MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Educated Self — My MIT Journey

Contributed by Entrepreneurship Development Program participant Cally Russell, CEO of Mallzee. Previously published on LinkedIn.

I’ll be honest and say I’ve never really bought into the idea of entrepreneurship as an education choice. I’ve kinda always believed that running a company is best figured out by doing instead of being stuck in a classroom being told how to do it. So when the chance arose to attend the Entrepreneur Development Program at MIT run by Bill Aulet I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve previously read some of his work and always thought he was an interesting teacher but a full week of classes, group work and speakers? Was that really me? Would I really learn much from it? Would it be a good use of my precious time?

Well, it turns out you can learn A LOT and the MIT EDP program is world class at kick-starting your thinking and approach.

The 24 Steps of Disciplined Entrepreneurship that Aulet has created for early stage companies should be the gospel for anyone starting a company. Customer focused, problem-orientated and easy to understand the 24 steps create a complete framework with which to make decisions and provide you with the confidence to push forward with hard challenges. The course started last Sunday with speed dating between attendees, some people pitching ideas pitching and then people selecting what pitches they wanted to work on.

After watching 30 pitches I threw the idea of tackling global Hunger through repurposing food waste out in front of the 88 participants from 30 countries. I must admit I didn’t think it would make the cut but 6 wonderful people thought it was worth focusing on for the week so we formed a team to work on developing the concept into a pitchable concept and potentially a business. We ended up with The Ugly Fruit and Veg Company, a take on the snack box trend but using the rejected product. I’m not going to break down every speaker across the week but need to list a couple of my personal highlights,

  • Pricing with Catherine Tucker: Two hours thinking in-depth about pricing strategy and how to make it as easy as possible to buy from your company while at the same time being as profitable as possible.
  • Team Building with Donna Levin: As one of the founders of Care.com ($1.8bn IPO) Donna knows a thing or two about teams. The main takeaway was that teams need to be balanced and know what their strengths and weaknesses really are.
  • Raising Venture with Brian Halligan (Hubspot CEO): Now valued at $3.6bn the Hubspot story is an amazing one. Brian was one of the frankest and funniest speakers I’ve seen in a long time. His explanation of jumping through the hoops to raise VC (included jumping through imaginary hoops) was a great reality check for anyone who has not been through the process before.

And then there was Bill Aulet himself. Not many lecturers have exited multiple businesses and have his breadth of experience and stories of success and failure. The energy and purpose he injects into taking people through the 24 steps is amazing and he is truly one of a kind.

Alongside these and many more lectures, we put The Ugly Fruit and Veg Company through the 24 steps and then pitched the completed concept at the end of the week.

We changed our business model 4 times, had 16 coaching sessions, interviewed 31 potential customers, drank around 373 cups of coffee and ended up with 15 slides crafted with love to tell our mission and plan. Thanks to a rigorous following of the 24 stages, combined with the great team we put together on the first night ... it was enough to beat some amazing businesses to win the best pitch competition at the end of the week meaning I was lucky enough to take home some amazing prizes, highlight being the Bill Aulet 24 steps beach towel!

Team Ugly after their victory in the Entrepreneurship Development Program

Team Ugly after our victory!

A week later and looking back at the course my three main takeaways are pretty simple:

  • Team is everything - make sure it’s balanced, make sure it communicates well, make sure to structure it, and make sure it plays to people's strengths.
  • Customer, Customer, Customer - If they don’t buy it then you don’t have a business. So, understand who they really are, what makes them tick, what gets them promoted, what gets them fired, what keeps them awake at night, what they just don’t care about and where they hang out.
  • Test and Learn - Test assumptions early in the process, throw up some Facebook ads, and see what messages resonate with your target demographic.

My biggest learning though? Focus is key! Even with an amazing team, innovative technology, and a market that is in need of your solution if you don’t commit and stay fully focused then you can’t grow and own your market. Thanks to everyone who made the week so interesting, so varied, and so challenging! I would highly recommend the book, the process and the course to everyone.

Oh, and Boston in January is baltic but beautiful.

Contributed by Entrepreneurship Development Program participant Cally Russell (@CallyRussell) CEO of Mallzee. Previously published on LinkedIn.

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