A Key Milestone for MIT delta v Entrepreneur Teams: The Board of Directors Meeting

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We’re about two-thirds through this summer’s MIT delta v educational accelerator, where student entrepreneurs participate in a rigorous “entrepreneurship boot camp” from June to early September. The students work on their ventures full time, and I am reminded of how much progress can be made when this is their sole focus.

Our 21 delta v teams have been preparing their companies for escape velocity and launching into the real world. To do this, they must discover who their customers are, understand their customers better than their competitors, and uncover which attributes of their value proposition really resonate. This is a key time to figure out if they really have a viable business or not.

One of the major milestones for the group is presenting to a mock board of directors. The board is made up of heavy hitters – business executives, entrepreneurs, faculty, and domain experts – and it’s always a tough hurdle for the teams to communicate their vision and business plan clearly and succinctly. The students have been living and breathing the intricacies of their businesses every day, and now they need to convince others to grasp and embrace their vision.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Communication before, during, and follow-up after the board meetings is key to successfully working with a board.  This can be difficult, because teams enter these meetings assuming that they can communicate a lot of detailed information about this idea they have been working on for some time. However, a board can only understand so much without getting “slide fatigue” or overload.

It is especially difficult if the business is very technical or requires deep expertise in a field such as healthcare. Students need to communicate their company’s value proposition in a way that people outside their field will understand. Their board of directors can include very smart people with great insight, but they may not be scientists, engineers, or doctors, and may not be as technical as the company founders.

There is a huge opportunity to learn from people on the board – particularly those in the investment community or those who don’t work in your field. These board members want the student companies to succeed. They know a great deal about business fundamentals and have tremendous networks that can help an entrepreneur. If students can’t successfully communicate with them, they will not succeed when out in the real world when they try to raise money.

It is worth learning how to manage interactions in board meetings. Although it is not always easy, entrepreneurs should try to get the best out of each person on the board.

The Feedback Process

After each mock board meeting, board members give feedback to the entrepreneurial teams. Often, the students will get feedback they didn’t anticipate or don’t agree with. This is where it is critical for teams to put their egos aside and really listen. This is their own personal “Shark Tank” – don’t argue, and strive to understand what each board member is trying to teach you. Even if an entrepreneur doesn’t agree with a piece of feedback, these folks have different and varied perspectives that can bring new insight and raise issues the students may not have considered.

Some students feel that a rating system based upon others’ perceptions can be unfair. In class, they are rewarded for completing certain activities; but at delta v, “business is business” and the board is concerned about return on their investment. When teams receive a mark of 75%, some students take that as a “C” and are upset about it, but the board is actually communicating that the team is about three-fourths of the way there with the business – that is positive feedback that the team is showing progress and now needs to finalize a few things.

There are no medals or performance trophies here. It is a harsh reality when a team gets feedback that they may not be communicating effectively, or when they are penalized for failing to meet a commitment. However, this feedback is designed to help the startups ultimately succeed.

Honest Conversations with Your Board Members

Our delta v teams learn that the feedback from the board is essential and the board members can also introduce them to lots of helpful people in their networks. When questions arise such as: “Is my team working collaboratively?’, “Do I have sales traction or a path to sales?”, “Do I need to pivot?” etc., the board members are there to help.

At this point in the accelerator program, you can see many of the student teams transitioning from a research project to building an actual business. The focus on testing hypotheses and assumptions quickly gets teams out of the “analysis paralysis” mode that often dominates an educational environment. The students now narrow their direction, which takes them from theory to a reality-based experience that they are living each day.

Although the students can earn venture money based on meeting a set of milestones, money is not the motivator at delta v. It is learning, working with a team, and ability to execute that are emphasized. The mock board meeting provides teams with enough structure so they don’t get lost in the superficial discussions; they provide a sounding board at this critical point in the business’ development.

I’m looking forward to the remainder of August where the students test their business readiness and audition for Demo Day on September 9th.  We hope you’ll join us!

A Discussion on French Entrepreneurship with John Chambers

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I recently had the unique opportunity to join selected MIT faculty, students, and staff to discuss the current business climate with John Chambers, the Executive Chairman of the Board and former CEO of Cisco Systems. He was the guest of honor at a recent MIT Leadership Center luncheon and it was pure luck that I ended up sitting next to him as our meal was served.

My question to John was: what he thinks we should be doing to educate entrepreneurs today (that is currently lacking). Although he didn’t answer that question directly, he did talk about the differences in East Coast and West Coast philosophies. The West vs. East innovation discussion is always a good one (see my blog on Massachusetts being ranked the most innovative state in America) and it was clear that John felt that in Silicon Valley, it is more important to be a founder/key engineer than is to be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company.

Paris conferenceWe then started discussing innovation in other countries, particularly France, in light of my upcoming keynote speech in Paris at the symposium on Entrepreneurial Research: Past, Present and Future. John remarked that the French entrepreneurial ecosystem is actually as large as Boston’s. I was a bit surprised, but also intrigued as I’ve been researching how the French approach entrepreneurship to prepare for my presentation.

Here are some of the highlights of my research I thought I’d share:

  • The French business environment has undergone radical change in recent years. Investment activity in French startups has been on a steady rise. Moreover, it is coming from all sides of French society – the government, the corporations, and the new wave of entrepreneurs. In addition, France has over 100 venture capitalists who invested more than $2 billion in 2016.
  • This activity has changed the general attitude among the younger generation towards entrepreneurship. Up until 2012, France’s best talent was driven to big firms. However, now more than 50% of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 want to start a business, and 1 in 3 of France’s 70,000 Ph.D. students also want to create their own business. At this moment, France has more than 50 startup accelerators, and more than 100 co-working spaces have opened their doors recently.
  • President Hollande’s socialist government has made fostering startups an economic priority with a cohesive policy that has included:
    • Tax incentives for new businesses
    • Government and public sector funding
    • Creation of Special Tech Programs on national and regional levels
    • New crowd-funding legislation
  • The weak point of French VCs is lack of sufficient capital for later-stage funding rounds, forcing many promising French startups to look abroad for their financing needs or get acquired by global multinationals.
  • According to French government, more than 550,000 startups are created each year. More than $2 billion was invested in French startups in 2016. Three startups raised more than $100M:
    • Sigfox (IoT ecosystem)
    • Deezer (Music streaming)
    • Devialet (Sound technology)
  • According to European Digital City Index (EDCI), Paris is the 5th best city for startups in Europe. According to the Compass 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking, Paris is the 11th best ecosystem for startups globally.
  • Brexit creates excellent opportunity for France to lure best tech startups from UK and transform itself into the #1 European and one of the leading global startup hubs.
  • The presidential elections that will be held in April and May 2017 should be carefully watched. The possible win of Mr. Macron could be a big boost for the French entrepreneurial ecosystem since his tenure as a Minister of Economy was huge boon for the French startup ecosystem.

As Americans we tend to critique French capitalism due to issues such as a high level of government intervention, inflexible labor laws, a fear of failure among entrepreneurs, and the lack of innovation.  However, all this is changing.

I look forward to my visit to Paris in the springtime and will share what I learn at the symposium.

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Chasing Unicorns or Planting Trees?

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unicorn12967178What does Entrepreneurial Success Look Like?  

In the business world, privately held companies valued at $1 billion or more are known as unicorns. Like unicorns, the billion-dollar startup was once only a myth. Now, all that has changed.

Fortune now publishes “The Unicorn List” that includes 174 unicorns. Uber tops the list, with Airbnb, Snapchat, and Pinterest also in the top 10. The Wall Street Journal also publishes a dynamic “Billion Dollar Startup Club” graphic that shows unicorns with their current value and region of origin – Uber’s current $68 billion valuation is by far the highest of the group.

Some rankings use just one criterion, such as venture capital funding to measure success. Although not necessarily the best measurement, it is an easy, publicly available figure, and there have certainly been unicorns that have failed. But, should valuation or the ability to raise money be the only measure of success?

What about the important success factors such as profitability, revenue, job creation, and even intangibles such as social good – giving back to the community or the world. The combination of these metrics provide a more holistic view to measure success.

MIT has been measuring entrepreneurial success for years, and our figures take into account job creation and revenues. According to our last update, companies founded by living MIT alumni have created 4.6 million jobs and generated nearly $2 trillion in annual revenues – that’s about the same as the GDP of the world’s 10th largest economy.

While the trajectory of the unicorns is impressive, a great number of unicorns aren’t profitable. Many startups and entrepreneurs have focused on “growth at all costs,” often operating at a loss to grab market share.  It’s not a surprise to learn that some unicorns are terrified when they have to think about profits for the first time.  (For more in-depth analysis, check out this blog post by well-known venture investor Bill Gurley.)

All of these issues are things that we think about deeply here at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. We certainly want the startups that we help launch to be successful, not just in venture capital raised or achieving unicorn status. More importantly, we want that success to be sustainable and we want the entrepreneurial skills that we impart to be deeply rooted.

Think about trees for a second. Yes, much less magical than unicorns, but a tree has deep roots, a solid foundation, and branches that grow over time. We believe that with the tools that we provide to our students: from the proven framework of courses; to state-of-the art facilities; to advisory services; to our own delta v student venture accelerator, we are planting the seeds to help that tree grow. Obviously, drive and passion are important characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, but we know that entrepreneurship can be taught with a systematic, disciplined approach.

In fact, learning solid entrepreneurial skills might be even more important than launching a successful first startup on your first shot.

How does MIT produce so many successful entrepreneurs? We believe it’s all about planting a tree, rather than chasing a unicorn.