How to Start a Startup @ MIT
Hey you. Yea, you. In the blue Dropbox shirt. Hurriedly pushing past the obnoxiously slow tourists in the Infinite. Speed walking towards Stata. I know you’re in a rush but I have just a couple questions to ask you. What course are you? Ah, 6. Big surprise there. Well, the joys of 005 can wait, there’s something I want to talk to you about first. Have you ever considered starting a company? Yea like a startup! You have? Awesome! So how’s it going? What would help you move faster?
“I don’t know where to start”
“I have an idea but I don’t have time”
“I’m not quite sure what the next step is”
There are some of the common responses I’ve heard around campus. Not just from Course 6 (EECS, for our non-MIT readers), but across all departments and ages. And you know what? It’s not surprising at all! Like many things at MIT, the entrepreneurial ecosystem is extremely fragmented. For every resource you need, there are three groups that offer it, and a million different paths to take through all of them. It’s a total mess, and it’s totally perfect. The chaos and firehose of options are exactly what makes us MIT, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Having said that, it can be pretty insane for anyone to navigate when trying to start a company, particularly if it’s their first time.
Before we get started
Heads up: every section is going to have a bit of me rambling, preceded by a tl;dr. Skip between those if you aren’t a fan of my verbosity.
I’m a 6–3 senior that’s helped start companies, and manages a student-run venture fund. This is not a comprehensive guide to resources. This is an opinionated entrepreneurial path through MIT.
So who am I? Why am I qualified to be telling you about this? Truth is, I’m not. I don’t think anyone really is. But leaving it at that wouldn’t get us anywhere, so I’m going to draw on some of my experiences to make a best-effort attempt. I’ve spent time at MIT lost, eager to explore entrepreneurship but not knowing where to start. I’ve spent time at MIT sleep-deprived and obsessed, staying up ‘till sunrise to hack away on a cool new startup. I’ve spent time at MIT leading, helping run various organizations that have a lot of awesome entrepreneurs involved with them. Most importantly though, I’m a rising 6–3 senior who’s super pumped about all the amazing stuff being started around campus, and I want more of my peers to get involved.
What this isn’t
Steve Haraguchi of the MIT Innovation Initiative once told me that it wasn’t his goal to abstract away any of the fragmentation in resources on campus, but instead to provide a comprehensive guide of the possibilities. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’d recommend checking out the excellent site they’ve put together. What I’m going to do today is a little different.
What this is
I should also warn you that I lied a bit. This is not in fact a guide on how to start a startup at MIT. If you know exactly what you want to build, have a team ready and waiting, and customers lining up to pay you, then this article probably isn’t for you. Get off the internet and start hacking. Seriously, go do it. The hardest part is getting started.
This is more of a “I’m a student at MIT who’s interested in starting a company one day and have some cool ideas but have no clue what comes next” guide. It will be a very opinionated, very limited look at what I think one viable path through the chaos looks like. And to show you that path, I need to introduce you to Joe.
Joe is a sophomore at MIT. He’s bright, driven, and excited to make an impact on the world. Recently, he’s become fascinated with Stanley Milgram’s familiar stranger problem, and thinks he has a really cool app idea to solve it. He knows how to code up an MVP of the app, and has some friends who have dropped out to work on their own startups, but doesn’t really know how to go from idea to startup. What comes next? He’s not even sure that his app idea is that viable. It was just something he thought of in the shower, after all. So let’s start from the very first steps.
Part 1 — Getting Started
tl;dr: Start with Founder’s Journey or StartMIT. Go to events put on by TechX, SBC, StartLabs, and Incube. Hang out at the Trust Center. Talk to older students and leaders around campus (like DRF partners).
Joe isn’t sure this whole entrepreneurship thing is for him, so a good place to start is finding out more about what it means to be an entrepreneur. Christina Chase’s Founder’s Journey is a fantastic place to do just this. Joe gets to spend every week listening to brilliant founders from inside the MIT community and out, even getting the chance to talk one-on-one with a few of them. He also gets some basic exposure to the ideation and prototyping processes that he’ll be exploring more later on. For a condensed version of all this, do StartMIT over IAP.
Now would also be a good time to start attending events around campus where he can meet like-minded people and see what others are working on. TechX, SBC, StartLabs, and Incube are all awesome student groups that put on these kinds of events. I’d recommend subscribing to all of their mailing lists, plus the Trust Center’s and The Byte (which has all sorts of cool things happening around campus, thanks to our lovely UA president Sophia Liu). It’s never too early to begin getting to know the people in the community who he’ll be working closely with. Joe would be wise to seek out students who have worked in a similar field, and talk to the professors and other experts that he’s lucky enough to have access to.
People to help
This is already a lot to keep in mind, so having someone help guide Joe along would be super useful. There are plenty of people around MIT who are more than willing to answer questions, including all of the above-mentioned organizations. Another awesome resource (shameless plug time!) are the MIT Dorm Room Fund partners (currently Lisette Tellez, Will Green, and myself — feel free to reach out!). Part of our mission here at DRF is to support entrepreneurs and startups at our respective schools indiscriminately, regardless of our formal relationship with them. Hearing from people like Joe is exactly how we want to be introduced to companies; we live to hear about the cool stuff students much smarter than us are working on.
Part 2 — Starting up
tl;dr: Take ESD.051 to learn design thinking. Do GEL to learn how to lead. 2.009 will teach you how to build a product from start to finish. Fit in 15.390 to learn how to think like successful founders. Take 15.911 for the interesting cases.
Leadership and design thinking
Once Joe has a solid idea of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur at MIT, it’s time to start brainstorming, prototyping, and learning how to work with a team. There are a plethora of options here, with nearly every department offering classes that help build these skills. I’ll focus on the few that seem to attract the entrepreneurial crowd, in the interest of encouraging Joe to meet more similarly-motivated students.
On the design thinking side, Blade Kotelly’s ESD.051 Engineering Innovation and Design is an amazing introduction to design thinking and building a product with a team. There are a lot of useful tidbits packed into this surprisingly entertaining class! For leadership, the GEL program is perfect for learning to work with teams and manage conflict. The real-world simulations in the Engineering Leadership Labs have helped many MIT founders learn crucial management skills.
Building a product
In my opinion, the most useful set of classes in this category are the ones which give you the experience of building a product, on a team. Note the distinction of a product from a project, where the former involves catering to a specific group of people’s needs (who hopefully actually exist and use what you create!), solving a problem for them as opposed to a technical challenge posed in isolation. 21W.789 Communicating with Mobile Technology is a fantastic example of this, as is 2.009 Product Engineering Processes, the famous product engineering competition hosted annually by the MechE department. The marketing, user acquisition, and pitching components of these classes are also good practice for later on.
With all the prerequisite skills, experience, and connection, it’s time for Joe to explore how to take his idea for a startup, and turn it into a viable business. I’ve often heard Bill Aulet, Managing Director of the Trust Center and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, tell students that anyone who tells them entrepreneurship can’t be taught in a classroom is lying to them. I don’t exactly agree with this; nothing replaces the lessons learned from actually starting something. There’s a reason that investors pay 50% more for repeat founders. Scott Shane at UMD College Park posited that “the source of entrepreneurship lies in differences in information about opportunities”, and that “accomplishment is conditioned by an entrepreneur’s prior experience and education” in his 2000 paper, with case studies indicating that a founder having started a company previously is a significant factor in entrepreneurial success.
Having said all of that, there are definitely some aspects of running a business that can very well be learned in a classroom, and developing a holistic business plan is one of them. There’s no point in Joe running out into the world without the slightest clue of how to structure his business, and the biggest mistake he can make is adopting the “build it and they will come” mentality. There are a few different approaches to solving this while at MIT. I would recommend taking either 15.373 Venture Engineering or 15.390 New Enterprises (probably this one), but doing the ideation and planning based on your existing core idea, as opposed to brainstorming one in class. 15.911 Entrepreneurial Strategy also has a great reputation for learning about the choices and struggles that successful founders have gone through, and how to learn from them.
Part 3 — Launch
tl;dr: Take advantage of MIT’s resources. Always be thinking about which friends would make good co-founders. Course 6: take 15 classes. Sloanie: take 6 classes. Don’t worry if you have to leave, you can always come back. Talk to the EIRs at the Trust Center. Funding: Sandbox (free money), 100k/IPO (pitch competitions), DRF/RDV (student venture funds), GFSA/YC/TechStars (accelerators). In that order.
Assembling a team
Finally, it’s time for Joe to assemble his team, take his completed business plan, and launch his company! Luckily, he can use the connections and team-building skills from earlier to assemble the superheros he needs to take his idea to the next level. Finding people to join him can be a Herculean task, but it helps to always be thinking about it.
A neat exercise worth trying is to a take a few minutes to consider who you would have join your team if you were starting something new right now. Pick around six people who you think would form the ideal team, assuming anyone you ask would say yes. You have to know them personally. Now figure out what skillsets and backgrounds that group of people is missing, and start searching for new connections to fill the void. You’ll find that you quickly build a picture of exactly the kind of person you need to be looking out for as you build up your network. Hat tip to Ben for this one!
I want to emphasize that Joe should strive to take advantage of everything MIT has to offer while he’s going through this process. For any resource he’s lacking, there’s almost certainly something offered to help solve it.
Need to bring on a business student? Take a class or two at Sloan, and make an effort to chat with Sloanies about what you’re working on (15.411 and 15.412 are pretty useful for life in general if you need suggestions). A good time to look into doing this is when you have a product built and need to start acquiring users and growing.
Need to find some technical talent? Take some generally applicable Course 6 classes like 6.036 Introduction to Machine Learning and make some friends while working on the projects. Go to the various Media Lab hackathons (such as Reality, Virtually, Hackathon! and Hacking Arts), as well as HackMIT. A good time to explore these options is once you have a well-thought-through business plan and product roadmap.
Need some guidance and structure when starting to work as a team? Take 15.378 Building an Entrepreneurial Venture class together. Worried about balancing your startup and everything else at school? Hope that 6.S078 Entrepreneurship Project comes back so you can register and get credit for building your company!
If you have a specific industry in mind, there are plenty of chances to deep-dive through specialized Sloan classes that bring in amazing founders and investors in your vertical. The 15.S0x series are particularly awesome if you’re into energy, fintech, or healthcare.
At the point where you can no longer balance school and your startup? MIT has excellent leave policies for students in good academic standing. Chat with S3 for more details!
I’ll conclude the story with how Joe should continue once he gets everything up and running. Without a doubt, the most important thing to say here is that he should be talking to the Entrepreneurs In Residence at the Trust Center early and often — they are so awesome and can provide incredible insights and advice. If any of his teammates go to Harvard, the i-lab also provides a comparable experience and can be a neat place to work out of. He should keep going to all the events around both campuses; it’s insane how often seemingly useless or irrelevant connections become useful down the line.
There are a few other resources on campus worth mentioning, where plenty of great mentors and advisors can be found. The Engine is not necessarily focused on students right now, but can be a great place to hang out and meet people. MIT VMS has a ton of brilliant people who can give advice on any aspect of starting a company. If you’re working to commercialize technology from a lab, make sure you hit up the Deshpande Center!
Once Joe reaches the look the point where he needs external funding to keep growing and building, there are a bunch of options, which I recommend taking advantage of in the following order.
MIT Sandbox is a new program that offers no-strings-attached grants to students pursuing new ideas. This is essentially free money Joe. Take the free money. There’s a quick application process and a panel to pitch to, but this should definitely be the first stop for any student that needs funding.
Following this, there are a ton of pitch competitions held throughout the year which not only provide a great chance to raise awareness of Joe’s company, but often have cash prizes. Check out RECESS, Plug and Play, MIT 100K, and IPO for four organizations which throw well-run events.
Once the team, product, and market have been settled on and demonstrable progress has been made, it’s time to consider raising a small “pre-seed” round from external investors. This is where I get to excitedly tell you that there are venture funds run by students! The partners making funding decisions are your peers, so it can be much easier to approach them.
Dorm Room Fund, where I work, is one such student-run fund. Of course, there are also others. Each one is slightly different, and you should do your research. Dorm Room Fund, Rough Draft Ventures, and Contrary Capital are the ones Joe will most likely encounter at MIT. I recommend talking to all three at once — we often co-invest!
A huge advantage of working with fellow students is a safe and understanding environment; we’ve all been in Joe’s shoes, and know how daunting this journey can be. We’re here to help! At DRF, we have a particular love for the MIT community — we’ve funded over 15 MIT startups in the last few years, including crowd favourites like Spyce, lovepop, RapidSOS, and Grove.
With some money and traction going for him, Joe is now ready to apply to one of many accelerators out there. His best bet at MIT is to try to grab a spot in the latest batch of the Trust Center’s delta v. delta v provides MIT startups with up to $20k of equity-free funding, a space to work, and introductions to more of the venture community. It’s a no-brainer if you can get in! If not, MIT Fuse is a shorter, but equally rigorous month-long program that’s worth checking out.
If Joe wants to look off campus, YCombinator, TechStars, and MassChallenge are all well-respected external accelerators that can provide the funding and mentorship required for insane growth. I’d recommend applying to all of them!
So, that about sums up Joe’s journey. Or at least the start of it. With a lot of hard work, and even more luck, he’s now the CEO of a well-funded seed-stage startup which is acquiring users at an unprecedented rate. Familiar strangers are strangers no more as hundreds, then thousands of people receive little buzzes, notifications filling them with context on the people they pass every day. Or something like that…
I want to conclude by saying that this is not the path I took through entrepreneurship at MIT, and is simply a reflection of the best of my experiences and those of my friends. If anyone tries following a part of this, or has strong opinions about something I’ve said, I’d love to hear! Drop me line and let’s grab coffee.