Don’t reinvent the flat tire, paint your own masterpiece: Bill Aulet

Bill Aulet

Bill Aulet is the author of ‘Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup’. He is the managing director at the Martin Trust Centre for Entrepreneurship at MIT and also a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

In this exclusive interview, Bill talks about product development for startups, venture capital movement, entrepreneur attitudes, and role models.

YS: How was your book received?

A: Amazing! We have no publicity firm for it but it has been selling very well by word of mouth. In fact, by the numbers, it should have been on the New York Times best seller list for business books by now.

Big companies have been also buying it and showing great interest to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

A: This is the toughest question an entrepreneur faces. There is a fine line between perseverance and dumb stubbornness. You have to do all the primary market research in a structured manner like we discuss in the book but in the end, you take what you learned from this data and balance it with your gut feel. This can also be a personal reaction, based on your resources and fatigue factor – and of your team.

YS: Is there such a thing as the ‘ideal age’ for an entrepreneur, or can the startup bug sting you at any time?

A: Data shows that the idea that young people dominate entrepreneurship is not true. It seems from the data about MIT students that they really reach their peak in their late 30s after they have one startup already under their belt. So your odds of success go up generally with your third startup over your second.

But there is no ideal age to get started – usually the sooner the better after you have a strong base of technical skills. I am a big believer in entrepreneurs getting a good engineering degree and staying in school to get it. I disagree strongly with the Peter Thiel Fellows program in this regard which pays high schoolers to drop out of college for $100,000.

YS: How big a role does academics play in entrepreneurship?

A: Entrepreneurship is a mix of practice and rigorous frameworks. You need both.

YS: What are the key skills you want to see students build during your courses on entrepreneurship?

A: Understanding of the process and then confidence. The two big skills are focus and then putting that focus on the target customer.

In my classes, I address all types of business and the methodology applies equally effectively to digital and other startups. ‘Disciplined Entrepreneurship’ cuts across industries and motives.

YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company?

A: Going international and then hiring people are the big challenges. This is not covered in the book but we talk a lot about it in our classes at MIT.

YS: What are your findings with regard to startups in emerging economies like China and India?

A: There are great opportunities in these economies but it requires a very strong execution of the disciplined approach. Entrepreneurship is global now so the lines are blurring more than ever before.

YS: What are your thoughts on emerging models of innovation such as frugal innovation?

A: I generally like them but am also careful not to get caught up in the latest fad. I am open to new ideas but want to see them proven with data before we put too much behind them. Entrepreneurship has been susceptible to fads too much in the past.

YS: What trends do you see in venture capital movement from mature to emerging economies?

A: After a very tough decade good times are back. But these bubbles don’t last. However, it is not as crazy as the last one at the end of the 1990s. But a fundamental change now is the emergence of accelerators like TechStars, YCombinator and many more that are more often getting very early deal flow and controlling it before the VCs get to it. But everyone is doing pretty well right now which is the case in a bubble.

Local and replica models are viable but we do see the ‘Rocket Internet’ model of taking established models from the US and replicating them becoming less a part of overall entrepreneurship, as seen in companies in places like Berlin.

YS: Who are some of the entrepreneurs you admire the most today?

A: Steve Jobs leaves me in awe of what he did but I have trouble with his leadership style; I would not have worked for him nor think others should emulate his style. Two of my heroes believe it or not are from the past. Thomas Watson Junior was incredible in my estimation and never gets enough credit. He was not the founder of IBM but he made it the world’s most admired company and from a commercial standpoint created computer industry. His leadership style and attention to creating a scalable corporate culture that combined innovation with relentless excellence was very inspirational to me.

The other is Mitch Kapor, who founded Lotus Development Corporation, and showed me how entrepreneurship can be used for greater social good while also making great products.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

A: Updating this book and continuing to refine the process. If I had enough time to do that and do my job at MIT, I would consider writing a Disciplined Entrepreneurship book about the process to build a strong team for a startup and then how to develop and grow it. The two things that matter most to starting a company are a strong cohesive team and getting the market-product fit right. This first book just dealt with the latter and not the former.

YS: What is your message to startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

A: Keep your spirit and passion but use a proven process. Don’t reinvent the wheel and even more so, don’t reinvent the flat tire. Take the wisdom gained from those who have gone before you and use it to go out and paint your own masterpiece. It is incredibly rewarding when you do. Change the world!


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