Why we started Play Labs VR/AR accelerator @ MIT

Part I — the accelerator structure (first published on the Play Labs blog)

I co-founded my first startup barely a year after graduating from MIT and it was definitely like “being thrown into the deep end” without any training or a life raft. I told the story of some of our struggles in my first book, Zen Entrepreneurship. It was a case of blindly finding our way through the wilderness without a map.

With Play Labs I wanted to create an accelerator that was a half-way point between being a student (or employee for recent alums) and being “cut loose” in the wild jungle of entrepreneurship.

More specifically, we designed Play Labs for both MIT students and alumni so that they could have what we didn’t have in those days: Funding, Facilities, Mentorship and Peer Support.

FUNDING.

We literally had no funding when we launched my very first startup, Brainstorm. We barely had enough money to buy our first few computers. In those days we did what was called the “Lechmere” shuffle, which later became the “’Best Buy” shuffle –we would buy computers and return them within 30 days, then buy new computers.

Not only were we not paying ourselves in those early days, but we borrowed $5,000 from my co-founder Mitch’s parents just so we could afford to buy plane tickets and tickets for a conference in Florida where we wanted to launch our product!

Luckily, our first product launch went well enough (we sold copies right on the trade show floor) that we were able to pay back the loan, and still had enough money left over to finally buy our first few computers outright! We were then able, based on the success of our product launch, to raise a little more money from family and friends to get an office space and get the company properly set up.

The initial funding we’re at offering at Play Labs to our participants ($20k) is just enough to get a startup going, with basic technology needs (no more doing the Best Buy shuffle!), expenses for any travel (no need to borrow from your parents for that trip to visit a customer or attend a conference!), and provide each member of the team some basic living stipend during the summer. The amount is also not so much that the startup is in danger of spending money on anything that is non-essential. If the startup is able to meet certain milestones, we will put in more funding (as part of a seed round) to help it get to the next level.

FACILITIES.

In my first startup, we were literally two guys in a garage (without the garage — we started our first company in the living room of our apartment in Framingham — I have always contended that garages in New England are too cold in the winter for startups!). While this had the added benefit of being able to work late into the night and then roll into bed, it wasn’t an ideal situation and could only last so long.

After we had raised some seed money from family and friends, we found an office space in Cambridge, but had to sign a lease, which was another novel experience for someone who’d never done it before. Would we have enough cash to pay rent for the whole year? We weren’t sure, but went ahead anyways and then had to buy furniture, too.

The Play Labs incubator was designed to give startup teams workspace on the MIT campus, with other like-minded teams of students and alumni. No having to sign leases or buy furniture or worry about conference rooms.

Moreover, being in the same space with other entrepreneurs is part of how the program is designed. I believe that having exposure to other scan be inspirational and supportive, which is why we’ll be housing the various teams together so they can get ideas and help each other.

MENTORSHIP AND PEER SUPPORT.

My first startup, like most startups (first or second or third!), was very stressful.

During those days, I attended a CEO group in Cambridge of other entrepreneurs and mentors that was very helpful in keeping my sanity. Although I wasn’t doing video games at the time, some of the other members of the group were, including Shawn Broderick of Genetic Anomalies and Alex Rigopolous of Harmonix. Seeing the struggles that the other entrepreneurs in my group were going through was strangely therapeutic — not only did it make me feel less alone as a CEO, it helped to know that others were going through similar battles and surviving, if not thriving!

I had many mentors during my first startup, most of who I met along the way and rather randomly. These advisors ranged from seasoned managers to insightful investors (including MIT alums like Brad Feld, and Joe Hadzima, who teaches the Nuts and Bolts course at MIT) and many others. They did everything from invest themselves to providing intros to VCs to help me in the hiring process.

The Play Labs program is meant to provide a more formal way to get mentorship. In addition to Peer Support Groups, the MIT Game Lab faculty & staff are here to help with product development and design; the business mentors will help with various aspects of the startup, including providing introductions and advice on launching the startup. We will also provide support for how to structure the company, founder equity and other legal issues. We will also have many speakers who are relevant to the industries that our startups will be in — and I know in my own experience hearing about a successful (or even unsuccessful) startup in my industry is always a thought-provoking experience that can motivate an entrepreneur in many ways.

In summary, I designed Play Labs so that the next generation of MIT entrepreneurs will have many of the things that I didn’t when I did my first startup as a fresh faced recent grad, and many of the things I had to discover along the way on my own! Onward together!

Riz Virk is managing partner at Bayview Capital, and Executive Director of Play Labs — an accelerator for MIT students and alums using playful tech. Find out more at www.playlabs.tv, www.bayviewlabs.com
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