If there’s a universal malady that strikes entrepreneurs, it’s burnout. A startup can consume its founder, leaving no time or energy for a personal life. Leadership and decision-making suffer as well as relationships with families and friends.
Jag Gill, SF ’13, founder and CEO of the global apparel startup Sundar notes that when you’re passionate about your business, it can be difficult to turn it off. “It’s easy to lose track of other important aspects of your life. It’s essential to have personal rituals built into your day. The gym, family time, a regular dinner with a friend. I like to say that if your time isn’t measured, it’s not managed.”
Alan Yan, SF ’07, founder of several successful enterprises, including AdChina, which was acquired by Alibaba in 2015, says he always makes sure to choose life over business. Enterprises come and go, he says, but family and friends are forever. “People are not machines. We are not digital action figures.” Yan made a decision to sell AdChina, in part, because a member of his family needed to move to California for health reasons. “I believe—and I have experienced this—that when you have the right balance between your personal and professional priorities, you function better in all areas of your life.”
One of the great hazards for any founder of a new enterprise, seasoned entrepreneurs say, is the distractions. Distractions in the form of opportunities and detours that can lure the founder away from the core mission in search of easy money or markets.
“When you start a new enterprise, check your distractions at the door and stay focused on your vision,” says Gustavo Mamão, SF ’11, founder of the Brazilian startup Flourish. “Remind yourself why you have launched the business and check each decision against that original vision. Entrepreneurship is a long and winding journey. You must continually keep your vision in mind and not get distracted by the shiny objects along the road.”
Alan Yan, SF ’07, is founder of several successful enterprises, including AdChina, which was acquired by Alibaba in 2015. He says he’s come to realize that even success can cloud vision. “Keep working toward your core mission. Keep your eyes on that prize. Very often when entrepreneurs experience initial success, they think they are invincible. In that flush of enthusiasm, they branch out in many different directions, following up on any attractive opportunity, losing sight of their key objectives and core mission. Remember,” he cautions, “It’s better to be a leader in one marketplace, than an idle dabbler in many.”
Innovation for its own sake is not necessarily innovative. If you want to start a successful business, says Jag Gill, SF’13, solve a problem. Gill, founder and CEO of Sundar, a global apparel startup, created her business because no efficient platform existed to connect the apparel industry to suppliers and manufacturers. “A clever idea is neither practical nor executable if it doesn’t solve an existing problem or fill a gap.”
Gill says that when she mentors budding entrepreneurs, she asks them to drill down on their motivations. “What’s your secret sauce? What’s unique in what you bring to the table? And what societal need are you meeting? A new business should never be a solution in search of a problem.”
Nadia Shalaby, SF ’10, a serial entrepreneur and CEO of ITE Fund, agrees. “Understand the market for your product before you ever begin. Who needs what you are planning to provide? How will you reach them? Are there enough consumers to make your product or service viable?”
Surround yourself with like-minded people. Bring in as many different perspectives as you can. Fuel creativity by promoting tensions. It seems that every expert who weighs in on the composition of the perfect management team offers up a different recipe. We polled a number of entrepreneurial gurus and asked them to tell us who should be at your right hand when you’re about to launch a new enterprise.
A diverse mix, says Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert, PhD, SF ’12. She says the head of a startup needs to entertain a steady stream of different perspectives. If your management team is diverse, she believes, you’ll have a better chance of generating fresh ideas and solutions. “The strongest teams are those that represent multiple cultural and professional perspectives—technical, managerial, marketing. That way, all facets of your business are being addressed during the decision-making process.”
Jag Gill, SF ’13, founder and CEO of Sundar, a global apparel startup, notes that many investors value CEOs who are outside the industry in which the enterprise operates. Although she had advised clients in the world of apparel and had exposure to the industry, Gill herself had a background in finance before launching Sundar. “One thing that someone from outside the industry brings to the table is an impulse to ask why. They haven’t become comfortable with the status quo, so they don’t just accept things the way they’ve always been. They are always asking, ‘Why do we do things this way?’ That reality check is exactly what a business needs to compete and stay healthy.”
Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs lean toward immediate gratification. So does the pharmaceutical industry and, for that matter, society as a whole. Unfortunately, inventions that require a long lead time to develop are often overlooked in favor of projects that promise a quicker pay-off—a phenomenon that may well be holding back disease cures and energy solutions. MIT is stepping up to address this issue with a pioneering new enterprise called The Engine, which will provide funding, expertise, and physical space to innovators studying breakthroughs that may take a bit longer to commercialize.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced the initiative in late October 2016 at The Engine’s headquarters in Central Square, Cambridge. He noted that many innovations never leave the lab because companies have difficulty finding financing. The Engine, he said, will power a grid of innovation networks, supporting startup companies working on scientific and technological breakthroughs that have the potential for transformative societal impact.
“If we hope for serious solutions to the world’s great challenges,” Reif said, “we need to make sure the innovators working on those problems see a realistic pathway to the marketplace. The Engine can provide that pathway by prioritizing breakthrough ideas over early profit, helping to shorten the time it takes these startups to become ‘VC-ready,’ providing comprehensive support in the meantime, and creating an enthusiastic community of inventors and supporters who share a focus on making a better world. We believe this approach can offer exponential growth to regions that pursue it successfully — and we want Greater Boston to lead the way.”
For every startup that rises to stardom, many thousands of enterprises go bust. What are the X-factors that determine whether a great idea succeeds the commercialization gauntlet or bottoms out? The Leadership Blog will be investigating that “million-dollar question,” over the next few months. Watch this space for late-breaking wisdom from faculty and MIT Sloan Fellows entrepreneurs around the world.
We’ll kick off this series of posts by looking at the insights of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who visited MIT recently. He talked about the traits of indomitable entrepreneurs (of course, he himself can be counted among them).
One of Kalanick’s first nuggets of advice was about reinvention. He pointed out that Uber delivers magic to consumers, affording customers relaxed, dependable, and magical rides. Unfortunately, he said, “We get used to magic. There was a time when running water was magic.” Indeed, he noted, customers’ expectations are perpetually rising, and any enduring company or entrepreneur must continually rise to the occasion and meet those expectations.
Is Hong Kong the next new enterprise frontier? In June, MIT unveiled its Hong Kong Innovation Node, a collaborative space designed to connect the Institute community with partners and resources in what has become a key global business hub and a gateway to Asia. The “node,” which will be run by the MIT Innovation Initiative, convenes MIT students, faculty, and researchers to work on entrepreneurial and research projects with Hong Kong-based students, faculty, MIT alumni, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.
The goal of the new environment is to help students learn how to move ideas more rapidly from lab to market. It also will increase opportunities for MIT students to conduct research in collaboration with Hong Kong universities. An innovative makerspace and startup programs for student entrepreneurs will add to the dynamism of the environment.
“By bringing MIT to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to MIT,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif, “the Innovation Node will deepen MIT’s activities in Hong Kong and, through Hong Kong, in the entire Pearl River Delta region. In creating this node in Hong Kong, MIT is committing to advancing our engagement with the region in a mutually beneficial way.”
Burnout. That was the only word for it. In the early years of the 21st century, marketing professionals were beginning to find that customers had grown immune to traditional promotions. Direct mailings, television advertisements, cold calls—they were all reaching unresponsive audiences suffering from marketing burnout.
For MIT Sloan Fellows classmates and HubSpot cofounders Brian Halligan, SF ’05, and Dharmesh Shah, SF ’06, the marketing crisis inspired an aha moment. Their vision for inbound marketing was born. Instead of begging, pestering, and cajoling customers to listen to your pitch, the duo thought, what if the content you offered was so compelling that people were clambering to get at it? If this sounds obvious today, it’s owing in part to HubSpot’s success. Since the company’s launch in 2006, it has developed a customer base of more than 19,000 in 90+ countries worldwide.
Africa is the ultimate conundrum. Many countries across the continent are plagued with dizzying infrastructure, security, and corruption challenges. Yet, the regional economy has climbed steadily over the last decade and is accelerating at an annual rate of approximately 5 percent a year. Government debt is low as are inflation rates, and the United Nations human development index shows that several African nations have been climbing the charts—a significant quality-of-life indicator.
“You often hear in the media and in development circles that Africa is rising,” says Ezekiel Odiogo, SF ’13, a native of Nigeria, “but I disagree. Africa has risen.” Odiogo, a principal investment officer in the Transport and ICT Department of the African Development Bank Group, supports his assertion with the fact that several African nations rank among the fastest growing economies in the world—in fact, they dominate Business Insider’s “Top Thirteen” list. “The overall balance has shifted to where we see an increasing number of check marks on the positive side of the ledger,” he says.