Oct 29, 2012
One would really have to be living under a boulder in order to overlook the sometimes speculative and always unpredictable web 2.0 fanaticism that has dominated popular media in the past few years. In particular, the constant public attention this summer on Facebook’s stock price and Marissa Mayer’s transition from Google to Yahoo! makes it evident, if notobsessivelyredundant, just how much people care about entrepreneurship right now. The recent focus on start-ups is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that we’re currently in an election year where job creation and debates on American entrepreneurial creativity to combat the ramifications of globalization envelope public discourse. Or maybe by the fact thatShark Tank is one of the top-rated shows on primetime television (and Mark Cuban is surprisingly relevant yet again). One thing is obvious: this new period of venture creation and realization is using a sudden wave of ambition and optimism to catalyze this current wave of start-ups. And overly ambitious and optimistic people like me are completely jazzed.
As a recent college graduate and naïve Pollyanna twenty-something facing a number of exciting career trajectories and opportunities, I found not only myself but also my peers and my close friends contemplating start-ups as a serious option, something few of us would have considered if you had asked four years ago. MIT and Stanford have been at this for years, but they are the two institutional exceptions to the rule of divorcing academia from industry. The rest are trying to catch up, however. Last year, Harvard hosted its first start-up career fair at its new Innovation Lab with attendants from both the Valley and the Alley. At the same time, the university launched its own pool of VC money called theExperiment Fund to retain the entrepreneurial talent that so often leaves the university for more fertile pastures unrelated to liberal arts. After recruiting season, some of my peers even forewent traditional Wall Street jobs to join riskier, just burgeoning start-ups or, more daring yet, start their own dream companies. I kept hearing the words “sexy” and “exciting” thrown around in conversations about post-graduate plans to join tiny teams of three to four tech geeks who read too much TechCrunch and didn’t know what sleep was. Although I did internalize those ideas about start-up life myself, I think perhaps I was also a bit more superficial in my own desire to work in an entrepreneurial environment. I just didn’t want to wear a suit.
Dress code aside, when I first discovered theVenture Labs Entrepreneuring Fellowship at Flagship Ventures earlier this year, I was immediately drawn to Flagship’s uniquely institutionalized approach toward entrepreneurship (or, as the firm liked to call it, “entrepreneuring”). Flagship Ventures, established right after the last dotcom boom, invested in a number of successful life sciences, biotechnology, energy, and e-commerce companies. To add to their already diverse portfolio, the firm started the annual fellows program a few years ago to cull ideas from students who could help them locate opportunities in not just the life sciences and biotech, but also in technology, social media, and consumer products to broaden their diversity. The benefits to us potential fellows were quite clear. Guidance from in-house venture experts and award-winning scientists (includingtwo MIT Lemelson Prize winners and plenty of illustrious serial entrepreneurs). Working alongside similarly innovative colleagues. Starting up start-ups with a safety net, if you will. When I asked my colleague Alexander Naydich, a former particle technologies engineer at DuPont who wanted to apply his engineering background to venture creation, about whether he would consider joining a start-up at any point in his career, he responded, “Absolutely! Just an extremely well-planned one with no chance of failure.”
The institutionalized setting of Venture Labs was appealing to most of us who sought a stimulating professional experience without the need for a large amount of personal financial capital (most fellows had come straight from academia or business school) or human capital (myself included, two fellows were straight out of undergrad). At the same time, the same risk aversion that had stopped us from dropping out of school for a whimsical business idea also drew us to this less romanticized and more practical application of our abilities (credit kelly). Entrepreneurship with a three-month guaranteed warranty—no sticker shock involved.
That’s not to say we were ill prepared for Venture Labs. My summer colleagues possessed dazzling resumes lined with a number of impressive accomplishments and previous demonstrations of their business savvy. Several of my colleagues had previously launched their own entrepreneurial projects, both inside and outside of school, both for-profit and for public benefit. Jaime Mateus, an MIT PhD and lecturer on aeronautical engineering, operated his own independent consulting firm JM Analytics before starting at Flagship. After a summer working on two separate explorations, he is now a full-time associate working on a water project. His previous experience, both in academia and working on his own consulting company, gave him the entrepreneurial bug on top of the ability to conduct high-level research and analysis. “Being able to synthesize many pieces of information from dozens of sources into a coherent understanding of the problem or topic is essential and not easy to do,” he said of the challenges Flagship posed to him and his team. Ray Lian, an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, even put a hiatus on his duties as president of his own non-profit organization Stop Modern Slavery, which has chapters in five states and over 2,000 grassroots members, to explore tech opportunities at Flagship. On why he chose to pursue Venture Labs, he told me, “After I’ve started and exited a few businesses, I wanted to move toward the investing side of entrepreneurship and work in venture capital. My career goal is to be a serial entrepreneur that consistently creates sustainable businesses that add value to the world.”
Coupled with these two attractive facets of the fellowship—guided venture explorations alongside accomplished mentors and peers—I walked into the Flagship office in June not really knowing what to expect. Although I never would have admitted it then, retrospectively I was not unlike that YouTube baby whoconfused a Marie Claire for an iPad. The first week, my team attended whirlwind, back-to-back meetings with partners and principals at the firm. They wanted to hear everyone’s ideas about branding and the latest trends in the tech and Internet spheres—and fast. Our first deadline involved not only coming up with rough (think even more rudimentary thanBackRub was to Google) business plans and financial models, but also ultimately making them coherent, logical, and operationally feasible to some of the best entrepreneurial minds on the east coast. “Let me show you all to our foosball room,” I remember a principal telling us as we toured the building with him. “You’ll thank me later.” Blowing off steam, I would come to learn, was a necessary part of the summer in order to assuage the intellectual and mental hazard of coming up with a scalable start-up in less than a month.
Within the next two weeks, my team and I had already spent hours phoning the most awkward time zones, sniffed the fumes of countless dry-erase markers, and presented several business hypotheses in front of the board of directors for possible start-ups. Although I could never ethically and responsibly advise anyone to start a company with the financial models I learned to construct on Excel on the fly with the much-needed help of my MBA colleagues (who were gracious enough to humor me), it was a start nonetheless. When I asked my colleague Niyati Upadhyayula about the biggest challenge she faced in her explorations, she admitted, “The technical orientations of some of the projects was out of my field of study.” But that turned out to be one of Venture Labs’ most valuable assets during the summer. “The program brought together fellows from many different backgrounds,” said Nora Khanarian, who just finished her biomedical engineering PhD at Columbia University and worked consistently alongside fellows with chemistry and other life science training. “The unique experiences of each individual contributed to the dynamic learning environment.”
Frustrating as it was to undertake ambiguous projects with no clear end goal besides to generate an actionable start-up, I came to understand that this was ultimately what it was all about. This is the nature of entrepreneurship. There are no gold stars for “good performance”—or any sort of evaluation process, for that matter. You just have to go.
No matter how creative and entrepreneurial in nature the projects we undertook were, they weren’t completely the same as working independently in a start-up, naturally. Given our institutionalized environment, executives frequently checked up on the progress of particular ideas. We were free to go off on creative tangents… until they became too tangential to the firm’s goals. We were encouraged to pursue certain sectors aggressively… until we found out current dominating players were too aggressive to beat. The fundamental ideology of Flagship revolved around making nebulous ideas become real as fast and efficiently as possible. Ideas that didn’t have much promise were killed before they became too solidified and we became too attached to them to assess them critically. And whatever intellectual property we produced, the firm ultimately owned the rights to it. Some may see this aspect of the fellowship as particularly binding, especially in technology-specific fields where IP rights make up much, if not all, of the basic business model. But signing off was a trade-off we were willing to make for some experienced direction in a usually directionless pursuit.
Even with the constant interaction with and advice from people in the firm, dealing with the murky nature of start-up culture still short-circuited me at times. Sensing my hesitancy to embrace the firm’s on-the-fly mentality, Flagship principal and my summer team leader Erdin Beshimov advised us at a group meeting one day, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” As the summer progressed, I eventually recognized the importance of taking advice without necessarily depending on it. I started reaching out to anyone and everyone to conduct market research on industries I had no clue about. (Who knew that the most Italian thing about Sicilian EVOOs were the quaintly cheesy drawings of olive branches on the label?) At the end of the summer, my teammates and I had produced over ten hypotheses for potentially disruptive technology ventures and, simultaneously, built a network of nearly 200 experts in various Internet, consumer product, and plenty of other sectors.
The professional network, useful as it is and will be, was only a perk, however. “The kind of thinking [encouraged at Venture Labs] really brought out my creativity,” Shaila Rahman told me of her biggest takeaway from the program. “The kind of stuff I was able to come up with just brainstorming, I don’t think I could’ve done that on my own. From an institutional setting, it really worked.” Shaila, who just graduated from Harvard Medical School with a PhD in virology, is now working full-time at Flagship as an associate.
At the end of the summer, I asked former fellow Victor Dillard about what he now thinks is the best hammer or wrench an entrepreneur needs in his or her metaphorical toolkit. “The fundamental belief that obstacles can be overcome,” he wrote from Brussels, where he is currently working on his start-upDesktop Genetics with two former University of Cambridge classmates. “And the flexibility to change and adapt.”
I couldn’t agree more. Just don’t tell me I have to change into a suit.