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Massive open entrepreneurship

New MITx MOOC brings the expertise of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship to the Web.

Every year, between 900 and 1,000 companies are started by MIT alumni and students. Many of these entrepreneurs have taken the class 15.390 (New Enterprises), offered to all MIT students, including the founders of such companies as Ministry of Supply, FINsix, Lark, OsComp, and Hubspot — which had revenues worth $52.5 million as of 2012.

This spring, MIT will offer this course online as an MITx massive open online course (MOOC) "15.390x Entrepreneurship 101: Who is Your Customer?" starting March 18 and now open for enrollment on the edX site.

Bill Aulet ’94, a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, will teach 15.390x. While there are no prerequisites for the course, Aulet intends it for “people who have an interest in innovation-driven entrepreneurship ... people who want to be very efficient at solving customer problems in a holistic way.” 

While those who wish to start small businesses will learn something from the class, 15.390x will deal with startup issues on a grander scale. “They have to be looking to make a big company,” Aulet says. However, people working in government, nonprofits, or large existing corporations may gain insight on how to become more “customer-oriented,” and are welcome to join the class.

Each of the 15.390x classes will consist of a case study, rather than a lecture. The course team will interview various MIT entrepreneurs about the startups they are currently developing. One featured entrepreneur is Hyungsoo Kim ’12, who will discuss his commercial watch for the blind.

“Hyungsoo is an inspiring entrepreneur who came to realize that existing watches for people who are visually impaired are completely inadequate,” says Erdin Beshimov ’11, an executive-in-residence at the Office of Digital Learning at MIT who helped develop the course. “Hyungsoo went out and created the Bradley Timepiece, which brings great design to the visually impaired, a minority group that is often ignored by mainstream product design. His story is fascinating and instructive. You will hardly find a better example of how to find, interview, and learn from your prospective customers.” 

While Aulet is certainly happy to share his business perspectives through edX, so are the course’s featured entrepreneurs — who are all MIT alumni or students. “Every lecture is supported by a real MIT entrepreneur who is working on a startup now,” Beshimov says. “These are real examples of entrepreneurs who are just like them (the students) ... They are very happy to share their knowledge and experience with the class, hoping they’ll serve as inspiration for the students.”

Aulet began his career as a professional basketball player for the Colchester Moels in England. Basketball, he says, is as “a team sport like entrepreneurship.”

“It is also a sport where you have to hate to fail,” he adds, “but once you have, you accept it as a learning opportunity and use it to get better — and come back immediately with renewed knowledge and enthusiasm to play the game again. You have to be willing to adjust to the circumstances and be flexible — and this is what makes a great basketball player and entrepreneur.”

Aulet transmits this tenacity to his students, while underscoring the importance of persistence in entrepreneurship. “A lot of things go wrong,” he says. “You have to just laugh and keep moving. You have to have the spirit of a pirate.”

This “spirit of a pirate” enabled Aulet to thrive in various executive and management positions at IBM for 11 years when it was fundamentally changing its business model through the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Aulet enrolled in MIT Sloan. As a student, he decided he was not going back to IBM and started Cambridge Decision Dynamics with two MIT PhDs. He served as CEO and president for that company and later for SensAble Technologies. In 2003, Aulet became the chief financial officer at Viisage Technology, which specializes in security technology. In his two years with the company, Aulet co-led a remarkable turnaround that resulted in Viisage’s value growing from $50 million to $500 million.

Since 2005, Aulet has been a faculty member at MIT Sloan, where he looks forward to teaching online. “There is a huge demand for entrepreneurship education,” he says, “and people want MIT-quality education in this area, so I felt the time was right to produce an online class with the rigor that befits MIT.”

Beshimov can attest to the rigor of 15.390x. “Absolutely, it’s the same class as the residential class,” he says. “I took the class when I was a student.”

That rigor, he says, “doesn’t just stem from the content that’s provided.” The class demands a lot of hands-on activity from students, such as interviewing prospective customers. “You must learn by doing,” he says, “otherwise your knowledge is theoretical. Entrepreneurship is not a spectator sport.”

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