3 Questions: Paul Cheek on tactics for new startups | MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Paul Cheek, the executive director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, has firsthand experience leading successful startups. Over the last six years, he has also advised hundreds of MIT entrepreneurs as they have launched their own ventures.

Those experiences have helped Cheek, who is also a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, distill entrepreneurship down to its key components. In a new book, “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: Startup Tactics,” Cheek offers an action-oriented framework to help entrepreneurs turn ideas into successful businesses.

The book, released April 2, serves as a complement to Trust Center Managing Director Bill Aulet’s 2013 book “Disciplined Entrepreneurship,” which has been translated into over 20 languages and served as the basis for three edX courses since its release. A new edition of Aulet’s book was also released in April.

A: I want to help entrepreneurs get their ideas into the world to have an impact. At MIT, we are focused on impact, and entrepreneurship is one of the ways in which we can take the research, the technology, the science that’s here on campus and push it out to the world to help other people.

Entrepreneurs don’t always know how to execute in the functional areas that allow them to unlock additional resources so they can grow and scale their business. The three things that I hear most often from entrepreneurs are: We need help building a product, we need help building our team, and we need help raising money. My response to that is almost always, “Why should somebody join your team instead of one of the other startups? Why should an investor choose to invest in you instead of another startup? What traction do you have to get there?” Those are the questions that I ask entrepreneurs to consider.

The way they get that traction is through action. That doesn’t just mean building the strategy and the plan for a new business. It means actually taking that plan and getting it out into the real world.

The book covers 15 functional tactics so they can do just enough in each to hit the next milestone. The book is based on the curriculum that we use here at MIT to help entrepreneurs get traction. I want to help entrepreneurs learn this entrepreneurial mindset and skillset for life. We’re not just focused on commercializing research and starting a company today; we want to help them become highly effective individuals throughout their careers, within startups or existing organizations, whether in industry, academia, government, or elsewhere.

A: We like to think a lot about entrepreneurial math at the Trust Center and at MIT more broadly. There’s this order of operations known as PEMDAS that’s used to solve math problems. There’s also an order of operations in entrepreneurship, and that’s how “Startup Tactics” is structured. It starts with setting a really strong set of foundations. The first section covers goal-setting and systems you can use to track progress toward those goals.

Everybody thinks they’re good at setting goals until the rubber meets the road. We realize that sometimes goals need to be revised. In a large organization, goals and structure are provided to you. But when you’re an entrepreneur, you need to find your own structure. You have to set your own goals that will help you work toward the long-term vision and avoid investing resources in the wrong places.

Once we have those goals set, we move to market testing. We don’t start by building the product; we start by testing. Does the market want what you believe it does? We discuss how to do primary market research, how to communicate to the world with visual assets the value that you can create for them, and we look at marketing and sales for market testing. Marketing within a large organization is much different than marketing in a day-zero startup.

We also explore how to attract a precise target audience and how to market not a product but a value proposition. Does the market respond when we present a value proposition to them? We look at how to run the first sales process to get customers, and once we have a line of customers waiting down the street, we move into product development.

The saying, “If you build it, they will come” is not generally true in entrepreneurship. We want to build customer lists — people who want what we have — even before we start building the product.

Product development is about taking a really lean approach to designing a product, testing the product with users before we’ve even built it, and then engineering the simplest possible minimum viable business product. Once we have customers waiting in a line down the street and the product built, we go to resource acquisition. Because we have traction, we explore incorporating a startup, dividing equity, building a financial model, building a pitch deck that tells a story, and going through the fundraising and hiring processes as an early-stage startup.

This order of operations is important to entrepreneurs because it allows them to use their resources as effectively as possible and ultimately get to the point where they can get more money and time.

A: “Startup Tactics” is for people who want to have an impact through innovation-driven entrepreneurship. It’s about building a business that has the potential to scale and have global impact. We’re generally looking at high-tech businesses, but “Startup Tactics” is also a process that entrepreneurs can follow to start any type of business.

We take an engineering approach to the entrepreneurial process to improve the odds of success for individuals who are about to pursue the entrepreneurial journey. [Aulet’s book] “Disciplined Entrepreneurship” provides the strategy and framework of entrepreneurship. It tells you what to do and why to do it. My book takes you one step further with the how: how to build a business, how to go from an idea or technology to a business plan, and how to take that plan and put it into the world. What are the actions you need to take?

This comes back to some of those things that I’ve heard most often from entrepreneurs in terms of what they need help with. “Startup Tactics” stems from my experience as an entrepreneur building my businesses, but it’s also a combination of what I’ve heard from other entrepreneurs who are out there building their businesses. A lot of what’s gone into the book is the foundation of the courses that I teach here at MIT: 15.390/15.3901 (New Enterprises) and 15.388 (Venture Creation Tactics). The output of the book is also the result of several iterations of running that course, semester after semester.

What has really stood out as important to me is having an integrated approach. We now have a full-stack entrepreneurship education experience. By that I mean we have the theory of entrepreneurship, the practice of entrepreneurship, and the tactics of entrepreneurship. It’s that integration that best sets entrepreneurs up for success. That’s what I’ve seen from working with so many students.

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