This post originally appeared on the MIT Executive Education “innovation@work” blog.
Long before Shark Tank was a popular hit TV series, MIT was encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit through its five-day Entrepreneurship Development Program, led by Bill Aulet, MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer and Managing Director of The Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The annual program has been the impetus behind many successful entrepreneurial companies that got their start at MIT. Aulet explained the fundamental idea of entrepreneurship in a recent NECN T.V. interview and said, “You need to keep calm and trust the process.” While ideas are necessary, said Aulet, they are overrated. “It’s much more important to figure out who the customer is; figure out the process and what makes that into a business,” adding that “it’s even more important to have a great team.”
Aulet explains that the EDP program–which attracts 100-plus people from as many as 25 different countries each year–is challenging. In just one week, participants are asked to work with people they don’t know and build a new business from an idea they didn’t have before coming to campus. According to Aulet, “There is a process to help them do that, and that’s what participants learn during the program.” He adds, “There is a methodology that helps you optimize your chances of being successful.”
Entrepreneurship means changing the existing order of things
Aulet often talks about the mindset of entrepreneurs. In his recent interview with NECN, he explained that great entrepreneurs have to be willing to be different, willing to swim the other way, and not accept the existing order of things. Aulet says MIT is great at that, and compares this mindset to his experience as an undergraduate at the other well-known school down the street. “Harvard was the establishment. MIT was not the establishment. It was immigrants and immigrants’ kids being trained for the industrial revolution. They’ve always been willing to swim the other way and get by on the size of their brain.”
However, adds Aulet, changing the existing order of things alone isn’t enough. Rather, successful entrepreneurs require execution skills. Aulet remembers his 11-year stint at IBM where he felt like “the most disciplined person in the world,” until he moved to a startup. “It was a whole other level at the startup. At IBM, we always made payroll. In a startup, if the customer doesn’t like the product or you don’t get the order, then you don’t make payroll. An entrepreneur has a level of internal discipline that is so high.”
Further clarifying the difference between a traditional company and a startup, Aulet says if you aren’t willing to fail then you won’t be successful. “In a startup, you’re doing something that has never been done before, and to do that you have to experiment. The nature of experimenting is that things aren’t going to work. That’s how you learn. If you’re not willing to lose it, you can’t do these extraordinary things.”
What is the definition of an entrepreneur?
In light of the recent presidential election where a businessman was elected President, Aulet spoke about how he thinks Americans define a successful business person. He says, “Successful entrepreneurs create their own value out of nothing. It’s a perfect meritocracy. Nobody cares who your mommy and daddy are; they care about whether or not you brought value today. Successful business people take business seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Aulet, who likens the process to team sports. “There is a commonality with team sports where people work together with others for a common cause. Entrepreneurs aren’t single, mercurial people … that’s an unfounded myth,” says the consummate entrepreneur, who adds that great business people build teams, share credit, and move forward.
Although Aulet applauds the ability of shows like Shark Tank to educate people about what entrepreneurship is–who is your customer? what are you going to do for your customer?–he doesn’t like how the show trivializes the process. Aulet recalls that back in the 1980s no one wanted to pursue a career as an entrepreneur, but today over 20% of students want to be entrepreneurs, so “we need to treat it as a serious profession and not as entertainment.”
One of the more demanding aspects of entrepreneurship is keeping up with the changing science of things, which Aulet admits is very difficult. “If you don’t like change, don’t be an entrepreneur. But it’s not just about change. It’s about the ability to be anti-fragile … When things go wrong, you get stronger and say this is a new opportunity for me.”
To learn more about the process of entrepreneurship, consider taking the MIT Sloan Entrepreneurship Development Program. The next session will be held January 28–February 2, 2018.