The MIT Global Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp — Part 5

Or, the time five people from five continents pitched a sex toy at MIT (read Part 4)

Inga Stasiulionyte, Elaine Chen, Marius Ursache, Andrew Ngui and Billy Kirkley. Plotting something.

Wednesday 10th August

Having treated myself to a lie-in in until 6.50am, I start the walk down to the MIT Sloan building. It’s more overcast than previous mornings and as I walk I can feel nervous wings of doubt flittering around edges of my consciousness as I think back through the events of the previous evening. I can’t believe that we’re going to pitch a sex toy at MIT to a group of venture capitalists. I put my head down and trudge on to the class, shouldering the doubts aside.

Passing the familiarly heaving breakfast trestles, I arrive in the classroom at about 7.30am. I busy myself with tidying up the whiteboards, collecting our enormous stack of ideas and creating a clear space for us to work on the walls during the day. I’m still conscious that the team are often working late in the night at the hostel, and this is my way of making it up to them.

The room is conspicuously more empty than previous mornings — these are now not just long, tiring days; we’re getting into the realms of proper sleep deprivation. I see wan, drawn faces among those who are here already, especially the teams who were also here when I left last night. We’re never the last team to leave, one or two teams exceeding our stamina or stubbornness. Knowing nods are exchanged; it’s not unusual for people in different teams to break out in spontaneous, supportive hugging. We’re starting to feel the burn of the bootcamp.

The Hurt Locker

At 8am we’re joined by a man who has dealt with his own stressful situations. Sean Bonawitz, an MBA alumni who is currently working at Google, is here to talk about his experience working as a bomb disposal expert embedded in Seal Team 5. The short bio for his previous job is, “watch The Hurt Locker”. I’m sure he hates that description.

Sean introduces us, by reputation, to Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL officer who co-wrote the book, Extreme Ownership. Sean’s view is that this heightened sense of mutual responsibility is embodied in startup culture — that everyone in these small, tightly knit teams is more highly responsible for the success of the group.

Sean is more storyteller than a lecturer and he engages the audience with off the cuff tales from his experiences in the military. He discusses performance management, as applied to one highly capable but highly disruptive individual in his team. It’s a fascinating case study in the importance of discipline in these high stress environments and echoes Bill Aulet’s words from earlier days — just because you’re a startup, it doesn’t mean that you get to do whatever you want. As our t-shirts say, ‘Discipline is freedom’.

Another great story follows about how Sean transferred into the SEAL team, on loan from another unit. Joining a new team, especially in a close knit, alpha male community can end in the new member being at the sharp end of a very pointy stick. Sean talks us through how the team leader addressed the squad, introduced the newcomer and announced, “He is part of this team, and has 100% earned the right to be here”. Sean freely admits that this was far from being accurate amongst a team who had fought and bled together, but that the leader’s statement managed to carefully achieve two things. He not only established the rules and hierarchy of the group, but also won a debt of gratitude and respect from Sean who was keenly aware that the leader’s own reputation had been put firmly on the line for his sake.

Sean’s stories remind me a lot of training that I’ve enjoyed with ex- Royal Air Force officers, like my old friend and mentor Jim Brearley. Implicit in Sean’s stories are something the RAF training made more explicit; the importance of supportive followership skills, something which is often overlooked in favour of more glamorous leadership training. I make a point to ask Sean about this after the session, but it’s a testament to the rapport he creates with the class that he draws a crowd of questions at the end of his session and I miss the chance to talk to him.

At 9am, Elaine takes over from Sean to talk us through unit economics, pricing and finance. She acknowledges that in a five day bootcamp the planning will be lightweight and the financials little better than indicative. She makes an excellent point when explaining why she focuses on revenue instead of costs — nearly all of our predictions are fictional at this early stage, and the revenue determines whether any idea is worth pursuing.

Elaine’s background in engineering and her 20 years experience as a product manufacturing manager offers us some useful hints about the realities of hardware businesses. My ears prick up more than they naturally would, especially now that we’ve chosen to go into the ‘device’ business. She suggests that adding a recurring subscription revenue is going to turn a simple ‘one-and-done’ hardware sales business into a much more attractive model.

Erdin takes over from Elaine at 10am to talk about the high risk, newborn period at the beginning of a startup’s life. Removing risk as fast as possible, for as little investment as possible, is key to these infant companies’ survival. He cautions us to try and walk the tightrope of ensuring that we raise enough cash to reach our milestones, but to not fall into the trap of just wanting to ‘raise more money’ as a proxy for success.

Finally, he draws two simple flow charts on the whiteboard:

Customer -> Strategy -> Financials

NOT

Financials -> Strategy -> Customer

It’s a clear message that should be on more companies’ walls.

Checking in, and the rules are invoked

At 11am all the teams are asked to report back to the class; “what did we learn; what were your goals yesterday; what did you achieve; what are your goals for today; what do you need help with?”. As I report for the team, it feels like we’re in a good place, and I’m confident giving our answers to each question. It’s useful to see how we’re doing in comparison to the other teams, and the perspective gives us some sense that we’re clawing back some of the ground we lost while struggling for ideas.

Jose and Paul, in typically high spirits, with our awesome mentor Pavel

We’ve had occasions where tensions ran high in the team, but we’ve been extremely fortunate so far to have avoided any fights or outbursts. At lunchtime we have our first real taste of how close we really are to breaking point. One of the team has been feeling underutilised and the frustration comes close to flaring into a bigger issue. The rules we had agreed on Sunday night included a pressure valve for situations exactly like this. The problem is raised directly by the person feeling the frustration, and we drop everything else to deal with the issue.

This was a hugely brave and mature thing to do on behalf of the team member who spoke up, and I’m enormously grateful that the team responded immediately and sensitively to the problem. It saved us from a much bigger problem exploding later, and we were able to refocus our efforts to make sure that our tasks were much better balanced across everyone in the team. It’s easy to forget, when you’re busy and focused, that everyone else in the team also wants to feel busy and focused. First disaster avoided.

Our first pitch to real VCs

At 12.30pm we’re joined by Waikit Lau and Mohanjit Jolly. It’s a great pleasure to welcome them to the class, and their perspective proves to be enormously valuable. They encourage us to grow and maintain our business networks, allowing us to create our own good fortune through the reciprocal connections we build with other entrepreneurs. As my dad would tell me repeatedly as a boy, “it ain’t what you know, it’s who you know”.

Mohanjit describes to us the acronym he uses when assessing startup companies, “Three Ts and an M”: team, technology, traction and the market. Some other delightful quotes from the duo include “Are you married to me, or your startup”, and “You can divorce your wife, but not your VC”.

Sidebar: there’s a line in my notes at this point which I think deserves reporting verbatim; “these are the most amazing lectures I’ve ever been to.”

Andrew Ngui, our master of ceremonies, jumps on the group Slack channel to ask if anyone in the class would like to pitch the VCs. I tentatively ask if we’ll be doing it in front of the class or in private. The horrifying response comes back that it will be in front of the class; I consider our chance of coming up with a pitch on the spot, still raw after the elevator pitch experience of the previous day and aware that we’ve just had a major pivot that we’re not yet ready to reveal to the class. I back out, not as brave as the other teams that leap on the challenge.

Generously, Mohanjit and Waikit agree to stay on to hear all of the teams pitch, long past their allocated time with us. Almost every team has now volunteered, but we hang back until Erdin comes over and encourages us supportively to join the queue. I’m later very grateful that he did.

We step up and I pitch, a half baked affair that is better than the elevator pitch but obfuscates the sex toy in favour of the app and smartband. It’s something of a damp squib but both of our guests offer useful and encouraging feedback. It’s a great help to get the feedback, as we realise that having Czarina introduce the pitch is a critical improvement to our pitch — it will make a way more compelling and believable case coming from her. I’ll back her up with the commercial and operational slides, introducing the team and the vision.

Work and Pitching

During the afternoon, it starts to feel like real work, getting into the guts of the problem. We assign ourselves clear roles and responsibilities that we’re all bought into. The team is humming, the energy is positive and committed.

At 7.45pm we’re rushed into yet more pitches without any preparation. It’s frustrating for the team because we don’t feel that this expectation was very clearly communicated. We drop all our other task to run through as many rounds of pitching as we can to test as many pitch approaches as we can. We have no deck, no slides and the barest hint of a script.

Czarina and I have started ceaselessly repeating her introduction, and we both take turns rescripting. It improves with each pass, but I’m conscious that we’re largely only testing it on each other. I notice Elaine Chen sat with some of the other mentors and I run over to volunteer her to give us feedback. She graciously agrees, listens intently to Czarina’s intro and gives great feedback on the content and delivery. She won’t know it now, but she sets the tone for the final version we use in front of the judges on Friday, and I hope she recognises her influence then.

On the second or third attempt at the intro in front of Elaine, we actually make it all the way to our big reveal… I can still recall Elaine raising both her hands in mild shock and asking, “you don’t mean a sex toy?!”

We do.

Dance Party

At 10.30 Marius, one of the class’ chief tormentors, grabs everyone’s attention once again. He asks how many teams have done testing with fifty real users? Few teams raise their hands. Thirty? A few more. Marius looks upset with us. We await his remonstrations. In serious tones, it is declared that in order to facilitate our interviews with real users they will bring in something to help us.

A cart full of beer is trundled into the room and the lights go off. It’s not a big party, but it is a party.

Elisha was the official dance instructor for the team

After a short break while the lights are off and our workspace is largely inaccessible, we wait for the room to clear. Our team is now really feeling the pressure and we’re keen to get back to work while the partly limply rages. There’s a mixture of reactions to the booze from the other teams — some have disappeared, some have gone back to work. For others, the alcohol was a very bad idea for their team dynamics and we start to see some very frayed tempers, raised voices and combative stances. Our team largely keeps our heads down and carry on.

By midnight we’re tired and ready to call it a night. The party has cleared the halls, and we feel deserted at an unprecedentedly early hour. We’re just agreeing that we’ll also take an early night to recharge when Marius catches us, huddled on the sofas outside the classroom.

Since they heard our idea, Marius and Billy have taken a keen interest in our project. They’ve both given us a combination of useful and, between them, unhelpfully contradictory feedback. It’s unintentional, but each of them tends to give us a different steer; it’s not uncommon for Billy to send us off in one direction, only for Marius to catch us 30 minutes later and suggest another. On this occasion, Marius asks if he can spend some time with us, but tells us he needs to attend a mentor’s meeting. We’re all interested to hear what he has to say and agree to wait until he’s free.

The waiting is interminable, and our energy levels are crashing as we wait for Marius to come back. When he does get back to us, he’s apologetic and we spend another hour talking over our idea with him and listening to his feedback. When he leaves us we huddle again, trying to decide whether this is a direction we should follow or not.

This time, Marius has has pushed for a pivot of the features, ditching the smartband and being much more direct with the sex toy. He’s pursuing the much braver option, but the smartbands are Jose’s baby, and all of us in the team appreciate that they’re important to him. While we understand Marius’ feedback, after a significant discussion we decide not to remove a feature just based on his advice. Instead, we commit to only removing the bands if user feedback suggests we should. This feels like the right call — we respect the feedback, but the customers will decide.

When I shut down my laptop it’s 3.42am Boston time. I conclude, as I look out of the hotel window that it’s “not bad, if it’s not light”. This is now just another routine day on the farm.

(Continued in Part 6…)