Teaching Entrepreneurship, the Pirate Code, and MIT’s Bill Aulet
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Aulet. Even small and medium enterprises (like dry cleaners and neighborhood restaurants) does not as a sector generate substantial numbers of new jobs to the economy.
Aulet says the meteoric success of innovation-driven companies—recent examples include Facebook, Twitter, Air BnB, and Alibaba—has made entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship cool. But as the point man for entrepreneurship at MIT, he also worries that the “faddism” surrounding entrepreneurship—the glamour and myth-making—is generating a lot of misconceptions about entrepreneurship.
There are a lot of entrepreneurship books, conferences, and gurus out there, and many are promoting their own approach to entrepreneurship as the one true path to success.
But when it comes to innovation-driven entrepreneurship, Aulet asks, “How can there be one formula for something that’s never been done before?” He sees a lot of blue-ocean-chasm-crossing-lean-pivoting mumbo jumbo out there, and he argues that much of the advice coming out in various forums comes down to nothing more than just story telling.
Aulet calls this entrepreneurship without data, and where is the discipline in that?
More importantly, he asks, what are entrepreneurs really getting out of today’s surfeit of entrepreneurship mentoring bootcamps, workshops, and incubator programs? Is there any real value there? Or are the purveyors of the proliferating number of startup programs merely exploiting entrepreneurs as the next big business opportunity?
As an educator, Aulet is also wrestling with the challenge of trying to assess what students are learning about entrepreneurship.
Aulet describes himself as “an entrepreneur by design, and an academic by accident.” He left IBM after 11 years to run two MIT spinouts (Cambridge Decision Dynamics and SensAble Technologies) before joining Viisage Technology. The experience was enormously gratifying, but Aulet says it also was enormously hard work. And as a Harvard-trained engineer, he believes entrepreneurship is inherently hard. It requires a disciplined approach.
Aulet’s approach makes use of a methodical, step-by-step progression that uses best practices, collects data, and applies common principles within a framework to reduce risk and enable entrepreneurs to either succeed or fail fast. Aulet lays out this approach in Disciplined Entrepreneurship, saying entrepreneurs should apply his methodology with “the spirit of a pirate and the execution skills of a Navy SEAL.”
Of course, the systematic framework that Aulet lays out might seem a lot like the formulaic solutions that he has criticized when offered by others.
Aulet’s answer is that his 24 steps to a successful startup represent “an open-source amalgamation” of the good things he has pulled together through years of teaching and studying entrepreneurship—and by reaching out to other experts in the field. He views the 24 steps as a basic framework for entrepreneurship, and he hopes new insights and lessons will make it better in the future than it is today. “It’s an effort to build a community,” Aulet says. “What we’re trying to do is create a common language about entrepreneurship.”
Of course, if entrepreneurs truly embrace the pirate spirit, as Aulet suggests, I would add—as they say in Pirates of the Caribbean—“the pirate code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”