5 things MIT taught me about business

It’s not often your outlook on life changes perceptibly in five short days, but if you ever find yourself enrolled in MIT‘s Entrepreneurship Development Programmethat’s exactly what you should expect.

Despite a room full of previous participants telling me the same thing just two months earlier (and warning the days weren’t particularly short), as I cruised Boston-bound high above the Atlantic this January, I wasn’t in the least bit prepared for what lay ahead of me.

Bill Aulet, our leader for the week, describes the EDP learning experience as ‘drinking from the firehose’ – and he’s not wrong. Even with the constant stream of Coke, cakes and coffee entering your digestive system, I defy anyone to take that much into their brains that quickly. It’s overwhelming at times, as every waking minute is used to fill you with knowledge then test it to breaking point.

There are lots of waking minutes.

But through the bombardment of captivating lectures, guest speakers, workshops, discussion and pitching, important things quickly emerge. For me five simple messages stuck, which I’ve brought home along with a greatly refined view of how to build a business.

They seem obvious in hindsight, but the best things usually do. See what you think…

1. Understand what innovation means

A bit like ‘awesome’ (which I enjoy using frivolously while on US soil), ‘innovative’ is a word often used to describe things which quite simply aren’t. Innovation actually contains two ingredients: invention & commercialisation.

Innovation = invention + commercialisation

And if you spill too much of one ingredient into the mix, you should always make sure it’s the latter. An inferior invention can enjoy huge commercial success (Windows), but even the most awesome will fail without good commercialisation (Betamax). Innovation is the taking of something new to market, converting novelty into value. And it’s the fire that burns at the core of every successful entrepreneur.

2. Get Stuff Done

Successful entrepreneurs share an ability to Get Stuff Done. Sometimes that means working like a crazy fool to make something happen, sometimes it means persevering in the face of adversity, often both. But the key is achieving stuff – little things, big things – all outcomes you can put your finger on which moved you on from where you were before.

If it sounds terribly simple, that’s because it is. It’s also terribly effective.

3. Create value, capture value

Your service or product has to solve a customer’s problem, scratch an itch, or relieve a pain. If it does, you have real value to them. Establish that value in your customer’s mind and you’re in a position to capture value – revenue – in return.

Balancing the relationship between the two is a craft, but it’s surprising how many businesses miss one of those two basic factors (and unsurprising how many successful ones have them nailed).

4. Keep the main thing the main thing

‘Focus’ is a theme you come back to time and time again to at EDP. Even if you’re lucky enough to have money on your side, when you’re growing a new company, time certainly won’t be.

When the Vikings arrived on the shores of a new land, the first thing they’d do is burn their boats so there was no going back, and you should do the same. Identify a single market and pursue it with utter conviction and minimum distraction. Deselection is just as important as selection, and clearly defining your main thing gives a simple framework to make decisions quickly.

In short: if you want to fail, keep your options open.

5. Be the Chief Experimentation Officer

Failure isn’t always bad, but only if we can fail quickly and learn from it. That’s why experimentation has such an important role to play.

The basis of any experiment is simple: create a hypothesis and devise a way to test it out. But there’s a strong argument to forgo perfection in those experiments so they happen quickly and cheaply. If your hypothesis isn’t going to hold water, it’s better to find out with 80% certainty in 20% of the time and with 20% of the resource.

And never stop experimenting. As you grow, do even more – the most successful companies are expert experimenters.

Proof of the importance of these five points was found in two hugely successful Boston startups I visited, SCVNGR and HubSpot. This stuff runs in their blood, and I was struck by the clarity and focus with which they approach their business. They know exactly what they want to be; now it’s just a case of getting there.