can be found here), conferences, meet-ups. There’s probably an entrepreneurship event almost every night. While introducing yourself with “Hi, my name is Rene, I am interested in entrepreneurship” might not be a bad approach in the first few months, you should quickly find an area that excites you and try to learn as much about it as you can. I have heard similar advice from Ric Fulop, a Sloan graduate, when he came to speak to us in one of our classes. He had no background in batteries. He started reading and doing a lot of research, before reaching out to the top researchers in the field at MIT. He ended up starting A123 Systems with one of them, Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang, and the company went public last year.
I regarded my first semester at MIT as one big brainstorming session. At the time, there was no MIT Ideastorm yet, a great format Adam, Morgan and Slava came up with and which I hope will survive for generations to come. Going into my second semester, I knew I was most interested in emerging web technologies, such as linked data, semantic web technologies and big data, tackling some of the big remaining problems such as trust, identity, and data freshness. By then, I was spending a good third of my time on “the other side of campus” – at MIT CSAIL and the MIT Media Lab. Having been a passionate hacker in my earlier years, I was eager to catch up with the latest advances in machine learning and building my first django app.
2. Build your brand
During my second semester, my personal tagline evolved to “Rene – MBA / hacker – interested in semantic web, big data” or something like that. One thing led to the next and in May I was sitting across from Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself, pitching him the idea for a cross-campus, hands-on seminar to be called Linked Data Ventures (LDV). I don’t think Tim would have gone for a beer with me to brainstorm about start-up ideas but I got to know a lot of great grad students at that time who would. For a lesson on personal branding, look at what Miro and Tom have done with the MBA Show and how they are leveraging it for their startup.
3. Connect with experts in your field
A month later, I was in San Francisco, at the annual Semantic Technologies conference, learning, mingling with industry experts and pitching them to come to MIT that fall for LDV. I also interviewed some of them for a series on semantic technologies I wrote for the MIT Entrepreneurship Review. I started going to meet-ups and got to know a bunch of interesting people who helped me connect the dots between what I had read and researched.
On a more general note, being in grad school is an excellent excuse to meet with anyone in the world and I highly recommend it (as long as you do your homework and prepare for the meeting). Networking is a term that is often overused, but getting to know people who share some interest or passion with you, is a great thing.
4. Team, team, team
By the start of the third semester, I had been working on two fairly serious start-up projects and various other (not so serious) ones through some of the classes offered at MIT. I was excited about LDV and had recruited a few friends and people I wanted to work with to take the seminar with me. Our first team meeting was at the Muddy Charles and after five (or six) pitchers of Sam Adams, we knew this could be more than just a “class project”.
We were off to a slow start. It took us almost four weeks to find a name for our project, Goodplates, and we hadn’t written a line of code with only three weeks to go to demo day. However, we had spend a lot of time researching the needs of our potential users and had come up with a unique approach to making trusted recommendations on a dish-level. On demo day, our app was fully functional (luckily all of us were able to code and not afraid to get our hands dirty with 4store and SPARQL) and we earned some praise from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, but more importantly, we realized we can work well together as a team and decided to move forward with the project.
There will be a point in your journey where it’s all about surviving. For a group of people to decide to work on a project full-time instead of staying in school or taking a high-paid job somewhere else, it often takes more than a good idea. It requires coming up with a plan to either raise money or make money – enough money to pay the bills and make it to your next milestone.
While many of our MBA classmates had already have accepted a job at that point and will be training for marathons, building up their alcohol tolerance at BHP, flying to Indonesia for fun, or perfecting the art of BBQing pork ribs, we had decided to go for it and were working hard to get our start-up off the ground. There’s a ton of things that can catch you off-guard or go wrong (hey, it’s part of the fun) – things which contributed heavily to my sleep deprivation during the last weeks of my MBA. Buy me a beer at the Muddy sometime and I can tell you about some of them. You will also be faced with uneasy decisions such as : Should you go to Silicon Valley to meet investors or on a week-long sailing trip in the Carribean with your MBA classmates? I can tell you the weather is nice in Palo Alto in May.
6. Escape Velocity
Bill Aulet first introduced me to the term “escape velocity”. He was referring to how the curriculum and special programs and events such as the MIT 100k competition (that reminds me to make a shout-out to my friends Ani, David, and Lindsay from Sanergy) are all aimed at giving entrepreneurs the best possible shot at succeeding. Bill and his team at the MIT Entrepreneurship Center supported us along the way and even gave us free office space right after graduation for the summer, while we were busy fine-tuning our pitch (Goodplates is now Locu), figuring out our business model, raising money, and building a kick-ass product. It couldn’t have been better. Not only was our office right next to the Dean’s office with a free supply of espresso, we also had a river view, which certainly helped in recruiting our first employees.
I plan to post more regularly going forward, for example, on how we raised money (spoiler: AngelList is great!). I hope this post is useful. If not, at the very least I had fun writing and reflecting on two great years at MIT!