The MIT Global Entrepreneur’s Bootcamp — Part 7
Or, the time five people from five continents pitched a sex toy at MIT (read Part 6)
Friday 12th August
Notes from last night: “Powerpoint is a pile of shit.”
Previously, at the MIT Bootcamp, we had uploaded our slide deck with seconds to spare and Paul had just been told he was going to be presenting to the judges with no preparation. The good news? There was vanishingly little time left to think about the judges and the sleep deprivation was starting to dull the edges of reality. While we were hyped up and nervous, Paul and Czarina especially and rightfully so, we had begun to feel that we might just survive.
Breakfast was served between 7am and 8am, but we decided it was more important to find walk the stage and get comfortable with the layout. The twelve teams were split across three locations, four teams pitching in this first round of heats. Two teams will progress from each heat, leaving six teams pitching in the final.
As we leave the Sloan building to head to our first round at the Martin Trust Centre, we realise just how rough we look. Looking around, we realise that our best chance to pull off any look that wasn’t ‘distressed hobo’ is to zip up our ceremonial MIT bootcamp jackets, freshly out of their packaging from the day before, and hope the audience think they are a uniform. If you think we look smart in the pictures of us pitching, the jackets are achingly hot, but hiding the detritus of a very long day.
When we arrive at the Martin Trust Centre, the doors are still locked but we can see a technician inside rigging the AV. Batting our eyelashes imploringly (but perhaps looking like a still-fresh zombie invasion) we manage to convince him that we’re supposed to be inside. When he opens the door we rush in to make the most of the extra practice time, setting Paul and Czarina up in the small auditorium.
Over the next hour we hold court in our sneaky hideout while a few other early starters arrive. This final opportunity to practice is absolutely critical, letting us perfect our timing and handovers, choreographing our entry and exit and making sure we all know our positions on the stage relative to each other and the audience. I don’t want to leave anything to chance and we repeatedly drill how the entire team will work together and how our two star performers will be framed on centre stage. This stage management may seem like a waste of time given our other priorities, but I have Elaine Chen’s words still ringing in my ears; “Plan it. It’s theatre”.
Dancing is a survival skill
Other bootcampers will probably recall our team dancing throughout the week, especially late at night. Whenever other teams were reaching for the coffee, we’d start another jig. Before our first pitch, and as our fellow bootcampers arrived at the Martin Trust Centre, we danced to samba, R&B and Ricky Martin.
After the day we’d had, I no longer cared, the dancing keeping us awake, getting the blood flowing and mostly just being stupid fun. The other teams looked at us with a mix of amusement and disbelief, wondering aloud how we had the energy to dance. The reality was, if we hadn’t been dancing, we would have fallen down.
When you’re stressed, exhausted and up against a deadline take a few minutes to dance. It costs less than coffee and is better for you (even if, like me, you dance like a hippopotamus).
Meet Rose Marie. Or as I call her, Rosie.
The pitching order is random and I’m thrilled that we’re picked first. It means we have less time to second guess ourselves, less time for the stress to build and no chance to be overawed by the other presentations. We walk the few steps to the front of the room, taking care to place ourselves as we’d practiced, Paul to the left of the audience, Czarina to the right, flanked by the rest of the team.
Czarina opens, her style chatty, informal and engaging. Until now, very few other bootcampers know what we’re really working on — the mentors and a few close classmates are the only ones to have been brought in on the surprise. Many others have been expressing a deep interest to know why we’re being so secretive.
Czarina approaches the reveal, threading a tale of relationship difficulties and a lack of physical intimacy. We’re still teasing the audience, dancing around the topic until we confront it. “Let’s face it”, continues Czarina. “We’re talking about sex”.
The audience notably perk up. We’ve got their interest. As Czarina walks through her perfect pitch, she nails each part of the delivery. “A toy for her, and one for him. Or one for him, and …. him. Or her and her…”
Paul takes over seamlessly, launching into his unique and personal style, continuing the story of our star-crossed personas, separated by a plane ride. He leads into the route to market, the advertising, the financials. It’s spot on. There’s no doubt in my mind that Paul had to take the speaking role. He closes his prepared slides with ample time for questions. They nailed it. The team stands, ready for questions from the floor.
There’s a question about our finances; as Paul starts to answer, Elisha flicks the screen to the detailed finance slide. It’s poetry. I scan the audience, just in time to see Elaine’s smile as she sees the detail we’ve got packed into this appendix. I remember hoping that she felt some small amount of pride in what she saw, her coaching and Paul and Jose’s brilliance with numbers at work.
As part of our preparation, we’d also made sure we’d been very clear about who was going to take each question, so that we looked unified under any pressure. Paul bats away questions about the operational and commercial aspects with aplomb. A question about the smartphone app is raised, and Elisha, our software expert, deftly takes the question and manages to describe how the smartband has the bonus functionality we’d designed at the beginning of the week. Under pressure, he’s managed to reveal an easter egg feature. Genius.
To a glowing reception from the rest of the audience, we leave the front of the room and re-take our seats. Watching the amazing pitches that follow ours, it’s hard not to worry that we won’t make it through this round. We may have an audience pleasing pitch, but it’s the judges we need to impress and the level of the other teams is superb, many with big, social challenges to address. It takes an eternity to watch them follow us.
As the final pitch ends and we leave the Martin Trust building, we’re elated. While the pitch had gone better than we could have hoped, the most important thing to the team was that we gave it everything. As a team, it’s hard to know how we could have done more to get over the line. Winning, now, was secondary to the feeling that we’d done our best. As I turned to the team in the deserted foyer I clearly remember saying to them, “It doesn’t matter if we win, we came to MIT and pitched a sex toy”. We agreed this was pretty awesome.
They think it’s all over
But, of course, it isn’t. We’d only come part of the way. We now need to wait to find out if we’ve taken one of the spots to proceed to the finals. We’re hopeful, but at the same time success means that we’ll need to pitch again, to a bigger audience.
We head over to the MIT Tang Center, home to a much larger and more imposing auditorium. We loiter with all the other teams, waiting for the verdict and hearing from other teams how much they enjoyed our pitch and the product. Many are complimentary that we’d tackled a taboo topic and addressed an elephant in the room that they identified with. It’s a great feeling, but overshadowed by the threat of having to take the stage again.
As we’re called into the auditorium to take our seats, Bill Aulet introduces a judge from each of the three heats to announce their winners. We make it. We’re going to pitch again.
No such luck with the order this time, and we have to sit and wait until the penultimate spot. Four of the five other team pitches are new to us, and again the quality is exceptional. I know that we’ve got a mountain to climb, but with Paul and Czarina furiously rehearsing in their seats, there’s little more that I can do than ensure we’ve all got our jackets on.
This pitch is exceptional. The heats in the Martin Trust Center and the feedback from the other bootcampers has given us renewed confidence. Czarina and Paul deliver their best attempt yet, and the house is metaphorically taken down. It’s an audience triumph, and the picture showing the close of the pitch tells all the story that any team could ever want. So. Fucking. Proud.
We know we’ve done well, the looks on our faces telling every story necessary about how good we feel, and how close we are as a team. Win or lose, we know we’re done and that the game is over. It’s a good feeling.
When the final team has taken the stage we retire from the Tang Centre to a barbecue outside on the MIT lawns. The heat is incredible in the sun, somewhere between open flame and gas burner. I grab a seat at the table, not interested in the food, but lucky enough to sit with Bill Aulet and flanked by the rest of our inseparable team, with Billy and Pavel within hugging distance.
Bill’s called off to announce the results. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if we score a spot on the podium, but I really don’t mind if we don’t. Thinking back to our goals as a team we’ve achieved everything we set out to do. We did our best. We had fun. We were incredibly close as a group. These are the things that matter, and what we committed to achieving.
Bill’s closing speech turns to announcing the winners. Amongst our team, Keiana Cavé, Karan Jerath and Djamila Yousef are hot favourites with an amazing product and a staggering pitch. The fact that their team only has three members makes their place in the final even more incredible and I’m nearly positive that they’ll win.
Turns out I’m wrong again — Keiana, Karan and Djamila take third place. I’m in disbelief, just long enough to hear Bill start to announce second place, with some reference that makes the barbecue-eating tent swell with laughter. It’s clear that the rest of the bootcamp know what’s coming.
“In second place, Symmetry!”
Unbelievable. I couldn’t feel better even if we’d won. It’s a staggering, humbling and emotional achievement. After this little sleep, I’m also deliriously convinced that second place is twice as good as first.
First place quite rightly goes to the Psquared team (Bárbara EA, Jaime Rodrigo Vargas Tabarini, Tulio Castillo, Nidhi Sharma, Oluwadotun Akinseinde and the fearless Erwin Chan) who pitch a staggeringly well considered and thoughtful product, Pliment — spools of filament for 3D printers with bioplastic made from waste orange peel.
After group photos, certificates being awarded and a stern warning to get some sleep before our night out this evening, I head back to the hotel to do exactly that. As I walk into my room at the Kendall and scan the room, I realise that I’ve not seen any television in a week. I’m no worse off for it.
Here’s to the people who make it happen
The offical end to this incredibly emotional experience is dinner at Post 390 in Boston which starts at 6pm. Waking up, slightly refreshed, at 4pm, Google Maps tells me I’ve got ample time to grab a shower and walk over the Charles River to be there in time. After an almost entirely sedentary week, I’m looking forward to the chance to move around again. I’ve missed exercise.
When I step out of the hotel, the weather is oppressive. It’s 95 degrees, humid and raining, but I wouldn’t trade the walk for an air conditioned cab. I realise, for the first time, that Boston is a surprisingly attractive city, smaller and more quaint than I’d expected. Mystic River and The Departed have a lot to answer for.
I’m early to Post 390 and catch up with Steve Nelson and his wife. Steve is the event manager for the Bootcamp who, at 5am this morning, we had startled as he arrived to tidy up the mess of the chaotic bootcampers. I had spotted Steve several times during the week, always quietly and strategically positioned to make sure the massive food deliveries and intravenous coffee stocks were ready for our arrival at 7am every day. I suddenly realised, as he told me that he’d also arranged the dinner at Post 390, that Steve was an invisible force behind the smooth running of the entire week.
Steve — and many other uncredited heroes who we hadn’t noticed — are due an incredible amount of thanks for ensuring that a hundred bootcampers, mentors, lecturers and guests were able to get the most out of the week. Steve, if you’re reading this and you’re ever in London, your drinks are on me.
More overjoyed bootcampers arrive and swarm around the bar, a mixture of exhaustion and cocktails fueling our elation. It feels good to be free, too early to be sad it’s over.
As we’re all moved through into the restaurant area, the three winning teams are chaperoned into a smaller, private room. It feels a bit odd to be away from the other teams, but a privilege to be recognised. The meal continues and it’s palpably the end of a long week. Those in our dining room who are unfortunate enough to be falling asleep at the table between courses are punished with an impromptu dance lesson from Elisha.
As the meal wraps up, we head back to the bar. By now, I’m definitely feeling the limits of my ability to function without any more sleep. Despite being harassed by Billy and David, another entrepreneur on the course, I manage to avoid the nightclub that follows.
I arrive back at the hotel room and trudge up the stairs to the 3rd floor. I remember pottering around the room and then finding myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at my own unfamiliar face. I don’t feel like I belong to it anymore, a waxwork impression of a face I don’t really recognise. Finally, the adrenaline and willpower has dissipated and it’s time to sleep.
(To conclude with the Afterword)