Creating an Entrepreneurial BUzz: Interview with Ian Mashiter

October 5, 2016


Ian Mashiter is Director of Entrepreneurship Activities at Boston University Questrom School of Business, where he runs the BUzz lab. They run a variety of programs for students across the university, including a business plan competition, a summer accelerator, hosting speakers, housing early stage startups, coordinating with entrepreneurship groups on campus, and connecting students to the broader ecosystem in Boston. Ian is also a member of the Hub Management Investment Group and worked at a number of interesting companies before coming to BU:

  • Chairman, BioMimetic Systems: Audio sensor equipment for military applications.
  • CEO Quarry Technologies: Computer Networking
  • Founder and VP Marketing, Ennovate Networks:IP provisioning
  • Director International Marketing, General DataComm: Network Access Equipment

Entrepreneurship at BU and Beyond:

Ian started mentoring at BU, when he was asked to help a BU spin off with structural issues regarding the organization of company. He got to know people at BU, connecting to Peter Russo, who was staffing entrepreneurship classes. That was in 2010 and things ‘snowballed’ from there.

The BUzz lab formed in 2014 and their remit is to stimulate entrepreneurship across campus. The BUzz lab is not just a business school resource. They run a variety of programs including the New Venture Competition, boot camps, and the Summer Accelerator Program (previously the New Venture Summer Camp Program, which I participated in in 2014, when I was working on a lead prioritization solution with Keith Waters). They help coordinate activities with undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship clubs at BU. They also host speakers. Although a lot of students come from Questrom and engineering, there are medical and dental, journalism, and other students. They are starting an initiative for fine arts students, because when they graduate they are likely to be hanging out their shingles, building their businesses.

I asked Ian about current and past BUzz Lab companies that he was excited about and he said that it was their mission to connect students team to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. They have some nice success stories, with three teams amongst the current MassChallenge final 128 companies. Spaces to Go, Sonique, and Buttery all spent the summer there. Ian is proud of the work the BUzz Lab provides to early stage companies, preparing them to take advantage of other resources in the city. Another company that is gaining traction is Unitiques, which provides the ability to buy and sell clothes on campus. The founder, Alexandra Shadrow will be on a major TV show soon.

In terms of current startups at BU, there were 25 applicants, a record number in the BU Venture Accelerator run by students, and 30 applicants for the summer program, also record number. So the touch points are increasing. But they help students, not just form teams, not just in venture creation, but in terms of business education, providing an entrepreneurial mindset to help them be successful when the right opportunity comes around. Students might not find success with the company they start now; but hopefully students get the structure, knowledge, and skills for down the road.

(Two of the companies from the 2014 summer camp cohort that I was in are: Wizdy: “Wizdy leverages games to empower kids to cultivate healthy lifestyle habits”, and ACEA: “ACEA makes it easier for licensed healthcare professionals to continue their education by connecting them with educators in the medical, dental, and other healthcare fields.”)

Teaching Entrepreneurship

Ian just got back from a conference about entrepreneurship programs around the country. He said a lot of universities are focused on entrepreneurship, which is great to see, and it is important to remember that they are on the same side — not competing with each other. The more companies created, the more jobs we create, the greater it is for the US economy. They are some fantastic programs out there, and not just at big schools like BU, but also small liberal arts schools with active entrepreneurship programs. So there is a wave of entrepreneurship going on. The Harvard ilab is only a few years old, but is a great program, Babson is branded around entrepreneurship, Northeastern is strong, as is MIT, clearly.

I asked Ian about the teaching and mentoring approach at the BUzz lab, noting that we used the Lean Canvas in the 2014 summer program. Ian said that their job is getting student teams to engage with customers as early as possible. They should interview customers properly to determine if they have the same problems that the students think they are solving. So it is about customer validation, giving them the tools validate their business. Ian says that the Lean Canvas is a nice, easy way to develop a business model. Students generate hypotheses and validate or invalidate those hypotheses, getting an understanding of what people want.

I asked Ian about technology push versus market pull and he said that people often start with technologies; but that can sometimes be the wrong way to approach it. The answer is outside the classroom. He gets students to talk to potential customers, focusing on a problem to solve, asking potential customers if it is already being solved.

I cited Henry Ford who said that if he had interviewed customers they would have said that wanted a faster horse, rather than a car. Ian said that it is key is to validate the problem, not the solution. You want to understand their lives. So you don’t want to present them with X, Y, or Z; nor are asking them to tell you what to build. Rather, you are focused on the problem that needs solving. Ian said that Steve Jobs was fond of saying that he did not ask customers what they wanted. But he did ask them how their lives would be different if they used his products. I asked Ian about customers identifying their ‘perceived needs’ rather than what they really need and he said that entrepreneurs need to figure that out by engaging with customers, knowing how to engage skillfully, getting to the big problems that they really need solved.

I asked Ian what kinds of startups he would like to see, and he said that he would like to see entrepreneurs solve big problems, rather than small problems. Students tend to look at their own life situations, in terms of the things that bother them, which is understandable; but that tends to lead them to solving small problems. He said that if you think about the problems in the world: resource problems such as water shortage which will one of the big problems, climate change, families not able to feed their children…these are the problems that entrepreneurs should address. They should go after those problems, not just create the latest app for finding the right nightclub. When I asked him about the challenge for small entrepreneurs in addressing those issues, he said that the entrepreneurial approach to problem solving could be used in bigger companies, which could be just as useful. He said that problem solving skills are increasingly expected as students go into the work place; companies want independent thinkers, that is the nature of the modern workforce.

The BUzz Lab hosted the 2016 Spring Junior Achievement (JA) Academy with the Snapstand Team, which one the first annual JA Student Leadership Summit ) so I asked Ian about connecting high school, college, and post-college entrepreneurship. He said that he has seen more high school, and even middle school, programs, and that it is great to introduce them to entrepreneurship as early as possible, before college, before they get locked into other mind sets. So they sponsored JA, with the belief that it is “a good thing for our children and good for our country.” Ian said that entrepreneurship is what differentiates the US from other countries, because it is a powerful force in the economy providing innovation, with an independent mindset of about building things and trying and failing and trying again. We have a culture that rewards that and we need to do more of that.

Ian said that his teaching approach is experiential, getting students exposed to real world problems, rather than in the classroom listening to him talk. Mentorship is very important and they have a strong alumni network of mentors who are there, not to direct, but to help and advise students.

So they focus on creating mentors who understand that, particularly those who take a Socratic approach. He said it is a powerful force and research has shown that companies with good mentors are more successful.

BU is putting more time and resources into entrepreneurship and Ian is excited about the multidisciplinary teams that bring different skill-sets from across campus. He likes to see well-balanced teams — rather than have three business students who are buddies — instead, have an engineering person, a design person, and a business person. The BUzz lab is hosting a two-day summit for fine arts students, so he is excited about that, to see the creative side of things, broadening the base of budding entrepreneurs.