Why entrepreneurship can be taught, and why it works at MIT: A Q&A with Bill Aulet

August 5, 2013

Bill Aulet

Bill Aulet

A successful startup is an enigma, at once simple (“I should have thought of that!”), and mysterious (“How did they make that work?”).

But the secret may be out. Entrepreneurship is not magic. It is work. It is a process. And a process can be taught.

That’s the argument in Disciplined Entrepreneurship, a new book by Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Aulet breaks down the entrepreneurial process, presenting it as a 24-step framework, drilling readers on the nuts and bolts from market segmentation through charting a competitive position to developing a product plan.

“These skills can be taught,” Aulet, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, writes. “They are not genetically gifted to a few lucky souls.”

We spoke with Aulet about his approach, the MIT entrepreneurial community, and how his students at the Trust Center figure into the book.

In the book, you take a bit of the mystique out of entrepreneurship. Here—developing a product, starting a company—it becomes a very deliberate process.

People believe that entrepreneurship can’t be taught, and this book is all about how you teach someone entrepreneurship in a methodical way. It is very much taking some of the mystique out of it, but I think that’s a good thing.

In the introduction, you discuss a "positive feedback loop of entrepreneurship" at MIT. Who are the key people an entrepreneur will meet as he or she travels along that loop?

The positive feedback loop is people see role models and they think, “Yes, I can do it,” and if they think they can do it they go about trying to do it with great conviction. And if they set off with great conviction, what they are taught will be much more effective. As they want to learn more, the teachers get more inspired by teaching them, and so you’ve got this feedback loop. And then they’re more successful, so we’ve got more role models, and then our next class of people comes in, they believe they can do it—this is what’s happened at MIT and that’s why you see the prolific success of MIT.

It starts from the first day you get here at the t=0 entrepreneurship festival where you have the students from the previous year onstage presenting what they did within one year. You have investors watching them and other entrepreneurs watching them and companies watching them, and the new students are seeing this whole thing, and the students at the front who present make the point that “Last year, we were sitting where you are today. We did this in a year and you can do this too.” So they’re inspired by these students and then immediately brought into hackathons and things like that.

There are the professors that encourage entrepreneurship. There are the outside people that we bring in to teach as well, and the external community, which is very supportive of what’s going on here. There are clubs and conferences where entrepreneurs engage with each other. In Kendall Square there are entrepreneurs, the venture capital community, and the service providers, be they lawyers, accountants, or banks.

There are a lot of stories or examples from your class and your students. How do these examples complement your step-by-step approach?

The book has different types of examples of startups. I try to have business-to-business examples, business-to-customer examples, some that are digital or related to IT, and it also has some software and hardware examples. I try to come up with different types of examples and I also try to dive into them so it’s not just theory but you can see how it’s implemented—the examples add variety and depth to the framework.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is a framework methodology rather than a case study methodology. The framework leads and the examples support the framework.

There's a very structured approach to the book. It closely follows your popular New Enterprises course. How can people use it without teaching or other oversight?

I think the book is pretty self-explanatory so that you don’t need instruction or teaching to use it, though it certainly helps. In the future we will be hosting an edX or MITx online course class that will be complementary to this book. Our goal is to take the knowledge we have gained working with practitioners like myself and academic faculty like Fiona Murray, Scott Stern, Matt Marx, and Catherine Tucker, and package it up so it is accessible to a broader audience. We believe that by doing so, Disciplined Entrepreneurship will then have a broader impact on the world’s great challenges in areas like health care, environment, education, and job creation.