There’s a wide chasm between a brilliant business plan and taking that plan to market. MIT Sloan lecturer Paul Cheek bridges the gap between idea and execution with his new, 12-week Venture Creation Tactics class.
“The goal is to get students to the point where they’re developing the skill sets they need to bring a business to market while also helping them to get proof points and to de-risk the business opportunity so that they can confidently move forward with it,” he explains. “It becomes a little bit easier to raise money if you’ve de-risked the opportunity. That’s the goal.”
Cheek is the executive director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and co-founder of Oceanworks, the largest global marketplace for sustainable materials. He launched the class in autumn 2021, though it was years in the making. During his time at the Trust Center, Cheek noticed that many students had revolutionary ideas but lacked the tools to bring them to fruition.
“What they might not know is how to put a sales process together, how to do the early ‘go to market,’ which is what I refer to it in the class, to get the proof points before a product is built and before an engineer is hired. It’s really the ability to sit down and say, ‘We’re going to use this tool or that tool to get customers, to set goals to operate as a team, and ultimately build the product,’” he explains.
The response was immediate, with applications from semester-program students, undergraduates, MBAs, cross-registrants from Harvard University and Wellesley College, and executives.
Students arrived at class with a wealth of ideas, from dynamic pricing for e-commerce to personalized whiskey generation. But Cheek is quick to point out that the class is about developing skills, not necessarily businesses. In lectures, he discusses primary market research, enhanced target customer profile and persona development, digital advertising, outbound sales, UX design, rapid prototyping, recruiting early team members, and raising money. He uses tools such as Airtable, the low-code database-sharing platform; Figma design tools; and Bubble, the no-code visual programming language — a refreshing pivot for tech-focused students.
“Sometimes it helps to step away from sitting down and writing code, which takes a long time and a lot of money to change, as you better understand the customer. This helps them focus more on: How do we build the smallest products we possibly can with the ability to change it quickly?” he says.
The three-hour evening class will run every semester, with a mix of lectures and twice-a-session “experimentation workshops,” where students apply these tactics and iterate in real time. The course’s collaborative nature earns high marks from students.
“I was surprised by the level of commitment from all students to go beyond what was expected in a regular school setting to advance their ideas and to support their peers. Homework wasn’t some theoretical exercise, but real problems being investigated and tackled, with real users and insights,” says William Potnoppidan, CEO and co-founder of Francis, a next-gen budgeting spreadsheet platform.
There’s another benefit that doesn’t appear on the syllabus: Some students even formed business partnerships with classmates.
“When you join this class, you should not only listen to your venture ideas; you should listen and interact with other entrepreneurs in the class. Startup partnerships started in class. Some founders also merged their ideas and decided to work together,” says Omolara Olusola Ajele. Ajele founded Bumpa, a mobile app to provide digital/e-commerce infrastructure to MSMEs in Africa and other emerging markets. She’s also an angel investor for another classmate.
Cheek says the class was further enhanced by co-teacher Nagarjuna Venna.
“The course has been improved in many areas including but not limited to early startup culture and fundraising with the addition of Nagarjuna Venna, co-founder of BitSight and Lecturer at MIT Sloan,” he says.
Most of all, he hopes those businesses succeed—and hopes to prepare students for their next big idea, even if they don’t.
“We’re here to teach individuals, not to build companies. My goal is not that we have a bunch of startups that come out of it. My goal is that we have individuals who are better equipped with not just the mindset of entrepreneurship, but also the skill set of entrepreneurship, so that if one [business] doesn’t work out, they’ve got the skills to go and start another company,” he says.
(article written by Kara Baskin)