When Bill Aulet left IBM after a 12-year stint, he was ready to “take the entrepreneurial world by storm.” After all, he had an engineering degree from Harvard and a master’s degree in business and entrepreneurial marketing from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He also rose the ranks of IBM, attaining multiple executive and management positions along the way. On paper, his educational and professional management experienced stacked up for entrepreneurial success.
But it rarely works that way.
“I don’t want to say I got crushed, but I got beaten down and humbled. Because I didn’t really know about entrepreneurship,” Aulet tells Poets&Quants. “I treated it like it was a big company. And I worried about things I didn’t need to worry about. My discipline was more focused on ‘What clothes do I wear?’ versus ‘How do I get the product out of the door?’ That was a really important lesson for me that was painful, but it was extremely valuable.”
Times have certainly changed for Aulet, now the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at MIT. Since his flop, he has co-founded or co-led multiple companies that have been valued at or sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. He has directly raised more than $100 million in funding. And he’s helped dozens of student entrepreneurs do the same through the programs, teaching, and mentorship of the Trust Center.
ENTREPRENEURSHIP AS A CRAFT
After his first company went under two years after graduating from MIT Sloan, Aulet wondered if he could have learned the lessons he learned while in school. After all, he reasoned, learning those lessons in the safe(r) space of business school would have put less stress on his bank account and family of six.
“To me, the answer was yes — I could have learned that stuff if I had the right program,” Aulet says. “That influenced me to create a program to teach people what I learned in my first startup.”
In 2013, that program evolved to Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup, Aulet’s first step-by-step framework to entrepreneurship success.
“The thing is, entrepreneurship isn’t a science. It’s not a deterministic equation where if you have X inputs, you will get Y outputs,” Aulet says. “But on the other hand, it’s not art, either. We think of it as a craft, where there are important principles that will increase your odds of success. And I think that’s an important approach to it. Because otherwise, if you just kind of do an unstructured approach, you end up with a lot of what’s out there today, which is un-actionable. It might be correct, but it’s un-actionable.”
GROWING WAVE OF NATIONALISM POSES A POTENTIAL THREAT TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP, JOB CREATION
After publishing the first version of the book, Aulet was met with praise for the insights. He was also met with questions.
“I didn’t realize what kind of vacuum there was and a need for the original 24 Steps book. Everywhere I went, people would come up to me and say, ‘I really loved your book, but how do you do this other thing?'” Aulet recalls. “And I would ask, ‘Why do you really need to do that?’ And they would tell me their problem. It was very, very interesting to hear all of this stuff, and that’s what guided me to do this.”
In an in-depth interview with P&Q, Aulet talks about the creation of the Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook, why it is needed in entrepreneurship education, and what business schools need to do to stay relevant in educating entrepreneurs. Aulet also speaks about the current entrepreneurial ecosystem in the U.S. and how the biggest threats to the progression of the practice are the potential rising nationalism and stalling of thoughtful research. He also speaks about what MIT is doing to compete with Y-Combinator, Techstars, and other incubators for top entrepreneurial talent.
I can’t say I’ve read a lot of how-to guides or workbooks focused on entrepreneurship, but I can’t imagine reading a more detailed one than this.
Yeah, well, we’re engineers at MIT and we like to construct things in a detailed fashion. The thing is, entrepreneurship isn’t a science. It’s not a deterministic equation where if you have X inputs, you will get Y outputs. But on the other hand, it’s not art, either. We think of it as a craft, where there are important principles that will increase your odds of success. And I think that’s an important approach to it. Because otherwise, if you just kind of do an unstructured approach, you end up with a lot of what’s out there today, which is un-actionable. It might be correct, but it’s un-actionable.
There is definitely a camp out there that believes you are born an entrepreneur or you’re not. What are your main arguments supporting the notion that entrepreneurship is a teachable position?
I’m not sure academics believe that, because the data is very compelling that the more times you’re an entrepreneur, the higher your odds of success are. That’s the data. Anyone who sees that data realizes quickly — like I did when I saw it — that it makes sense. Because, the more times you’re an entrepreneur, the more times you’re learning something in the process. And that makes perfect sense. It’s like anything else. If you play basketball or tennis, the more times you play it, the better you get. You are learning something and that’s what improves your odds of success.
The question is, are we teaching it the right way? It’s teachable if you expand your idea of education. If you think you’re just going to learn something by reading a book or sitting in a classroom, well, I would be very uncomfortable saying that. But I am very comfortable saying that with a holistic view of education, you can teach people entrepreneurship. And that holistic view is not just in the classroom. You’re doing action projects in the real world. And you’re at least simulating — if not putting into practice — all of the theory and frameworks that you’re getting.
That’s what I’ve tried to do — teach people the lessons I learned in my first startup so they don’t have to do that in the real world like I did with four kids and a mortgage.
But, again, what someone might argue is it’s not teachable in the sense that java programming is teachable or physics. Those are deterministic science types of things, where you put a known thing in and you get a known thing out of those inputs. That’s not the way entrepreneurship works. It’s a craft. With that definition of entrepreneurship, it’s very teachable.