The MIT Global Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp — Part 6

Or, the time five people from five continents pitched a sex toy at MIT (read Part 5)

Thursday 11th August

It’s now tough to get up in the morning, and I snap awake with a flood of adrenaline as the alarm sounds, feeling like it’s just minutes since I closed my eyes. I’m sure every one of the bootcampers is experiencing exactly the same thing.

I’m now intentionally pushing my wake up time back to about 7am to regain an extra thirty minutes, purposefully managing my sleep as a scant resource. I’m keenly aware of the physiological effects that this will be having on us, but however bad every other day has been, today — the last full day working on our projects — will be much worse. It’s 7.30am by the time I walk to campus and blazing hot already.

An expert opinion

At 5.30am, Paul had left me a message in our Slack channel to cover an interview with a relationship counselor in London at 8am. He had arranged to get some professional feedback on the product, which we’re now calling ‘Symmetry’. We want to run through the idea for the mobile app, the smartband and, finally, the sex toy itself.

This call is a critical moment in the development of the product. As I introduce myself, it’s still a little odd to be openly discussing sex and sex toys with a stranger and I’m dancing around the words ‘sex’ and ‘vibrator’. The counselor pulls me up on this, and tells me that I need to “just introduce the topic head on, and immediately”. It’s an important message that the whole team incorporate into our pitch and our conversations for the next couple of days. Anyone speaking to us after the call will probably have noticed we became much more direct when discussing our product after Thursday morning.

The rest of the call serves as a profound reminder of the significance of the problem we’re tackling. I’m told that a lack of physical intimacy is a contributor in three out of ten relationship breakdowns. Furthermore, for three of the counselor’s most recent clients, all women, they hadn’t had sex with their husbands for an average of 4 years (the shortest was one year, the longest ten years).

It’s obvious that some high tech gadget isn’t going to solve this deep and intricate problem. People in long distance relationships miss out on companionship, shared hobbies and visceral, sensory cues like smell and touch. We’ll only be scratching the surface of a much deeper issue.

As we talk through our app and how it’s intended to keep couples in contact, the counsellor suggests that for her, just as for Marius last night, the wristband is nothing more than a distraction and the app of little obvious benefit. She describes how intrusive she would find it if her partner was following her movements (something we had seen as a comforting feature), and is cool to the idea of transmitting a simple haptic tap or squeeze via the band.

We turn to the toy, which she starts off equally ambivalent towards. For her clients, spicing up their sex life is an important part of her counselling and she sees that the toy is an empowering tool, but is curious why ours will be any different to anything else on the market.

She becomes much more engaged with the conversation when I mention that the the man can control the woman’s toy remotely. Naturally, she questions how this is reciprocated for the man — is it just one sided? Why can the woman not do something for the man in return? Perhaps too quickly, our team had decided just to focus on the female toy, and her interest in the reciprocity encourages me to follow up this decision again with the team later.

The counselor starts to explore creative options around the style of toys and options for the couples. This is something which the team have already been considering for repeat and follow on sales, as well as opportunities for licencing deals, and I’m pleased to be able to hear that it’s something valuable.

She also asks a great question, “how is the toy controlled?” As we talk, the rather unhygienic impact of our original design decision to control the toy via the smartphone app occurs to me, and

I make a mental note to come up with an alternative. In honesty, my mental note I take is “ewww, sticky”. Suddenly I realise that the answer to the control question has been with us since the beginning of the week — the motion sensors in the band will allow us to design a much more interesting control mechanism. Of course, importantly, and unlike a smartphone we can also make sure the band is built with a wipe clean finish. These, dear audience, are the types of decisions you need to make when you’re thinking of entering the internet of things sex-toy manufacturing industry.

Paul cautions me on the risks of confusing ‘gross profit’ and ‘gross revenue’

As we end the call the tone is very positive and encouraging. The nature of these long distance sex toys, with a degree of control for the partner, is enough to spark her interest. The counselor asks me to let her know if we take Symmetry to market, and, prompted by a gleeful inner marketing imp, I ask her if she would be willing to endorse us. She replies that she’d be happy to, as long as she likes it.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a long way towards a signed letter of intent, and I put the phone down humming with energy. This thirty minute conversation has given us a professional endorsement and rescued Jose’s smartbands from the trashcan of innovation. I send my notes from the call to the team, restless to get back to talk to them.

“Plan it — it’s theatre”

Thursday is a day of considerably fewer hours of lectures, and much more time with the team. Everybody in every team is grateful for this, very aware of the minutes sliding away until the pitch tomorrow morning.

To kick the day off, Gihan Amarasiriwardena from the Ministry of Supply takes the stage to talk through convertible debt, equity rounds, lines of credit, manufacturing payment terms and crowdfunding (a la Kickstarter). We had considered a crowd-funding route for Symmetry, but we were surprised to find out that sex toys breached their terms for acceptable products (you should head to Indiegogo if you want to be an early adopter for vibrators, apparently).

Gihan also tells us that he didn’t take salary for six months and was working from the walk-in closet of an MIT frat house. I’m impressed not only by his dedication and grit, but also that MIT frat houses have walk-in closets.

Gihan is followed at 9.30am by Elaine, who gives us tips on our impending ten minute pitch. She makes a point that everyone in the team seems to note down simultaneously, and we start nodding vigorously across the table at each other — if you can finish the pitch early it gives you more time for questions. We excitedly agree to to aim for our pitch to hit seven minutes.

Elaine’s lecture has reminded me that I need to drill the pitch over and over again for the rest of the day. It’s been my role over the week, as the nominal CEO, to take responsibility for Friday’s actual pitch. Now we have Elisha in charge of the deck and Czarina doing the intro I’m conscious that I’m going to need to practice my part continuously throughout the day. I’m also very aware of the importance of sleep to our physical ability to actually speak, and that Czarina and I will need to get at least 3–4 hours sleep tonight. We’ll need to be wrapped up with the deck and confident of our delivery by 3am.

Not a chance.

The 24 steps

At 10am we’re grateful to have time set aside for the team and we focus on the pitch and closing off any 24 Steps that are lacking. There are still gaping holes and my job is to try and keep the team throwing the biggest, ugliest rocks into them to fill them. We raise new kanban tasks for areas we’re not happy with and prioritise them accordingly — I’m quietly confident as I see the ‘Done’ column in the kanban on the whiteboard filling up with many of the 24 Steps, and feel a glimmer of hope that we’ll finish with time to get some sleep.

At 12.30pm we have a lunch and lecture session with Antón García-Abril, an inspiring architect on the MIT faculty who spends time to talk with us about how he combines physical and digital social spaces.

Radically, he has made it compulsory for all computer screens in his architecture business to be shared at all times — no management, no hierarchy, just peer review — anyone in the business could judge you at any time. The company also has a policy of no physical meetings; work meetings are held over Google Hangouts. Meetings in person had to have a requirement for some sort of physical interaction, something Antón suggests should only be for parties. He leaves us with his rule that if interaction can be digital + physical, great. However, if it’s a choice between one or the other, it must be digital, so that the company can work together, wherever they are in the world.

— — —

Another quick sidebar, which I made as I looked around at the exhausted teams grafting on their projects: It occurs to me that given the average ability and intellect of the people on this course, their salaries should be significant. They’re spending 21 hours a day working on projects and they’re not getting paid for it. Not only are they not getting paid — they actually paid for it themselves. Incredible. Clearly, the answer to workforce productivity problems is to invite everyone to pay to go to work.

— — —

After the breakout session for lunch, our team go straight back to working on the deck and practicing the pitch. Czarina and I are running through the pitch anywhere we can, which includes any reasonably vacant hallway.

A final run in with the mentors

At 5pm, we have a scheduled pitch to the mentors. Marius and Billy are back, this time joined by the brilliant Jorge Sanchez Lopez. They’re a forthright and direct group who give us another hard time, but the feedback is another critical opportunity for us to improve. I’m not sure, but I remember hoping that they are this tough with us because they believe we can take it, rather than because they think we’re useless. As a result of this session with the mentors, we make several critical improvements to the pitch, including reframing our persona and completely changing our ‘ask’ to the VCs. Once again, the feedback massively improves our product.

At 7pm, after the team have reconvened into our corner, Jorge comes to find us and beats us up thoroughly over our market segmentation, puffing in dissatisfaction each time we put a foot wrong. As soon as Jorge leaves, Paul leaps animatedly into action. Throughout the week he’d been funny, philosophical, thoughtful and supportive. Now though, the finance demon in him won the battle to get out. Rushing to the board, as the rest of the team watched in amusement and surprise, he cleared himself a huge white space and spun to confront us.

For the next hour, he drove us through the most dynamic and complete market segmentation we had been through; the one we had been missing at the beginning of the week. As he furiously attacked the whiteboard, the segmentation process made it clear who we were targeting — a primary market of people in long distance relationships, a follow-on of couples working long and anti-social hours.

Suddenly, the rest of the steps fell into place and we had our first clear run at the steps for the first time of the week. Market segmentation flowed into our beachhead, to our persona, to our business model and pricing framework and into our final pitch. With Jorge as the catalyst and Paul embracing his inner Chief Financial Officer, the energy was crackling around the team.

Paul, literally on fire. You just can’t see it.

We’re now more focused than ever on the goal tomorrow. We all know that we have an amazingly capable team, perhaps uniquely well balanced to deliver this pitch. Not only might we be in a position to take a podium spot, but we also have the talent and ability to build the company if we wanted to. We turn to our final tasks for the last day; Paul and Jose will work on the costs and finances, Czarina and I will continue drilling the pitch and Elisha shoulders the burden of finalising the PowerPoint deck.

Over the next few hours the energy level doesn’t drop, but the team take turns to nap and come back to the team refreshed. I grab 20 minutes on a couch at 3am, but find it impossible to sleep despite the fatigue. In part, some of the pressure is in knowing that I need to sleep in order to be able to pitch audibly at 9am. My voice is already by turns squeaky and croaky, and I’m conscious that I’ve not seen a finished slide deck.

I make a note at 4.46am invoking the informal bootcamp motto,

“It’s currently 0446 am — we’re definitely not sleeping today, but that’s OK. Sleep’s for the weak.”

By 5am the finance and cost models are amazingly strong. Building from the bottom up, under Paul’s guidance and with Jose’s expertise, we’ve considered unit pricing, failure rates, warranty repairs and returns (quite how we decided to deal with repairs is an article on its own), shipping and storage, delivery and customer service. We’ve built models for a go-to-market strategy that incorporates everything from channel sales via professional therapists, to blogging and content writing, through PPC, retargeting and SEO. We’ve even been put in touch, through a contact at the bootcamp, with a manufacturer of luxury sex toys, and reached out to him to discuss partnerships and licensing.

Paul is in awe of Jose’s pricing — he’s been in touch constantly throughout the week with Chinese manufacturers to build the bill of materials. Similarly, I’m in awe of the work that Paul is doing. When his bottom up model is complete he compares it with Fitbit’s published results to find that we’re within three percentage points of every budget line. The financials are rock solid (even though we’re not yet making any money until year five). Elaine and Erdin may have stressed that we should focus on unit economics, but we’ve got the works.

One final pivot for luck

One thing isn’t going so well though. Despite all this incredible work, I’ve not pitched at all since the last attempt to the mentors at 5pm. Czarina and I have practiced her introduction repeatedly, but I’m now very concerned that we’ve significantly changed the flow of my slides. We start to discuss how we’ll bring in Paul’s numbers, which are critical to this being a real pitch and not an advert. It’s clear that Paul needs to be on the stage, but I’m concerned, from a stage management point of view, how we’ll manage the handovers. I’ve still not seen the deck I need to learn.

To make things worse, the 7am submission deadline for the slide deck is fast approaching, and the pressure is now all on Elisha who is solely responsible for the PowerPoint file. As the minutes tick by, with around 15 minutes to go before the doors slam shut on us, Elisha’s Mac hangs. We can’t save the deck. The last version we had is missing some critical updates and corrections, but my finger is hovering over the upload button; better a crappy deck than being excluded on a technicality. This close to the end, I refuse to be beaten by a Mac.

Elisha will recall better than I do just how irritating it was to desperately try to save a file while I bark at him for updates every minute. In retrospect, we recall the situation as verging on the ridiculous — Elisha silently fighting his computer to just save a file, me furiously demanding updates, Paul trying to open the file on his own laptop, all while Czarina is calmly reading the judges’ biographies out loud to us. I wish I had a video of this, the most sublime and ridiculous moment of the bootcamp so far.

The file is uploaded at exactly 6:59am (Andrew can check Dropbox for the number of seconds we had left). There’s relief, but no jubilation yet.

Completing the deck has made something clear — my part in the presentation just isn’t working. I’m sandwiched between Czarina’s awesome introduction and Paul’s critical financial and operational knowledge. The dawning realisation I’ve been avoiding for the last couple of hours finally breaks through. If I pitch, we’ll lose. The moment I’ve been setting myself up for all week just isn’t going to work in front of the judges. I’m frustrated and upset, not because I have any ego tied up in pitching, but because the solution is obvious to me. I have to let Paul, with next to no preparation, pitch to the judges. I feel like I’ve let the team down enormously.

I bring the team together to tell them that Paul needs to take over my part of the pitch. We were gifted during the week to have amazing speakers within the group, and it’s testament to our riches that Paul, Elisha and Jose weren’t used in any of the previous pitches despite the fact that they easily could have done. Right now though, it’s Paul who has the critical knowledge we need to demonstrate on stage. I know that if I don’t step down from presenting all our work will fail at the last hurdle. This is little consolation as Paul agrees to take over with a terrified look in his eyes.

(To be continued in the final part)