The MIT Global Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp — Part 2

Or, the time five people from five continents pitched at MIT (read Part 1)

Sunday 7th August

The days start (officially) at 7am based on the calendar we’ve had circulated. Sunday is a nice gentle introduction with an 8am start. With little idea of just what we’ve got coming, a lot of us turn up on time on Sunday, something we’ll not repeat as we go on through the camp.

There’s a breakfast buffet laid out for us on the mezzanine of the MIT Sloan building, which we’ll inhabit like puffins for the next five days, clustered on whatever furniture and safe nooks we can find.

I won’t realise this until later, but there’s an almost uninterrupted supply of food, drink and important supplies over the entire week. I’m not sure if this is to keep us well fuelled or to prevent tribal, sleep-deprived hordes tearing Cambridge apart looking for caffeine and sugar. But for now, I’m just grateful for the cooked buffet and the availability of hot coffee.

We decamp into the classroom, a large, open plan room plastered with whiteboards and a great setup for presentations and lectures. Unlike a lot of the other MIT classrooms this doesn’t have tiered seating and is big enough to contain the Class 4 attendees, alumni, mentors and lecturers that will be inhabiting it for the next few days.

There are around 72 people on the course and the room is laid out ‘cabaret style’ with twelve tables, six to a table. Compared with the milling and slightly impromptu nature of last night, this is a professional welcome. Each table is set up with nameplates and a welcome kit — a de facto drawstring bag of goodies which includes a folder, pen, notepad and a Bootcamp t-shirt.

Yes, the T-shirt was the right size. Extra kudos to the organisers

Remember that the people in the room were still, effectively, strangers despite the event at the Museum last night. Just as I had discovered running the Hackdays for the last few years, it made the most sense for the teams to be pre-organised this early in the week. It becomes clear throughout the day that today is less about introductions to the course and all about finding a team to work with for the next five days.

The chatter across the tables waxes and wanes for the first hour or so, as we form small social groups with the people on our tables. One of the startling things that we found when we ran the stats at our Reed hackdays was that these initial, forced groups often persist through the self-forming team stages and often onto the winners’ podium. I’m curious to see if the same will be true today, and start to get to know the people on my table.

I meet Pilar, to my immediate left, who runs a startup in Colombia. Her company runs a marketplace for improving the income of people earning less than $2 a day, matching (for instance) the parents of disabled children with housekeeping jobs. To my right is Spencer, a mechatronics engineering grad from Australia who is deeply interested in robotics and robotic vision. Spencer is wearing sunglasses indoors, which seems appropriate for an Aussie, but he claims it’s because he forgot to pack his prescription glasses. I take this with a pinch of salt, and am comforted and amused throughout the week by always finding Spencer in his sunnies.

Pilar to the left, Spencer in a rare moment without sunglasses, to the right

In the breaks, I also meet Paul, who’s clearly nuts. A banker and former VC with the World Bank, Paul created a social betting app to deal with his own issues of procrastination — specifically, in his case, snoozing his alarm. I’m deeply impressed when he tells me that he also used the process to lay bets with his friends that he would be accepted to the bootcamp. If he hadn’t been here today I suspect he would have been broke for the rest of his life. It turns out he’s quite grateful to be here.

For a couple of hours, until 11am, the class are asked to introduce themselves to the audience, passing around a crackling and often malfunctioning radio mic. All seventy-two of us take a turn on the mic answering some set questions; Who am I? Where am I from? What am I interested in? and “You don’t know me until …”

My you don’t know me is, “until you wish I had stopped talking at you about barefoot running, 5:2 diets or rock climbing”. Given that people in the room have bred cloned sheep and had asteroids named after them, it feels very pedestrian by comparison.

Finding a soulmate or four

In addition to our Class 4 classmates, we’re introduced to our twelve mentors, all alumni from previous Bootcamps. They’ll be passing among us during the day to help run the event and give advice on certain challenges. They’ve got the gleeful look of people who know that we’re in for a world of hurt, and that their job is to make it hurt more if we’re not in enough pain. As we find out over the next few days, some will take this important job more seriously than others.

We’re also introduced to several more of the teaching staff, including the awesome Elaine Chen who will become a fixture of the event over the course of the bootcamp. We’re talked through the judging panel who will be attendance on Friday; it’s mostly made up of VCs, entrepreneurs and MIT academics, and the calibre of the panel brings home just what a big challenge we’ll be up against on the final day.

We’re then introduced to the real objective of the week — that we should form teams which will build companies in only five days, according to Bill’s 24 Disciplined Entrepreneurship steps. It becomes apparent that all the pre-work and groups we made before the event were just to get us in the mood. What we’ll be pitching on Friday will be the output of ideas that most of us haven’t even thought of yet.

When talking about the types of ideas that we should later come up with, we’re given a couple of rules:

“Don’t work on an idea that you’ve already worked on or which is the basis of a company”

“Everything that is built here is public property”

“Any companies that start after the bootcamp start with a clean slate”

It’s reinforced with great solemnity and insistence that THIS IS MIT. It’s an ethos that the institute wears with great pride, especially given its neighbour 30 minutes up the road. The next few days are seen as an opportunity to come up with some crazy ideas that we can make work, rather than just your run-of-the-mill blockchain startup. Creativity is seen as key to what we will be judged on and there are few constraints about what we should be limited to.

This, as you’ll find out soon, is not lost on my team.

As the session draws to a close, a final point is driven home; in this environment, with these people, ideas are virtually free and will be plucked from the air. The real focus for today is not ideas but problems and, most specifically, people. As we go about the business of forming our teams, we need to focus on ensuring that our teams will go the distance.

We’re given ten minutes to speak to ten people, and reminded that there are 72 people in the room. The challenge then, is how we find just five people to build the winning team in just one day?

Lunch, Archetypes and Organised Fun

After yet more food we sit through more lectures focused on good team participation, how to work with different personalities and how to deal with conflict when it inevitably arises. Given the constant foreshadowing of sleep deprivation I’m very aware that tempers will be frayed and breakdowns will happen. I’m glad that this topic is taken so seriously.

It becomes very clear at this stage that we’re going to be using a variant of the same archetypes that I’ve used to form hackday teams before (and actually formed the basis of one of the startups). In the MIT model, we will be using Hacker, Hustler, Hipster, Hatcher and are asked to try and categorise ourselves accordingly for when we later introduce ourselves in the impending speed-dating.

We’re split into new teams to help us find and interact with more new people. In these teams we’re chased out of the room on a competitive treasure hunt around the the MIT campus, following clues to different buildings and landmarks. It’s childish fun, but a great opportunity to bond with new people and get to see the different personalities of the group up close.

Forming the teams

At about 7.30pm (after yet more food) we’re set to work for another hour for a last round of founder speed dating. Having run enough hack days to see the dynamic I know just how important it is to be aggressive in finding the best people early. I resolve to push outside my own introverted bubble to make sure I’m not left on the sidelines at the end of the evening, waiting for a dance.

I’m flattered to be hunted down by Joseph, an investment banker turned angel investor. He and I have got on well throughout the day and were on the same treasure hunt team. One of the first hard decisions I have to make is not to work with Joseph. For this challenge I want to push myself to take the CEO role, and that’s clearly Joseph’s strength. In addition, I know Joseph wants to work on a passion he has for solving recruitment problems and with eighteen years of it under my belt I want a break and to try something completely new. We have a frank and brief conversation and amicably part. It’s a shame, as I know we’d work well together.

Paul — the social betting ex-world banker — and I decide to team up early. I’m keen to find a great team as early as possible and have a few rules that I want to stick to; only 5 people (not 6, 7 is right out), as diverse as possible, and I’m determined to push myself to take the CEO role. Being brutal about this makes decision making easier, but conversations are brief and emotionally hard. It’s like firing ten people an hour.

Having shaken hands on our partnership, Paul and I start aggressively targeting talent specifically on team fit and skills. We’re looking to make a team that will culminate in a solid product as well as a great pitch on Friday. We split up and work the room, politely but curtly turning people away if they don’t feel like the right fit. It’s very tough and a few people I’ve really got on with are turned away with a brief apology. The pressure of the selection weighs on us.

As we continue to look for team members, I spot Elisha, a Kenyan farmer and software engineer who I had spoken to at the Museum the night before. Elisha is loosely in a team with Jose, an electronic engineer from Ecuador. Paul and I start furious discussions about recruiting them both. We’re also speaking to several other nascent teams of twos and threes, one of which includes Czarina, a biologist with great business development skills from Hawaii who would be an enormous asset to the team and a great fit for our skills. We succeed in bring them all together and shake hands on our final team while many others are still forming. I’m deeply pleased at the result, and overwhelmingly happy with the team I’m lucky enough to be part of.

Of course, this all happens amidst the chaos of other teams forming. It might sound like we were executing on a well thought out plan, but in reality we were moving quickly against an ever changing background of people poaching and being poached. Just as we were calculating the people we wanted in our team, we were being weighed and assessed, and no doubt ruled out, from others.

A team forms

After the teams formed, a bizarre marriage of many people in frantically created relationships, we are all asked to break out and spend time together. One of the first acts for our new teams is to get to know each other and set our own rules of engagement. This is perhaps one of the most critical moments of our week and key moment where we bonded as a team.

In our first real conversation, Paul, Czarina, Elisha, Jose and I take turns to set our own rules for how we want to deal with conflict. We agree on candid and open communication, tools like hourly checkins and retrospectives and the use of Kanban for task visibility and prioritisation.

We spend some time discussing how we’re going to deal with our inevitable fights. We decide that we’ll let arguments run until they get personal, at which point others will step in and enforce a break. We also ask that people never take sides when people are arguing. We make it clear that it must always be okay for someone to return to the team after emotions run high, and that the team must commit to supporting each other.

This may all sound like trite, touchy feely nonsense now (and to an extent it did at 9pm on a Sunday night), but we all realise that three days into a project with no sleep, it might prove critical. It turns out that this time spent getting to know each other is critical in letting us perform as a team.

Perhaps most importantly, and one of the things that I’m most proud of over the entire week, is that we spend time agreeing a group goal and sharing our personal goals for the week. These goals are something we refer back to regularly during the week to make sure that we are on track.

I remember most clearly our team objective for the week; whilst we would aim to come first, it would be meaningless if we didn’t learn and have fun. If we had a great time and learned a lot, how we ranked in the final pitches wouldn’t matter. When we looked back on Friday, this was going to be the most important question we would ask ourselves.

With our team formed, we spend another few hours starting to work on creating an idea. Having created a team based purely on skills and fit, we’re at a disadvantage to some others who are able to start working on their chosen themes immediately. I, however, have no regrets about our choices and as we finish the day at 1am, I’m confident that I’m part of an amazing team.

(Continued in Part 3)