The MIT Global Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp — Part 3

Or, the time five people from five continents pitched at MIT (read Part 2)

Jose became a master of correctly peeling Post-It notes

Monday 8th August

It’s our first official 7am start and the first full day of the real lecture program. As people start to arrive, grabbing breakfast from the heaving buffet outside the classroom, we seat ourselves in our new teams rather than at the formal placeholders of yesterday. Several of the teams have pitched makeshift encampments in the smaller study rooms in the Sloan building, but it’s all still new to us and there’s the uncertain shuffling of people who are still unsure of the protocol. Our team nest in the back of the main classroom, protecting our prized whiteboards from usurpers. We’ll be needing them soon enough.

Elisha, Paul, Czarina, Jose and I start the morning with a catch up around our board. We’re all really positive about our team but not particularly excited about any of the ideas that we had arrived at by the end of the previous day. We look at the the array of sticky notes on the board in front of us, a thick porridge of random and uninspiring ideas we had stuck up the night before — the jumble includes things like “cheap farm robots” and “a noise cancelling way to stop babies crying”.

In an attempt to move on from these prescriptive, solution-focused ideas into something more inspirational we agree to sit quietly for a few minutes and write down problems that we experience ourselves. We try to focus on issues that will affect many people, and avoid explicitly stating the solutions (sadly for me, this means no more farm robots). We use the time until the first lecture to cover our board in even more sticky notes.

At 8am, Bill Aulet takes the stage. I’m thrilled, as Bill’s book is the reason that I’m here — without it, I’d never have heard of the MITx courses or the bootcamp. I’m deeply interested to hear Bill speak, and from the reaction around the room it’s obvious that I’m not the only one looking forward to it. We sit, rapt, for the next couple of hours.

Bill is fun to watch, bouncing from energetic class interaction to engaging case studies, insulting just about anything he can on the way, including Trump and Brexit. We later find out that this is one of his better behaved sessions and that the language in his classrooms would usually be enough to make Gordon Ramsay blush. He introduces us to the book Anti-fragile by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan (the one about probability, not ballet dancers).

There’s a real sense that the introduction of anti-fragile contains an important message about entrepreneurship. Bill spends some time talking about the danger of becoming ‘comfortable’. If we’re serious about becoming real entrepreneurs, with all the requisite anti-social hours, stress and rejection, then we must not just become robust (which Bill describes as a neutral state that can simply withstand stress), but rather become anti-fragile, the state where adversity enables you to grow and improve.

It’s becoming clear that this bootcamp is less about the business theory of entrepreneurship and more about the mental and emotional preparation needed to succeed in challenging situations.

Spirit of a pirate, execution skills of a Navy SEAL

Over the rest of the morning Bill walks us through a number of key chapters in the book, bringing it to life with his rambunctious style. It’s a great pleasure to sit through the class, very much at odds with my own experience of university lectures.

After the break at 10.30am Bill moves on to a case study and interactive session on a product which first came to prominence on the TV show, Dragon’s Den (the UK version of Shark Tank). We watch two nervous founders pitching their idea, Cheeky Chompers, and the Dragons inevitably eviscerating the business plan for the fashion-first, undroppable baby pacifier.

Bill takes great delight in the Dragons’ decision not to invest, especially in the light of the reality that the Cheeky Chompers team have now sold nearly a million units. He sets the class a team challenge to walk through one of the most difficult steps in Disciplined Entrepreneurship, defining a business’s core.

After all of the teams have struggled to really define the core for this young startup, we move on to an Ask Me Anything (AMA) with Bill for the last 30 minutes before lunch.

The Eone Story

After lunch we’re introduced to Hyungsoo Kim, the founder of the Eone timepiece company. Eone’s Bradley watch has won numerous design awards and was the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2013. However, the Bradley isn’t a normal watch, nor is the ‘timepiece’ moniker an affectation. The Bradley was designed to address a specific need for people with visual impairments to have a functional and stylish way to tell the time. Having seen the Bradley up close, I can tell you that it’s a beautiful solution and an elegant watch. I actually remember the Kickstarter campaign, even these years later.

Hyungsoo speaks to us at length about the process of bringing the Bradley to market. He shares with us the enlightening story of taking an initial Braille based prototype to a user group, only to find out that fewer than 10% of visually impaired people can read Braille. It’s an important reminder that we need to address our own assumptions before investing anything in the solution we’re taking to customers.

For many people who have taken the MITx innovation and entrepreneurship courses, the Eone story will be familiar from the course content, but it’s a real privilege to have this case study brought to life in front of us by the founder.

Primary Market Research and Finding leads

After Hyungsoo’s time with us, we’re treated to another series of lectures from the teaching team and another guest speaker, Douglas Hwang.

Elaine Chen steps up for her first teaching session of the week, walking us through her extensive experience in primary market research. The discussion, and extensive role play, is based around the Procter & Gamble product, Mr Clean. While that may seem like an odd topic for this group, it’s a great insight into contextual research; actually spending time observing and talking to customers in the context of their product use. In the case of P&G, this led to the development of the Swiffer, via the observation of householders collecting coffee grounds in diapers.

Before Elaine cedes the floor, we’re treated to a discussion of the relative merits of four key primary market research techniques: detailed interviews, observation, immersion and digital experimentation. It’s clear that this topic isn’t theoretical; rather, we’re being prepared with the tools we need to take these techniques out onto the streets of Boston.

Elaine is followed at 3pm by Doug Hwang, an MIT alumni who has an impressive resume of top flight digital companies, joining Comixology when it was acquired by Amazon. Doug is in familiar territory for me, kicking off his hour at the helm with some Marty Cagan quotes. Doug spends some of his time walking the audience through a history of famous examples of MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) at companies like Zappos and Dropbox.

Doug is followed at 4.30pm by Erdin Beshimov, a celebrity to the audience following his role as host of the MITx courses we had to study to be here. This is Erdin’s first turn on the mic and he continues the afternoon’s syllabus with a session on generating sales leads. He talks about the focus of actually getting in front of customers and dealing with the embarrassment of talking to strangers. We’re left with advice not just about speaking to customers in person, but also by phone and email.

As with Elaine’s session earlier, MIT’s credo of ‘Mens et Manus’ (mind and hand) is clearly apparent and it’s obvious that we’re being prepared to leave the campus like chicks being kicked from a nest. Learn by doing or go home, is the implication.

The official lectures end at 6pm. It’s time for food. Again.

Still struggling for an idea

According to the agenda we’re supposed to be pitching our idea to our mentor at 7.30pm. Chance would be a fine thing — we’re still no closer to selecting one idea from the now nearly two hundred that are up on the wall. I can confirm that the refrain from Day 1, that ‘ideas are cheap’ is correct. Sadly it feels like we’re getting what we paid for. Despite encouragement and feedback from both our mentor Pavel and others that are passing by, it’s a frustrating evening.

Paul lost the bottom half of his trousers in a bet

Of course, this is very much a problem of our own making — we can see other teams much further forward in the process, especially those that formed around a shared goal. As a team who didn’t come together over a similar theme we have little common ground when we are trying to pick a problem. It seems that we often take turns in blocking each other’s ideas — almost always with a good reason — but it tends to mean that the team is always a hung jury when deciding on an idea. We’re still having fun and committed to each other, but it’s a painful exercise in not getting closer to a problem to solve.

By midnight, we’re still refining our problems and the energy is starting to wane

At 2.30am we decide to call it quits. Speaking for myself, I’m quietly and individually frustrated because I know just how amazing the members of the team are, and I feel that somehow I’m letting them down by not being able to move us closer to a problem.

We end the day with a poor problem that none of us seem happy with, a theme of ‘sustaining healthy relationships’, but we commit to each other that we’ll do some primary market research before we get back together tomorrow at 7am.

As the rest of the team jump in an Uber to their hostel, I feel particularly conscious that they will keep working even when they get back. I feel guilty and uncomfortable that I won’t be able to commit as much to the team just because of the physical separation and think, not for the first or last time, that I should have pushed harder to get a room in the hostel.

By the time I’m back at the hotel and have written up my notes it’s 3.24am as I close down the laptop. The alarm will go off in less than 3 hours. This is now starting to taste like the bootcamp we were promised.

(Continued in Part 4, where we decide on our, rather unconventional, idea)