This interview was conducted by Fran Tarkenton.
Bill Aulet is the Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. He is the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship,” with steps to a successful startup. Follow @eshipMIT and @MIT for more insights from Bill.
Fran: You went from playing basketball to IBM to being an entrepreneur to teaching entrepreneurship at MIT. Tell me how this all came about.
Bill: When I grew up, you wanted to have a real job. And entrepreneurship wasn't a real job. And that's all changed. Today entrepreneurship is everywhere. Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. The president's speaking about it, every politician is speaking about it, even though they're not entrepreneurial. And I just became an entrepreneur because that was natural for me.
I like to say I have a lot of wisdom. I have more wisdom than anybody else, because I've made more mistakes than anybody else. Wisdom is scar tissue from making mistakes. And so, I've lost hundreds of millions of dollars, but I've made hundreds of millions of dollars, too. So as far as I'm concerned, I'm winning three to two. I'm an accidental academic. I'm really an entrepreneur by design. But, I didn't want to see other entrepreneurs go through, make the same mistakes I did. You know, it's not just you don't want to reinvent the wheel, what you don't want to see is see them reinvent the flat tire. So I wanted them to avoid the mistakes that I made. So I wanted to give them what I wish I had 20 years ago when I started to become an entrepreneur.
Fran: Can entrepreneurship be taught?
Bill: That's a question that I hear all the time, people say, “No, it can't be taught, you're born,” and this is rubbish. First of all, there's no entrepreneurship gene. You know, you can look until the cows come down, there's no physical entrepreneurship gene. People say, “You're born into entrepreneurship. The data's very clear.” If that was true, then children of entrepreneurs would be more likely to be entrepreneurs. The data's been studied, there's no data to back that up.
Oh, well, you're a PhD, you're an entrepreneur. No, there's no data to back that up either. You're actually less likely. Let me tell you what there is data about. My case is a typical case. It’s the first company I started, Cambridge Decision Dynamics. You won't find much about it because it failed. It was a glorious failure, as I say. The next company did much better—and that was Sensible Technologies—but not successful enough when you have four kids. Then the third one was very successful, company called Visage, 50 million to half a billion dollars in two and a half years. Did my DNA change?
No, it didn't change. What happened was that in the process you learned. And that's what the data shows, is that people learn. Serial entrepreneurs, you do it more, you get better at it in general. We need to think about this as a profession, a discipline. What can we teach them? And to do that, we need to have a common language that we talk about, common set of principles, and then build up from there. So we can, and we must. We're just not doing a good enough job of it now, we're not scaling it.
Fran: Entrepreneurs have succeeded despite lack of an education, lack of a knowledge base, in fact, we talked earlier, they've had access to fraudulent information from people that are posing as great gurus of entrepreneurship who've never started or run a business.
Bill: You think about that, if you're playing football, "Hey, let's go be a football player and let's go play Georgia,” and send all these kids out on the field without proper equipment, without proper training, they're going to get killed. Hey, be an entrepreneur, but we don't train them, we don't give them the proper tools to go out there, and that's what we need to do.
Fran: Well, we give them fad diets and motivational speaking. And I don't believe in either one of those things. And we really have not had as much organized education for an entrepreneur to be able to get the truth of what you're going to go through and what you need to do and what rigor and what discipline you have. Because like anything else in life, education, entrepreneurship, football, basketball, you got to have a discipline, right?
Bill: That's right. And we've got to look at entrepreneurship not as a bunch of crazy people. But rather it's a discipline that can be taught, like you can teach teachers, like you can teach accountants, like you can teach lawyers, like you can teach academics. And if we don't do that, it's going to be a sad day for society because we're not going to generate the number of jobs, we're not going to solve the intractable problems of environment, energy, education, healthcare. We need entrepreneurs. You know that.
Fran: So you believe that entrepreneurs can be taught?
Bill: No question about it. We do it every day. And you've seen it. The problem is that sometimes they get confused by some of this less rigorous entrepreneur education and there almost needs to be a certification process in this. I don't know how you do that, but we just need to offer better education and let people choose between the good and the not-so-good.
Fran: You talk about real things. And it's contrary to what the entrepreneurs all heard, because we all heard, "You've got to love what you do. Go out there and work hard, and you'll have success as an American, you can live the Dream!” It's not that easy.
Bill: No, those are all clichés. Those are ones that I used to say when I first started talking to entrepreneurs. And they love it. But it's ethereal, it doesn't last. It's gone. They're inspired and they show up on Monday morning to start their business and they don't know where to start. And that's what we're trying to do here. And I think you still have this need to adjust.
It's like in football. You know, in football, you start off and you have a plan. And then the first four plays, you might run that way. But then you've got to adjust. But you sure as heck understood the plan. And you understood what the other team was like, your strengths, how you were going to approach this game, you're consistent. But you make your changes in it. Too much of what I hear today is, "Don't worry about the plan, don't worry about a business plan.” Do you think Bill Belichick would ever show up to a game without a plan? That's what we're talking about, you have to understand it and then you have to adjust. But it's the real world that you have to adjust to at that point. It's not some kind of Internet research that you have. You have to go out and talk to real customers.
Fran: Let me ask you this. Big company you're in, IBM, great company. Then you became an entrepreneur, did you like being an entrepreneur?
Bill: Oh, I loved it. By the way, I loved being at IBM.
Fran: Did you feel like you were overworked?
Bill: Oh yeah. To be honest about it, it, I was an entrepreneur, and I thought about it night and day. When I woke up I was thinking about it, when I went to bed at night. When the phone rang in the middle of the night I didn't think, "Oh, my God. My parents might be ill." I thought "Honda. There's some problem with the system at Honda, because they're awake right now,” and I'd pop up and I'd expect it to be Honda. That's the honest truth about it, it can take a toll. Did I love my job? Yeah. Did I ever think about how many hours of work? No. And someone told me how many hours I worked a week, I was insane. But I loved my job. And then once I look at it now, you know, out of college, I think I have the greatest job in the world, now being at MIT teaching people entrepreneurship, but I love my job all the way through. I never did it for the money, I never did it because it was easier. I did it because it was obvious that was the best thing to do.
Fran: How can a person who is working in a big company, working in education, working in government, whatever it might be, how can they figure out, discover that they really have that entrepreneur gene and what should they be looking for? What should they be thinking?
Bill: Yeah, so, that's a really good question because we get a lot of people who come to MIT, they come back to school, they say, "I want to be an entrepreneur, but how do I get started?” And so what we do, we put them into, first you take classes, you read a book, but then after you do that, you can't learn just by doing it, you have to apply it. So then we encourage them to go to hack-a-thons. For instance, a place like Coke actually runs hack-a-thons for their employees. And what you do, you go to these and you try to start up a company in a weekend. You say "That's crazy,” well, actually it is kind of crazy and that's good. That’s what you should do. It's kind of pressing the envelope. And what happens in that process, whether you start a company or not, is you find someone else who has the same interest as you. But they're not the same person. They're complementary skills. And the best thing you can find, if you want to be an entrepreneur, is to find a teammate. And once you find that teammate, then the two of you will start looking through ideas and the ideas will eventually happen. The key is to find a teammate.
Fran: I never found a business start-up without a teammate. I never did it alone. I never thought about that. Because I needed somebody to bounce ideas off, and usually, that somebody was totally polar opposite from who I am.
Bill: Yeah. Polar opposite, but you shared values and accountability. You felt that person on your right and you could trust them. And that's the key thing. You need a head or a genius team that has different skill sets, but same shared values. Because you can't just get different skill sets, it's ultimately trust and confidence. It's not finding the best skill set, it's finding the skill set that meshes with you. We have this elective, entrepreneurial math.
Fran: Is this a good time to start a business?
Bill: Oh, it's a great time to start a business because first of all, what else are you going to do?
Secondly, I think that the society's understanding, society’s appreciation for entrepreneurs has never been higher. I know when I first became an entrepreneur, everybody said, "What happened? Did something go wrong at IBM?" "What is this? Are you unemployed?”