The MIT Global Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp — Part 1

Or, the time five people from five continents pitched at MIT

The MIT Sloan School was our home (literally) for 6 days in August 2016

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Dear Mark,

On behalf of the MIT Bootcamp admissions committee, I am delighted to inform you of your admission to the MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp program, August 7–12, 2016.

It was this letter that put in process a set of experiences that, I have no doubt, will change my life immeasurably. On 31st March of 2016, I had finally, and at the eleventh hour, plucked up the courage to apply to the MIT Entrepreneurship bootcamp. I’m still not quite sure how I found out about it — although I have a mail in my spam folder from all the way back in December of 2015. I’d written it off. As someone who never valued my education, rather seeing it as a necessary hurdle to get down to the real business of getting paid to work in a cubicle, I’d cruised through my degree. Now, faced with the opportunity of applying to the most prestigious of academic institutions, and joining an elite group of hand selected geniuses, I nearly bottled it.

But the bootcamp resonated. As anyone that has spoken to me will know, the 24 steps of Bill Aulet’s Disciplined Entrepreneurship are something I deeply believe in since being introduced to them by my friends, Howard van Rooijen and Matthew Adams at Endjin. I was hooked on the course content, but had decided that my friend and former colleague, Timo Hilhorst, was a far better candidate than I was. I mailed Timo and encouraged him to apply. A smarter and braver man than me, Timo threw himself at his application. I wrote Timo’s recommendation letter knowing that he was perfect for the Bootcamp, and deserved to be selected way more than I ever would.

Timo, though, is a team player, and faithful to a fault. As he was preparing his own pitch, he never let me consider dropping my own application. Much as I would have loved to have gone to the bootcamp, it was only Timo’s constant badgering, and an exceptional (and mostly true) letter of recommendation from my friend Paul Rapacioli that finally forced me to commit. Just before the deadline, I decided that I wouldn’t let my lack of self belief, my absence of a meritable academic background or my terror at spending 7 days surrounded by the smartest people in the world prevent me from at least applying. I didn’t believe for a minute that I would be accepted, but off the application went.

Saturday 6th August

In the weeks before today, the attendees of the bootcamp have been pushed through a series of online courses, pre-reads and activities to prepare us for the next week. In addition to advising a fantastic startup in Sweden called The Local, starting a new job in Dublin while still living in London and setting up my first business, the preparation has been intense. I’ll find out soon just how little I’ve been prepared for the reality of a week at MIT.

After the torment of Boston’s Logan Airport and its tortuous and seemingly pointless queues, I arrived at my hotel in Cambridge at around 5pm. While the communication has been a little hard to follow, there’s an alumni drinks event for former bootcampers at the MIT Museum. The hotel is lovely and I introduce myself at front desk with the warning that I’m unlikely to be back until around 11pm each night. They promise to have a beer ready for me as I pass, as I’ll be missing their 5–6pm happy hour.

As it turns out, 11pm was never going to be an option.

It’s about a 10 minute walk from my hotel to the MIT museum but I almost give in to laziness, thinking that I deserve a cold beer and an early night after the flight. I decide, finally, that I’ve invested too much to get to Cambridge to lie around, and drag myself out onto the street. It’s a fairly pleasant walk to the museum, despite it being a muggy 85 fahrenheit even at 7pm. I’m left rather unmoved by the architecture, which after 12 hours in planes and airports seems bland, utilitarian and very American. I’m not yet loving MIT.

When I reach the museum, it’s apparently closed. I’m spotted by a friendly face inside the doors and dragged in through the door. It’s like a mini version of London’s science museum inside, full of holograms and robot arms. This is a little more like it.

The museum is bijou, don’t get the wrong impression. More notably, it’s full of loitering groups of nervous looking people from every conceivable background. In the next hour or so I speak to my new classmates from Class 4 and alumni from the previous 3 bootcamps. There are techies from Brunei, scientists from Singapore, an ex-CIO who is now running a major bank’s innovation program in New York, a health and fitness trainer from Sacramento, a man who wants to start faith based innovation in Africa and a Boston-based angel investor who is there to keep an eye on proceedings.

As I hear impromptu elevator pitches while mingling and clutching a very welcome beer it becomes obvious that the crowd are starting the process of sizing each other up. We’re all over the spectrum of nervous, from slightly out of our depth to full on introversion. There’s a bewildering array of archetypes, many of whom will definitely not gel well with each other. What is common, however, is a sense that this group is very special and has the passion and the ideas to change the world. Once again, I feel like the most ordinary person in the room.

There’s a brief break for presentations and mini-pitches over a hastily rigged PA system. Alumni who developed their ideas from previous years include an ex-Olympian who started her own health and training company who is telling us about her experience. The milling and noise in the background is droning out the speakers as people continue sizing up their teammates and competition for the rest of the week.

We’re told that the calendar has been eased off from previous years. Legend has it that the Bootcamp was the idea of L. Rafael Reif, the president of MIT who demanded that the attendees were ‘exhausted’ by the end of the week. Earlier alumni would be working until 3am or 4am each day, only to start again at 7am. We’re promised an easier ride.

This turns out to be a lie. Tomorrow the adventure begins for real.

(read Part 2…)