“Work hard and keep your head down—that’s Chile’s unofficial motto,” says Rocio Fonseca, SF ’14, executive director of Start-Up Chile. “The goal of the average Chilean is to get a job working for a corporation.” Fonseca adds that small and medium-sized businesses in Chile are not innovation driven. “They tend to err on the side of playing it safe—and that complacency curbs growth and evolution. Chile is not an entrepreneurial culture.”
In 2010, the Chilean government launched the ambitious enterprise accelerator Start-Up Chile to help it turn that national attitude around. The program helps early-stage, high-potential entrepreneurs bootstrap their startups using Chile as a platform to go global. With an annual portfolio of 200-250 companies, Start-Up Chile has fast become the best business accelerator program in Latin America and is counted among the top five worldwide. It’s also the cornerstone of Chile’s national economic development strategy.
Start-Up Chile is actually a collection of three programs: a pre-acceleration program for early-stage enterprises, a seed program for startups with a functioning product and early validation, and a follow-on fund for top performing startups looking to scale up in Latin American and globally. With robust training programs, workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, and a busy calendar of networking events, Fonseca fosters a fertile environment that connects Chilean innovators with early-stage, high potential entrepreneurs around the world.
Return on investment. It’s not just an economic measure. Ray Leach, SF ’02, CEO of JumpStart in Cleveland, Ohio, believes that social ROI is every bit as important—and as impactful as economic ROI in improving the quality of life of a region. A national thought leader at the intersections of public, private, and philanthropic partnerships, Leach strives to accelerate job creation and increase economic outcomes in neighborhoods, regions, and countries. Co-founder of four tech startups, he was also a founding member of the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship (NACIE).
Leach founded JumpStart to work in tandem with government efforts to boost quality of life in Northeast Ohio through entrepreneurship. His diverse team of investors, marketing professionals, mentors, and advisors offers expertise to the founders of new or growing startups. CoverMyMeds, one of JumpStart’s portfolio companies, was just acquired for $1B+. With JumpStart’s nurturing, the company grew from three people to more than 500 in eight years.
Leach believes that to promote entrepreneurship, governments and nonprofits like JumpStart must first create an environment in which entrepreneurial ventures can thrive. JumpStart provides mentorship, education, and introductions to investors—but Leach says that to be truly effective, he and his team needed to get creative. “We have begun to focus on a broad variety of problems that prevent the community from thriving. We realized, for example, that a lot of startups and established companies need employees, but those companies often are located in industrial parks in the suburbs. The unskilled labor they would like to hire resides in urban centers. We need to find out how to bring the workers and the jobs together. In other words, we’re not just looking at job creation, but reducing unemployment.”
Alan Mulally, SF ’82, the legendary turnaround-artist who resuscitated Ford Motor Company, has always stayed focused on what’s next. An early proponent of 3D printing, he said in an earlier SF Leadership Blog post, “Metal is in the near future. With the level of accuracy that is possible through this process, we are seeing a sudden and dramatic improvement in the quality and manufacturability of parts. It’s both economical and efficient because spare parts don’t have to be warehoused. Almost any part can be produced on demand—and its file can live in the cloud. Three-dimensional printing will revolutionize the manufacturing world.”
The company that arguably is creating the noisiest buzz in the 3D space is Burlington, Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal—one of BostInno’s “17 Boston tech companies to watch in 2017.” CEO Ric Fulop, SF ’06, launched the startup in October of 2015 to bring metal 3D printing to design and manufacturing companies across the globe. Fulop and his team have raised $97 million in equity funding, including a $45 million round of funding led by Google, BMW, and Lowe’s. Previous investors include NEA, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Lux Capital, GE Ventures, Saudi Aramco, and 3D printing leader Stratasys. Desktop Metal is preparing for a product launch in late 2017.
Stern makes a distinction in the kind of entrepreneurship he’s trying to promote—the innovation-fueled kind. Innovation-driven entrepreneurship (IDEs) involves the development of global enterprises that are commercializing technical or societal innovations with a clear competitive advantage and high growth potential. Not all new enterprises can be categorized as IDE—an individual launching a chain of dry-cleaning shops, for example, would be an entrepreneur of a small-medium enterprise (SME), not of an IDE.
Jobs. It may be the most loaded four-letter word in the American lexicon. The Great Recession shaped the national mindset so that job creation and economic development have grown into a veritable obsession. Nearly every political leader ranks the generation of employment opportunities at or near the top of his or her agenda. With all this focus on jobs, however, we have yet to develop a durable consensus about how to ensure that high-growth businesses survive and thrive. And unless they survive and thrive, they can’t very well generate new jobs.
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.”