Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

MIT MBAs Take 9 Lessons Home From Silicon Valley Tour

Posted by Tom Foremski - January 31, 2011

By Anagha Ramanujam

One hundred and nine students pursuing the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at the MIT Sloan School of Management began their New Year in the Silicon Valley on the school's annual, Silicon Valley Study Tour.

The school firmly believes that business innovation must drive the economy in the next decade.

The visit, led by the MIT Entrepreneurship Centre Managing Director Bill Aulet, was designed to expose students with entrepreneurial aspirations to the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The tour enabled students to develop personal connections with the entrepreneurs, venture capital firms and CEOs in one of the most successful startup hubs of the country.

Over a span of three days, we visited more than 70 startups in the valley.


The bigger companies we visited included the usual suspects - Google, Facebook and Twitter. The evenings were devoted to networking events with MIT alumni, students from Stanford and Berkeley.

At the heart of the trek was a ton of highly valuable advice that students looking to start up companies received from the community.

Prominent speakers included boxer turned surgeon Thomas Fogarty (Fogarty Winery), Rich Wong (Accel Partners), Steve Blank (Stanford), Jim Kim (Khosla Ventures), Tristan Walker (Foursquare), Frederic Kerrest (Okta) and Happ Klopp (North Face).

Seven precepts for future entrepreneurs that I took away included -

1. Follow your heart - None of the entrepreneurs seemed to have gotten into business for the money or the fame. It was sheer passion and the simple joy of waking up to doing something they were incredibly proud of, that made them tick.

Just Freakin' Do It - There's no right time, place or way to get started. The right time is now, the right place is here. You need to make a decision, make a mistake or change tracks but just get started! Contemplation and over-analyzing a problem doesn't get you much more than a headache and the frustration of lost time and opportunity!

2. Don't swear by your business plans - Business plans are like battle plans before a war. Once combat begins, your strategy evolves with every move that enemy makes. You never go into combat without a plan, so write your business plan s and strategize, but don't worship it like the Bible. Your business model is the winner, not the plan.

3. It's a game of chess - Business is a game of chess rather than checkers. At times, you need to move backwards several steps to get ahead in the game. Be prepared for set-backs and plan several moves in advance.

4. Focus on the problem - Many people believe that successful companies are about astounding ideas. On the contrary, students learned that successful companies are about successful problem solving. Once you've identified a problem you want to solve, you'll have several ideas around it. As Mir Imran of Incube ventures, a successful entrepreneur with over 250 patents and 25 companies put it, "Give up your love for technology and focus on the problem."

5. Do your market research before you get started - Know your customers, know what they want. Understand their problems and hear it straight from them. Nothing parallels a direct customer interaction; your VP of sales is not you. You need to be at the helm of things and can't afford to outsource key aspects of the business. Remember the old adage - the customer is king! Meet them, call them, be around them; they pay your companies' bills.

6. Attract talented people, retain them - In this world of seemingly inexhaustible opportunities, people have options. Introduce a stringent process around recruiting the best people you can find. Once you hire them, retain them!

It was impressive to note how willing these entrepreneurs were in doling out meaningful advice, mentorship and support to the visitors - potential members of their growing community.

Recognizing that not all 109 students would run companies after graduation, the community was also very forthcoming on career advice for those who would choose more established career paths -

1. Great entrepreneurs are born, great entrepreneurial executives are trained. Large firms are excellent avenues to receive education and training.

2. Success requires you to possess breadth of knowledge and depth of expertise. You almost need a dual-career path. Pick your twin-interests and nurture them both as if they were your children.

3. Choose the company you work for wisely. Choose mentorship to money; choose learning and a motivated peer-group to title. With organizations operating as teams and each team becoming a learner, what you learn and contribute matters more than who you are in the hierarchy.

Several companies also advertised summer and full-time opportunities for MBA students. As Bill Aulet put it - "Our students are not here to steal jobs from the business schools in the Valley, but yes, some amount of healthy competition could be created."

Now that we're back in Boston, it's time to put our thoughts and plans into action.

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