Not only is it possible to found one’s first company while at MIT, says Bill Aulet SM ’94 — it’s ideal.
Aulet is co-director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, along with MIT Sloan faculty member and Innovation Initiative co-director Fiona Murray (who is featured in this month’s SPECTRVM).
Founded in 1990 by Professor Edward Roberts, the Trust Center provides the expertise, support, and connections MIT students need to become effective entrepreneurs — including an extremely popular start-up accelerator capstone program (GFSA) and access to a rotating roster of entrepreneurs in residence. Up-and-coming founders can also avail themselves of the center’s workspace, which is equipped with such essentials as videoconferencing systems and floor-to-ceiling dry-erase walls.
Students are hungry for what the Trust Center offers: More than 70 percent of incoming undergraduates surveyed in 2012 expressed an interest in entrepreneurship, and more than 20 percent expected to start a company while still in school. A serial entrepreneur, Aulet has honed several arguments for why MIT’s undergraduates and grad students should embrace the idea of doing just that.
1. No one’s born an entrepreneur.
“Originally, I thought entrepreneurship couldn’t be taught. When I first started giving talks at MIT, I thought it was all about motivating the students — then they go out, and we’ll find out who really is an entrepreneur. But after I started having discussions with people like [Trust Center founder] Ed Roberts and [MIT Sloan professors] Fiona Murray and Scott Stern, I started realizing that of course it can be taught. I mean, it’s not genetic. They had the data to prove it. Our students are incredible, but so are students elsewhere. Why is MIT so much more entrepreneurial than other places? Something’s going on here.”
2. Failure is not an option. It’s a given.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur multiple times. The first time, I wasn’t successful. The second time, I was successful. The third time, I was very successful. That’s what the data shows: The more times you’re an entrepreneur, the better you get. Clearly, people learn something in the process. MIT’s entrepreneurship education is about time-compressing that learning curve. When I failed, I had a mortgage and four kids. I would rather students fail while they’re here at MIT, because it’s a much safer environment.
“What we do at MIT is innovation-driven entrepreneurship. The innovation may be technology; it may be the business model; it may be process; it may be positioning. But by definition, it means doing something other people haven’t done before. You have to fail in that process. There is no such thing as innovation-driven entrepreneurship without failure.”
3. You’re going to need two hats.
“When I first went into business, which was a long time ago, you had a job for life if you were lucky enough to get a job at a place like IBM. Now, there’s no job for life. You have to adapt. There’s a great book called 'AntiFragile' [by Nassim Nicholas Taleb] that says people who seek comfort end up being in fragile situations, whereas people who don’t seek comfort can learn to deal with chaos. And that’s what we have to train our students, that chaos isn’t a bad thing, that chaos can make you stronger if you know how to deal with it.
“Leadership is about change, and dealing with crisis. Yet, much of what we teach in management is about optimizing results, minimizing risk, planning a budget. Entrepreneurship is a combination of these two. We have to handle risk. We have to change things. We have to manage stuff. Entrepreneurship is this very fast switch between management and leadership, management and leadership. And the stakes are very, very high, because if you make a wrong decision, you’re not going to make payroll on Friday.”
4. What’s in it for MIT is what’s in it for you.
“Let me tell you another thing that’s different about MIT, which I am super proud of: We are honest brokers. When a student comes into this center, I will not invest in his company. Not because I couldn’t make money, but because if a student thinks that I am going to invest in him, I’m no longer an educator — he’s looking at me as a potential investor. So I will not sit on his board; I will not direct him to one of my friends. He knows when he comes here that we are one-hundred percent educators. We’re looking out for him to do the best thing he can.”
5. The Zuckerberg fallacy.
“When I say our students shouldn’t drop out of school to found a company, people always bring up Mark Zuckerberg. Well, you know what — that’s like saying Lebron James didn’t go to college, so you don’t need to. Some people are extreme cases. What about the MIT alumni who cofounded Qualcomm [Irwin Jacobs SM '57, SCD '59 and Andrew Viterbi '56, SM '57]? Their education at MIT gave them the foundation to start that company, not just in technology and engineering and math and science, but also in this carbon-based life form called humans. How do you communicate with people? How do you get along with people?
“I get fired up about a lot of things, and one of them is when investors say: I’ll pay you to drop out of school. That’s an experiment you better not run on my kids! It’s a false dichotomy, this idea that, oh, if you’re a wimpy entrepreneur you stay in school, but if you’re a real entrepreneur you drop out of school. Our job is to constantly make MIT better than anyplace else to learn to be an entrepreneur, so you can do both. Tell me where you’re going to get a better entrepreneurial experience than this place? If the answer is no place, then we have achieved our goal — temporarily. We will never stop because things are always changing.”