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Nick Plante

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MIT Startup Bootcamp

October 12, 2009

Yesterday (October 12th) I attended MIT's Startup Bootcamp, a mini-conference of sorts featuring talks from a variety of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The speakers were there to encourage audience members, aspiring entrepreneurs, and MIT community members to step up and get their ideas off the ground, and that starting a successful tech company might not be as difficult as they think.


Twelve invited speakers participated in the event, including seasoned industry veterans, venture capitalists, and (perhaps overwhelmingly) a number of young Y-Combinator spawned success stories. Although the talks unsurprisingly overlapped a bit too much in places, the message was clear, and the experience and advice they communicated was captivating.


1. Adam Smith of Xobni (a Y-Combinator company). Adam was the first speaker of the day and did a nice job relating Xobni's story. He talked at length about finding cofounders ("shake the friends tree"), their early days, angel funding, and achieving product-market fit. He stressed that being nimble is the key difference between successful and unsuccessful as a startup founder and mentioned how difficult -- but necessary -- it was for them to scrap an early product and change direction. "Don't give up [on your idea]," Adam says, "90% of execution is keep going when everyone else gives up."


2. Alexis Ohanian of Reddit (a Y-Combinator company). An energetic speaker, Alexis talked about embracing your users, and the need for evangelists to spread your message through organic traffic ("web 2.0 aka labor 2.0"). He encouraged audience members to go above and beyond when interacting with their users. Make their experience memorable, weird, fascinating, amazing, much like Zappos overdelivering (literally) on their shipping. Alexis also stressed that you need to be down-to-earth -- "you don't need to be naturally charismatic, just don't be a dick. Be root-for-able" -- both in your dealing with your users as well as with your cofounders. Most of all, do something you love.


3. Ken Zolot of MIT. Ken is the founder of MIT's Innovations Teams program. He talked briefly about what makes interesting technology the basis of a viable company or business, and how to make that transition. Ken also stressed the importance of good communication and having tangible results to show early on.


4. Dan Theobald, Vecna. As founder of a robots company, Dan's background was an interesting contrast to his largely web 2.0-centric peers at this event. He talked extensively about the social responsibility of a good company and incentivizing your employees. Dan is also strongly opposed to over-use of venture capital, and advised the audience to only deal with it if absolutely necessary. "Other peoples money makes you stupid," he quipped, "avoid it at all possible". One of the most interesting passages from Dan's talk was about how Vecna profit shares with their employees and uses a "peer to peer" points system (employees give "cookies" to one another to reward those who are providing value) to determine distributions.


5. Kyle Vogt, Justin.tv (a Y-Combinator company). Kyle's talk was centered around a list of "productivity hacks" but the most interesting portion of his talk was about how Justin.tv dealt with the failure of their original idea and, instead of giving up, used it as an opportunity to change direction and embrace a more mainstream approach to get to where they are today. Also, perhaps his most important advice: "stick to dot-com [domain names]".


6. Angus Davis of Tellme. Angus, another enthusiastic speaker, related stories about Tellme's rise and eventual acquisition by Microsoft. He also talked about his experience as an angel investor. His talk gets points for best use of technology as he employed a text messaging feedback system so audience members could tell him which vignettes they wanted to hear more about.


7. Hemant Teneja of General Catalyst Partners. Hemant, a venture capitalist with GC, talked not only about what GC looks for in prospective portfolio companies but also about what founders should look for in a VC, term sheets, and so on. An advocate of bootstrapping (is this rare for a VC?), he agreed with previous speakers that you should delay looking for VC unless you really need it, and make sure you've created something demonstrable and have a viable business strategy before you make that decision. What gets GC excited? Brilliant founders, solving "very hard" problems, addressing large markets, and being ahead of the curve.


8. Dharmesh Shah, Hubspot (and author of the popular On Startups blog). Dharmesh apologized to the crowd at least once for not being a professional speaker, but this seemed largely unnecessary as he had one of the more polished presentations of the day (although he did run through it a bit fast!) His talk was basically a "marketing 101" for early stage founders. "How do you get customers with $0 budget?" he asked. The answer is through inbound, not outbound, marketing; building the best experience for those who are already looking for you or the products you offer through mechanisms like search engine optimization. "Make marketing about creativity, not cash" he counseled.


9. Robin Chase of Zipcar / GoLoco. Robin talked candidly about the origin and growth of Zipcar, sustainability, and the challenges that are facing the world and environment, and how "doing good" can be a foundation for business opportunities, too. On the topic of inspiration vs execution she says that "execution is everything" and advised audience members to get started today, by building the absolute smallest thing that they can to start with. Luck is important, too, she admitted, and noted that luck happens when "preparation meets opportunity". Be prepared!


10. Dan Bricklin, VisiCalc. Dan is an entrepreneur, programmer, and author. He created the first electronic spreadsheet application in 1979 and has been innovating ever since. Dan's talk was a fast moving flurry of images from the early days, growth, and acquisition of VisiCalc and his company, Software Arts, and his experiences -- both good and bad -- as "an entrepreneur 30 years later". His talk was refreshing and filled with humor. "You will live through things you do not expect", Dan said as he was wrapping up.


11. Aaron Schwartz of Infogami / Reddit (a Y-Combinator company). At 14, Aaron co-authored the original RSS 1.0 specification, and has been active in the technology, entrepreneurial, and political action communities ever since. As part of the first Y-Combinator program, his company was eventually merged with Ohanian's Redit. He talked about launching a startup and joked about what to not do ("the hollywood launch") and what might be a better strategy ("the gmail launch", incremental features and invitations).


12. Drew Houston, Dropbox (a Y-Combinator company). Drew's startup, Dropbox, is now serving over 2.5 million users. Drew talked about his personal experiences from the creation of Dropbox to growing it to this point, and the challenges he faced along the way. He championed engineering-centric organizations and noted that "it's much easier for engineers to pick up the business side than for business people to pick up the engineering side". He also counseled the audience to "get in over their heads" and out of their comfort zones to learn things. Having friends in startups is tremendously helpful too; surround yourself with kindred spirits (which is why programs like Y-Combinator work so well). 


As someone who is strongly considering taking a break from the consulting lifestyle to focus on building a product, this was a really great opportunity (and well-timed). It was also, of course, a chance to meet and chat with other aspiring entrepreneurs who were attending the event and compare notes. I definitely got more out of this event than other comparable conference talks I've been to. I hope MIT does another one in the future -- thanks much to the organizers and event sponsors for putting it all together.

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