MIT Study: Entrepreneurship Education delivers Value beyond Startups

At MIT, the delta v accelerator is our capstone entrepreneurial experience for students. As educators, we always want to know what students gained from our programs and how it helped them in their post-MIT life. We recently interviewed delta v alumni to understand how their entrepreneurship education has had an impact on their life, and we wanted to share the findings.   

We reached out to over 400 delta v alums from 2012-2019 with 60 responses.

87% Consider Entrepreneurial Skills a Core Competency

Slightly more than four out of five survey respondents currently consider themselves entrepreneurs. However, the vast majority of alumni (87%) view entrepreneurial skills as a core competency by 87% of respondents – rather than just a means to start their own business. These people may be creating their own ventures now, but they may transition throughout their careers between entrepreneurship and other roles. It’s important that these entrepreneurial skills will support them in either situation.

Respondents consider who consider entrepreneurship a core competency credit both the MIT program as well as the importance of hands-on experience to develop their entrepreneurial skillset. Many also noted they view entrepreneurship as a set of skills that must be honed through practice.

Entrepreneurship is Seen as an Important Part of People’s Identity

Many alumni view entrepreneurship as a way to solve important problems and pursue their visions. Entrepreneurship is the lens through which they approach these challenges and visions, with 62% of respondents reporting that an entrepreneurial outlook is an important part of their identity.

However, a select few respondents see entrepreneurship as a strict occupation, and not a core part of their identity. Others described themselves as entrepreneurs within their specific field or company, for example, an “entrepreneurial scientist.”

92% Say MIT Entrepreneurship Classes Support their Current Role

The classwork that delta v alumni participated in has proven to be on target. A full 92% of respondents either strongly agreed or agreed that what they learned in MIT entrepreneurship classes supports their current role, even if they are not an entrepreneur today.

Specifically, delta v alumni said the skills learned in the classroom help them in the following situations:

  • It gave me a playbook when I have to do things I have not done before.
  • I use what I learned at MIT every single day, in working with my team, financial planning/strategy, product development and management, and making sure I am looking at the right problems, in various different ways.
  • I focus a lot on management – and classes in particular help understand people and teams.
  • I need to assess new technologies according to their business promise and their technical risks.
  • I can more effectively voice my concerns and disagreements.
  • I can think about problems from a variety of different angles – rather than just technically.
  • The classwork provided a structured approach to innovation.  
  • The presentation skills and network taught in delta v are still used to this day.

Entrepreneurial Skills are Marketable

Respondents feel that the entrepreneurial skills they learned while at MIT are marketable with 79% strongly agreeing or agreeing with that statement. They feel that:

  • The skills are an asset in their current role (86%)
  • The skills will be an asset in their future roles (68%)
  • The skills will help them in landing a future job (37%)

Some of the general entrepreneurial skills respondents bring to the table include customer identification/market research, Identifying competitive positioning and use cases, product design, business modeling, and scaling a business.

MIT’s entrepreneurship courses benefit participants by providing frameworks, structure, and discipline to their ideas. It also gave them opportunities to test out ideas and take risks, iterating those ideas in a supportive and knowledge-based environment. Many respondents mentioned the supportive delta v ecosystem and cohort, providing mentors in the entrepreneurship community and a network that gave the entrepreneurs confidence.

One of the delta v alumni sums it up nicely, saying:

“delta v gives people the opportunity to create transformational value in society. It gives young people the tools and skills they need to make that happen. The future rests on the next wave of entrepreneurs to bring about that change and growth.”

The Top 5 Characteristics of Winning Startups

startup-signI was recently invited to speak to students involved in a local university’s entrepreneurship program. In preparing my presentation, I reflected on my startup experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Truthfully, my experiences with startups were mostly very good. I was extremely fortunate to be part of the leadership team for two successful technology companies. I helped to steer them from the start-up stage through the entrepreneurial process and into rapid growth, and each was a great ride. Both companies had public offerings and were ultimately acquired by leading companies in their industry, which is especially remarkable given that 75 percent of all startups and 90 percent of all products fail, according to Harvard Business School statistics.

Why did these two companies prosper when so many others fail? Here are the top five characteristics of winning startups, based on what I’ve learned and witnessed over my career:

Solve a Customer Pain Point with your Product – Build a product that customers can use. Sure, it sounds simple, but you need to balance listening to your customers with keeping an eye on new technology. There’s an old adage that if Henry Ford listened to his customers they would have ended up with faster horses. This does have some truth to it – sometimes customers don’t know how new technologies could solve their current problems – but they do know the result they want. So, listen to their pains, and see if you can think of new ways to solve them.

Companies also need to balance adding technological features with usability. Most customers won’t use every bell and whistle that is included in the product, but they do want the product to be easy-to-use and intuitive. The bottom line is that you need to deliver a positive customer experience. An advantage I had with both startups was that as we were developing the right product at the right time, we had the ability to change course as needed – or to “pivot” in today’s terminology. The ability to be flexible and strike at the right point to continue market share and revenue growth was essential.

Tight Team Environment – It is vital to build a good core group of people early. The leadership team is important, of course, but every employee also needs to be part of an innovative and collaborative culture to help the company thrive. In the early phases of building a company, I found that the first 50 employees were a very tightly knit core group. But then we needed to scale and replicate that success, so that when we doubled our staff that same culture survived. Nurturing, training and retaining employees were fundamental elements to our success, as was confidence in the company’s leadership.

Leadership, trust and strong opinions are key elements that create a positive energy and personal commitment to the company and to each other. Sure, a strong opinion can sometimes cause conflict, but it exemplifies the passion of the company’s employees. As long as there is a forum for communication, this can be a constructive force for growth.

Relentless Customer Focus – In addition to ensuring that your product solves a customer pain point, you need to focus on your customers as your number one priority. One of the ways we listened to our customers was to bring them into our company-wide meetings to share their experiences. In our weekly “Pizza Meetings,” we discussed Product, People, Prospects and Profits to give the entire team the big picture, and customers would often join us. It was important to hear the good and bad about the product and what our customers hoped to do with our solution in the longer term. This had profound effects on the developers to develop more modules and tight code, because it let them see how their work directly affected the people who used our products.

Operations as a Company Backbone – Although it’s not always seen as the most glamorous function, Operations is the workhorse of any startup. From the beginning, we linked Operations into tech support, manufacturing, logistics, and tied it closely to new product introductions. That way, if a customer had a problem with a product, we not only fixed that problem, we tried to figure out why this issue happened and make an operational fix within the company so that the larger problem would be solved long-term. When small companies are growing rapidly, a learning cycle needs be put into place to feed “lessons learned” back into the organization. This prevents repeated errors and was a major factor for our success.

Start Selling Early –
I can’t overemphasize the importance of establishing an excellent sales force, and the need to start selling as early as possible. At one company, we needed to get customers on board before we could get funding. It was really a leap of faith, but our early sales team delivered. We couldn’t get Series A funding until investors saw that we had customers. There was little angel investing at that time and early stage investors were very conservative. Therefore, our early focus on sales was critical to our future funding – as well as our revenue.

Although I started this post by talking about the successful exits of these two companies, it is important to build your business as a strong company that can stand on its own, rather than planning a specific exit strategy. The right product, a tight team and a focus on customers, tied together with strong operations and sales will be a solid foundation for success.