In Start6, a new entrepreneurship program for MIT engineering students offered during IAP, participants have received advice from such guest speakers as Paul English, cofounder of Kayak; Mike Evans ’99, MEng ’00, and COO and cofounder of GrubHub; Marina Hatsopoulos ’92, serial entrepreneur, former CEO and director of Z Corporation, and angel investor; and Max Krohn ’08, cofounder of OkCupid. And that was just on the first day.
The three-week workshop, which began Jan. 13, also features visits from Drew Houston ’05, CEO and cofounder of Dropbox; Google vice president Jeremy Wertheimer ’89, former CEO of ITA Software; Nanxi Liu, a 23-year-old who has already founded two successful startups; Rodney Brooks, founder, chairman, and CTO of Rethink Robotics and Panasonic Professor of Robotics (emeritus) at MIT; Ray Stata ’57, cofounder of Analog Devices; and Robert Langer, prolific inventor and entrepreneur and the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. In addition, venture capitalists Peter Levine of Andreessen Horowitz and Jamie Goldstein ’89 of North Bridge Venture Partners walked the Start6 students through the various phases of a startup.
“It’s awesome to be able to hear insightful things from people who have done this before and know what they’re talking about,” says Ari Weinstein, a freshman from Philadelphia who plans to major in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and already has some entrepreneurial experience. He created DeskConnect, an app that allows users to share files between devices with one button. DeskConnect already has more than 100,000 users.
“MIT has excellent resources for aspiring entrepreneurs,” says Ian A. Waitz, dean of the School of Engineering. “Our students, faculty, staff, and alumni have an exceptional track record of producing successful new ventures. However, increasingly our students see the acquisition of entrepreneurial knowledge, skills, and attitudes — whether for use in starting a new venture or in an existing organization — as an essential part of their education. Start6 is one of several exciting new initiatives that will provide even greater opportunities for our students to develop these essential abilities.”
The 50-plus students participating in the workshop are primarily from, but not limited to, EECS.
Anantha Chandrakasan, EECS department head and Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering, says that Start6 is a new opportunity for MIT's engineering students and postdoctoral candidates to dive into “everything entrepreneurship — particularly as it relates to EECS.” He told the workshop attendees: "Our ultimate goal is to create a community of entrepreneurs, not just at MIT, but when you go out into the world."
Evans of the online food-ordering company GrubHub gave a talk chronicling his journey from being a young corporate employee paying off student debt in 2003 to being the COO of a company that did $1 billion in sales last year. GrubHub, which recently merged with competitor Seamless, covers 20,000 restaurants in about 500 cities.
“In the past, you needed a massive amount of capital to start a company,” Evans said. “The people in this room have the capital in their minds — in their ability to write software. You can go create businesses with very little capital.”
Start6 offers practical sessions that help students with the nuts and bolts of a startup, such as how to perfect a product pitch; how to fund a company, all the way from bootstrapping (relying on support from yourself, family, and friends) to venture capital; and how to split equity among company founders. Students say that they appreciate both the how-to aspect of the workshop and the stories of successful entrepreneurs — stories in which several themes emerge again and again: passion, focus, persistence, resilience, and team-building.
“Be passionate about your idea,” said Dave Gifford, EECS professor and founder of three successful companies. “A startup has to be meaningful to you as a creative act. Money is secondary.”
Hatsopoulos, former CEO and director of 3-D printing leader Z Corporation, stressed the importance of building the right team to lead a startup. "Each member should bring something very unique to the table. Then this team can do magic — it can create something that’s so much bigger than any one of you."
Persistence to ride out the tough times is key, said Rob May, CEO and cofounder of Backupify, which securely backs up data in the cloud. "Do you have the stomach for a startup? In the early days, it’s often only the will of the founder that keeps people there.”
Paul English urged the students to boil their idea for a startup down to a simple idea or a narrow market. When he started the travel website Kayak a decade ago, he pitched it simply as “the anti-Expedia.” He learned to avoid explaining all of the site’s features, or the algorithms that made it work, to potential funders or buyers. Its success has been such that Priceline purchased it for nearly $2 billion last year.
“Engineers tend to be pretty cerebral,” English says. “For every problem presented to us, we try to come up with solutions that solve 10 additional problems. We need to be more decisive.”
That message resonated with Sam Prentice, an EECS graduate student. “It’s very easy here at MIT to get focused on the technology instead of building something that someone wants,” he says. He has several ideas for startups, including one based on a technology that augments human perception.
“What I’ve learned has already transformed my project,” says EECS senior Danielle Gordon. Her software, called Mode, enables users to link together disparate data, such as social media accounts and files stored on one’s computer. Before Start6, she says, she had been describing the technology as a “way to link objects together for organization purposes. Now I’m calling it a content management system for life.”
One topic that comes up frequently in Start6 panel discussions is when to start a company. Nanxi Liu answers unequivocally: “I recommend students start a company as soon as they can, and especially while they are still students. They’ve got tons of student organizations that they can send beta codes out to for testing their product.”
Liu, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, is CEO of the year-old startup Enplug, which has placed its interactive digital billboards — on which advertising and social media blend in real time — in more than 30 cities. Before that, she founded Nanoly Bioscience, which is developing a chemical that allows vaccines to survive without refrigeration.
She told the students that starting a company early means that “by the time you graduate, you'll be able to hit the ground running on a full-time startup without making any rookie mistakes.”
Just as Evans reminded Start6 participants that they have the capital “in their minds” to start a company, Liu pointed out another readily available resource: fellow students. “In the real world,” she said, “companies pay tens of thousands of dollars to recruiting firms to help them get connected with students at MIT. So, for students at MIT, getting classmates and acquaintances to be teammates is a recruiting jackpot.”