Bill Aulet - Teaching MIT and the World About Entrepreneurship
Aulet displays an incomparable level of humbleness. You could tell that talking about himself is not preferred, as he would rather talk about the students and the progress of the university. However, the journey through his career is definitely one that needs to be shared.
Growing up as the middle child of five children in Chappaqua, NY, Aulet’s passion was basketball. Originally, he thought he was going to attend Columbia University, but he ended up at Harvard, where he studied engineering and played basketball for the Crimson.
The 6’2” guard went when on to play professional basketball in England for a year. It was a great experience, but the league was poorly run and once he started getting paid to play the game, it ended up taking away some of his passion.
Aulet returned to the US and pursued job opportunities where he could leverage his engineering degree. He landed a job with IBM and, at that point, he thought he had officially made it. It was an honor to join Big Blue (IBM’s nickname), which was a highly respected tech company back then. He thought that he would spend his whole career wearing a blue suit and starched white shirt & tie - their dress code.
Over the course of his first two years at IBM, he received extensive training across their business in terms of technical, financial, marketing, and business operations. Another invaluable skill he learned was how to sell and build relationships with customers.
“It was a magical time at IBM,” said Aulet. “I was able to have a front row seat to witness the birth of the personal computer industry.”
A recent documentary called Silicon Cowboys chronicles this era and Aulet actually makes an appearance in the film. It was a time when companies started to inquire about personal computers. Word processing and spreadsheets were just starting and companies were eager to learn about how personal computers could make an impact on their business.
Since Aulet had a rare combination of engineering expertise along with customer facing skills, sales people would bring him along to attend meetings.
“I was only two years in the tech industry and I was talking to the CIOs of major corporations, who were responsible for making multi-million dollar decisions,” said Aulet. “They were looking for my advice on buying decisions.”
As we all know, the personal computer industry took off and desktop computer sales went through the roof. However, it wasn’t just the birth of a physical piece of hardware that Aulet was able to watch unfold. He also witnessed the birth of the software industry, as entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor, Brian O’Toole, Dan Bricklin and others were creating software for these new machines.
“For me, Mitch Kapor was the most transformative figure during this time period,” said Aulet. “He founded Lotus Software, which was the creator of Lotus 1-2-3, an integrated spreadsheet and graphics program. He made business cool and more than a job.”
Aulet spent 11 years at IBM, where he found himself in a new job every year and a half. He ended up managing major customer accounts, such as Raytheon. Eventually, he got promoted as the equivalent of the CFO of IBM’s New England region. It was at this point when IBM sent Aulet to business school at MIT Sloan.
At MIT, Aulet started to see the entrepreneurial bug that he got in his first few years at IBM, grow dramatically. He took an entrepreneurship course called “New Enterprises” which opened his eyes to the possibilities. He was inspired by what he had seen with the success of companies like Lotus. He didn’t want to have any regrets and he wanted to pursue his own dreams of starting a company.
At 36 years old, married with four kids and a mortgage, Aulet left IBM. It was definitely a risk, especially in an era when people expected you to spend your whole career at the company, if you could.
He went on to start a company with two PhD students called Cambridge Decision Dynamics, which built system dynamics simulators for academic institutions. The team was able to ramp up and even built a backlog in sales of $1M, but he learned a very valuable lesson along the way. If you only focus on building your product and not the other important aspects of a company, you won’t make it.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said Aulet. “I didn’t know how to run a startup.”
After Cambridge Decision Dynamics, Aulet’s went on to be a co-founder and president of SensAble Technologies, which brought 3D haptic technology to the human-computer interface. The company was acquired six years later by 3D Systems, a publicly traded company on the NYSE.
From there, he joined a biometric-based identity solutions company called Viisage as its CFO. He was a key leader of the team which turned around and grew the business from $50M to a $500M market valuation in 2.5 years.
At this point, Aulet felt the need to pay it forward. He wanted to pass along everything he learned about entrepreneurship and running a business. He wanted to share all the lessons and information he wished someone had told him as he was starting out. The lessons learned and the stuff that was done right or wrong.
It was this desire which brought him to MIT eight years ago. Susan Hockfield, MIT’s 16th president, was focused on how the Institute could have a positive effect on what she called the challenge of our generation, energy. One of the areas MIT could contribute was to bring new levels of entrepreneurship to the energy sector. This became the charge of Aulet at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The Trust Center was founded in 1990 by Professor Edward Roberts and had a strong track record in entrepreneurship but primarily in the Information Technology sector.
Aulet started off by launching the MIT Clean Energy Prize, a clean energy entrepreneurship competition, but also took a more systematic approach of including other elements including courses, speaker series and close coordination with student activities. He designed and helped build a Clean Energy Entrepreneurial ecosystem which became a national model.
Today, entrepreneurship is at the core of the culture and teachings at MIT. The Trust Center is driving the entrepreneurial activity by providing student with access to courseware, hackathons, workshops, competitions, mentors, and many more offerings.
Here are some stats (as of 2014) which demonstrates MIT’s entrepreneurial impact as noted in its 2016 Annual report:
- 30,200 active companies
- 4.6 million people employed
- $1.9 trillion in annual revenues
- 10th largest GDP equivalent
Last year, the Trust Center went through a complete redesign and expansion of their space. The redesign allows for a larger, collaborative workspace for the students, called The Beehive. The new design also has other offerings, such as a maker space with state-of-the-art 3D printers, a laser cutter, and other high-tech tools. On any given day, some 500 - 600 students visit and utilize the resources at the Center.
You might recognize some of recent alumni of the Trust Center, as many of these companies are thriving in the Boston tech ecosystem today. Examples include PillPack, Accion Systems, Tvision Insights, Humon, ThriveHive (acquired by Propel Business Services), Ministry, NVBOTS, Podimetrics, Grove Labs, Spyce Labs, Spoiler Alert, LTG Prep (now called Ready4), Alteros, Loci Controls, Alchemista, Confer Health, Tekuma, Infinite Analytics, Armoire, and many more. One alumni company based in San Francisco, Okta, just filed papers for an IPO.
If you are interested in reading about the teachings of Aulet, I highly recommend his book called Disciplined Entrepreneurship - 24 Steps to a Successful Startup. The content for this book is from a class he teaches, which ironically was the class that spawned his own interest in entrepreneurship called “New Enterprises.” He also released the companion book for this called Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook.
Often times, I find many of the entrepreneurial and business advice books are too academic or theory based or on the other hand, they lack rigor. Aulet’s books are easy to follow and it has actionable steps to help guide you through each step along the way in terms of validating your idea and building your business.
This material is now being taught not just at MIT, but also at dozens of schools around the world. His online courses on edX (Entrepreneurship 101, 102 and 103) have been taken by hundreds of thousands of people in 199 different countries across the world.
”Entrepreneurship is not a science, but neither is it an art,” Aulet says. “It is a craft with first principles that we can teach and like other crafts, we can teach how they apply in practice with action learning opportunities that tie back to these first principles. Our goal is to raise the game for entrepreneurship education in a rigorous, collaborative and practical way. That what the world needs now and it will need it more and more so in the future.”
Images courtesy of MIT.