Teaching Entrepreneurship, the Pirate Code, and MIT’s Bill Aulet

If there was a theme to Bill Aulet’s swing through San Diego last week, it was that entrepreneurship is a skill that can be learned.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that entrepreneurship can be taught. In fact, if there was a subtext to Aulet’s presentation at UC San Diego, it would have to be, “Let’s get the bullshit out of the business of educating entrepreneurs.”

As managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship (and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management), Aulet contends that the need for entrepreneurship has never been greater. It’s already clear that American workers can no longer expect to spend their entire career with one company, as previous generations did. In our future economy, he says American workers will have to be more entrepreneurial, if not outright entrepreneurs.

The trick, though, is ensuring that what we learn about entrepreneurship is worthwhile.

Through his work at MIT and as the author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup, Aulet encourages entrepreneurs, startups, large companies, and governments to take a more systematic and disciplined approach to what he calls innovation-driven entrepreneurship. (His talk at UC San Diego was co-hosted by Xconomy and San Diego Tech Founders, with help from UCSD’s Moxie Center for Student Entrepreneurship.)

Listening to Bill Aulet at UC San Diego (photo by Nikki Truitt)

Listening to Bill Aulet at UC San Diego (photo by Nikki Truitt)

Innovation-driven entrepreneurship is important, Aulet says, because that is the creative force behind the growth of companies like Apple, Salesforce, and Google. Citing a 2009 study from the Kauffman Foundation, Aulet says innovation-driven companies produced two-thirds of the 40 million new jobs that were added to the American economy between 1980 and 2005.

What that means is that big business is not a net producer of new jobs. Neither is the government, according to 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?

Bill Aulet at UC San DiegoMore 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.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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