Tech startups take to MIT for Bootcamp

Hi-tech startup founders seek to advise and inspire

Hundreds of people from the MIT and Boston community flocked to Kresge Auditorium last Saturday as the founders of Dropbox, Quora, Foursquare and seven other tech companies took the stage at the 3rd annual Startup Bootcamp at MIT. The event featured a marathon of talks and presentations from well-known figures in the high-tech startup industry.

Michael V. Grinich ’11, who founded and organized the first MIT Startup Bootcamp, was dissatisfied with the entrepreneurship opportunities available at MIT when he was a sophomore. “Three to five years ago, when I first started thinking about this event, there was this frustration that MIT wasn’t really having the same level of dialogue about startups as some other universities,” Grinich said.

Grinich said that he believes the event is an important part of the startup ecosystem at the Institute. “I wanted to throw an event that would bring lots of different people together and get people talking about startups,” he added.

Over the past few years, Grinich said, the event has already inspired some attendees to form their own companies. “By my last count, a couple dozen people have emailed me saying they’ve started their own companies, just by meeting other people at the event.”

“Startup Bootcamp is almost like a meta-startup in that sense. I mean, if 9 out of 10 startups fail, and 300 companies are created, then 30 of them will be successful, and that’s a huge impact, from just one summer of organizing.”

Show up and say yes

The speakers shared their personal experiences in the startup industry, offering their takes on the issues faced by most high-tech startups. Topics discussed ranged from advice on how to pick the right team of co-founders, to raising venture capital, to negotiating during acquisitions, as well as general advice on how to achieve success.

Leah Culver, founder of Convore, a group based online chat company, described how she became involved in her first startup Pownce by simply saying “yes” to opportunities that came her way.

“I remember going to lunch with Kevin Rose [co-founder of Pownce and Digg] and he needed someone to build a site, and he said, ‘Leah, can you build a site?’ And I said, yes, yes, of course. I’d been programming for four years and had never built my own website before, but the great thing was, I didn’t have ten years of experience, but I knew I could do it with a lot of hard work.”

Her take-away? “Show up and say yes.”

MIT students who attended the event found the speakers to be inspiring.

Zier Liu ’13 said, “It was really inspiring to see that all the founders were so young and driven, and that they didn’t give up.” Liu, who is back at MIT after taking a year off to start her own US-China student exchange company, said she also enjoyed meeting the people around her who were doing similar work in the education field.

Sarah R. Edris ’14 also enjoyed the presentations. “I really admired the independence of a lot of the speakers. I’m definitely more interested in startups after this event, and creating one doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.”

Other speakers highlighted the importance of creating companies centered around products that people want.

Co-founder of Dropbox Andrew W. Houston ’05 said that the Internet makes it much easier to scale a product, and that once you’re working on an important problem, “A lot of other things become easier, like attracting good people and good investors.”

“If there’s one thing you should do, it’s to make things that people want. And not just that, but make things that lots of people want,” he added.

Alex Polvi, founder of Cloudkick, a cloud server management service, also emphasized the importance of focusing on products that people want.

“The best negotiation position is one of truth. Build something of value that people want, and your position is irrefutable,” he said, based on his experience negotiating the acquisition of his own startup.

Find your own path

Anthony Volodkin, founder of Hype Machine, an MP3 blog aggregator, offered advice on the importance of finding one’s own path. He shared a story about his experiences negotiating a deal with venture capitalists who were nervous about copyright infringement on the music posted on the blogs aggregated by his company’s service.

“We came up with an alternate product to address their concerns, and we realized, it’s not what we wanted to build. It was kind of boring, and we really didn’t like it. And then, we asked, ‘Why don’t we just build what we actually wanted to build? And if it doesn’t work, we have no one else to blame,’” Volodkin said.

“Some people tell me that with things like Y Combinator, when you apply and they don’t accept you, the people never try to build the thing they applied with. And this is terrifying because I bet there are some really interesting ideas people submit that don’t fit the Y Combinator or Tech Stars way, or the VC way, and people just don’t work on them,”

“You don’t need anyone’s permission,” he added. “You can go and start something, start learning — you can just do it. There’s really nothing stopping you.”

His message resonated well with attendees. Volodkin ended his presentation with a well-received slide, “Y Combinator? TechStars? Just fucking make something.”