Startups: a hidden lifestyle at MIT

Side projects that change lives

“Sleep, friends, p-sets — choose two,” is a common mantra at the Institute. But what happens when you add your own startup into the mix?

The spirit of entrepreneurship at MIT is alive and well; a report published in 2009 by Professor Edward Roberts, founder and chair of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, estimated that if the almost 26,000 companies founded by MIT alumni that still existed in 2006 were a country, it would have the 11th highest GDP in the world. MIT founded companies like Dropbox, a Web-based file hosting service founded in 2007 by Andrew Houston ’05 and Arash Ferdowsi ’08, and Quizlet, an online education tool that helps students study using flashcards and other learning tools, created by Andrew N. Sutherland ’12 in 2005, have almost become household names. With Facebook’s multibillion-dollar initial public offering announcement in February, no one can deny that the allure of startups for MIT students is higher than ever.

But what is it like to found your own startup, and work on it as a student? Why are startups so appealing? What resources are there for people interested in entrepreneurship? The startup environment at MIT can often be fragmented, sometimes hidden from view, but at their core, all startups seek to solve problems. It all begins with a single idea.

Chris Varenhorst ’09, M.Eng ’11, a Course 6-3 alum who now works at Dropbox, founded Lingt, a language learning software startup his senior year. Lingt was backed by Y Combinator (YC), a seed-stage startup funding firm, in 2009 and sold to a year later. A light version of the product, Lingt Classroom, which allows students to easily record themselves speaking and send the files to their teachers, still exists and is used in the Chinese department at MIT.

“First semester senior year, we were like, ‘Let’s do a startup!’ We decided to focus on foreign language education, since it was relevant to us at the time, and we thought we could use technology to make it better. My co-founder Justin Cannon ’08 and I were taking Chinese at the time, and we thought there was very little speaking practice. In class, people just kind of droned over each other, and we wanted to address that. We spent IAP working on it and ended up making Lingt.”

Varenhorst says he found the experience simultaneously exhilarating and challenging. “I remember our servers crashing when TechCrunch ran an article about us. I was driving through the Hoover Dam with my brother and watching the mail server crash, trying to fix it — it was kinda crazy.”

Varenhorst also fondly remembers his fingers going numb from coding in the wintertime. “My co-founder Justin Cannon lived in Beta, so I’d go work at Beta everyday and code away. The windows didn’t really trap heat, so my fingers would be really cold, and I’d turn the hot water on to warm them up. Coding with fingerless gloves really builds character,” he laughs.

Yet, like with all commitments, sacrifices had to be made. The startup became increasingly time-consuming, and Varenhorst had to pare down his commitments to make time for Lingt. “In second semester senior year, I had to give up on classes I wanted to take — I took a light load so I could work half-time on my startup, and I missed CPW for Y Combinator.”

Indeed, the conflict between balancing one’s startup and keeping up with schoolwork is a common theme among many founders, who often find that as their startup grows, they must make the difficult decision to choose one or the other.

Sutherland, Chief Technical Officer and founder of Quizlet, decided to take a leave of absence his senior year to work on his company full time. Sutherland founded Quizlet his sophomore year of high school, when he first had the idea to create a flashcard program that would help him study for a French test. He has been working on Quizlet ever since.

“It almost wasn’t even a choice — Quizlet was growing and succeeding, with six million users per month, and it needed a lot of attention. Last semester, [Spring 2011], I was trying to do two things — school and Quizlet, and I wasn’t doing the best at school. … I think the chances of succeeding are much higher when you focus on one thing and do it really well, so I decided to go full-time.”

During his time at the Institute, Sutherland found inspiration in his living group, as well as the general atmosphere of MIT. “Everyone here is really interesting and creative and curious. Almost everything I’ve learned is from other students — everyone is a genius at something and everyone is always working on a project; MIT is the best personal decision I made.”

Hone your skills

“Start hacking on cool shit.”

So says Dan Wheeler ’06, who currently works at Dropbox. Undoubtedly, it takes more than a lofty idea to make a successful startup — the best preparation comes from personal experience and side projects.

Wheeler says that during his time as a student, he was amazed at the projects his classmates created in both their free time and their classes.

“Any time you’re in a Course 6 class, there’s that one team that makes a final project that’s a technical marvel and blows everyone away — I remember someone threw away the physics engine we were supposed to use and made their own for 6.170 (Laboratory in Software Engineering). That’s the type of mindset you really need — the essence of startups is ridiculous hacks, cool stuff you do just because it’s fun.”

The importance of strong technical skills cannot be overstated. Varenhorst says, “Even when you have an idea, if you don’t know how to build it, it’s hard to imagine how it could be or where it could go. It can be hard to find someone that really shares your vision to build it for you. You’re in a really powerful position when you can execute your own ideas.”

“Every time an MIT kid works for a Harvard or Stanford startup, a baby transistor dies,” jokes Wheeler.

Besides gaining technical skills, working on side projects is also a good way to find co-founders.

“When you build stuff for fun, it gives you the highest likelihood of meeting similarly minded people. And when you’ve already worked with people before on past projects, there’s much less risk, and a higher chance of success later on,” says Wheeler.

Indeed, Wheeler believes the group project environment is extremely similar to working at a startup. “It’s like working on a big group project with people that you like and respect.”

Other ways to get into the startup mentality can be more psychological. Kevin Rustagi ’11 and Gihan Amarasiriwardena ’11, founders of Ministry of Supply, a company that makes high-performance business apparel for men, say that in addition to technical skills, having the right attitude is key.

“It’s important not to let pride get in the way — be willing to admit you don’t know everything, and that you can’t do it alone. It’s not an ego thing to do it on your own, and it’s not bad to network and connect with other people,” said Rustagi.

Rustagi also encourages those who are considering startups but might be risk averse to explore startups anyway.

“Sometimes, the humble thing goes too far — people at MIT don’t realize that being at MIT mitigates the hell out of the risk you take. Lots of people say, ‘Oh, if I get into this program, then I’ll do it,’ but lots of projects that don’t win, say the 100K, go on to become extremely successful. The worst possible thing is to say, ‘I didn’t get into YC, so I’m not going to work on my idea.’ MIT students have great ideas — if you have an idea, just build a prototype and see if it works! If you care about it, make things happen.”

Rustagi and Amarasiriwardena also believe that startups and class work do not always have to be at odds with each other. Rustagi, who majored in Course 2A with a focus in product design, thinks that they can complement each other. “You can always optimize your class work to help your startup. For example, we took 15.390 (New Enterprises), which taught us how to make a business plan and really develop our idea. It’s important to know what you want to get out of a class. I walked into 2.008 (Design and Manufacturing II) wanting to deeply understand product design, 2.005 (Thermal-Fluids Engineering I) not so much.”

Amarasiriwardena, who majored in Course 10 added, “Focus on what you care about, and spend time and energy on what you think will be valuable. I really enjoyed ICE and learning about managing supply chains, which has been really useful to us in our startup.”

Freedom and Independence

Many students find startups appealing for the freedom and independence they offer. Rustagi and Amarasiriwardena say that they enjoy the amount of control they have over their product and the opportunities for self-growth. “We can really take a lot of ownership over the product, something that wouldn’t be possible at a larger company. For example, we often have to think creatively with limited resources — we designed our own packaging for the product using a $2 tube and a 99-cent poster, and we made the vector graphics ourselves. It’s really nice to work on skills that you might not already have that help the business.”

Rustagi added that the amount of support they’ve gotten is “incredible,” and that coming out of college, “the expectations of the lifestyle are minimal.”

“We don’t have significant obligations. We fly coach, we take the bus, that’s all fine. Have faith! If you try something and fail, you’ll be better for it.”

Resources at MIT

In the past several years, MIT has seen many new initiatives aimed to foster entrepreneurship at the Institute. Some, like the expansion of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship (E-Center) have been led and backed by the Sloan School, but many have been organized by students themselves.

Startup Bootcamp is one such example. The annual event, in its third year, is a one day marathon of short talks from well-known startup founders in the high-tech startup community, held in Kresge Auditorium. This year, the event drew hundreds of people from the MIT and Boston communities.

Michael Grinich ’11, who created the event while he was an undergrad, said that during his time at MIT, he felt frustrated with the dialogue about startups, and wanted to generate more discussion.

“Startups at MIT can be a lonely world — when you’re choosing your career, it seems like there are really a few paths presented to you. Either one, you go to grad school; two, you work for a large company like Microsoft or Oracle; or three, you go into trading, finance, or consulting. Startups are like the cool new thing now, but I remember when people wouldn’t even use the word startup. It was looked down upon, like ‘Oh, so you couldn’t get a different job,’ regardless of whether or not you chose to do it.”

Grinich says that he sees Startup Bootcamp fitting into the greater startup ecosystem at MIT. “It’s almost like a meta-startup, by getting more people to start their own companies. When people graduate and wonder what to do next, they could think back to this event, and maybe consider starting their own company — in fact, by my last count, a couple dozen people have started companies, just from meeting the other people who were there.”

Another resource is StartLabs, a non-profit organization founded in 2011 by two MIT graduate students that aims to help students start their own companies and find jobs at startups. This IAP, StartLabs hosted a four-week incubator called “Concept to Company” (C2C) which matched various teams with startup mentors to help launch a company. StartLabs also organized a career fair dedicated exclusively to startups earlier this month, which was attended by over 40 companies. Minna G. Song ’14, who attended the career fair, said she enjoyed the startup focus. “It was really cool to see so many local startups and the vibrant tech scene right here in the Boston area.”

William Aulet, Managing Director of the E-Center, encourages all students interested in entrepreneurship to talk to him and the E-Center if they are seeking advice for their startups. “A lot of students might not know we’re here, but we can help you refine your idea and offer you advice and resources. There’s the Venture Mentoring Service, the 100k Entrepreneurial Competition, the IDEAS Competition, etc. We can point you to a lot of opportunities.”

In fact, MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) is one of MIT’s best kept secrets. The program, launched in 2000, matches MIT students, alumni, faculty, and staff with mentors who help them with all aspects of their startups. The service is completely free, and does not ask for an equity stake in any of the companies. Rustagi said that his company benefitted tremendously from VMS. “There were tons of mentors to help us, and they really helped us showcase our startup.”

In the end, startups at MIT are intense, time consuming, and extremely rewarding. Vinnie Ramesh ’12, a senior in Course 6-3 who co-founded Wellframe, a health data science startup, says he likes the startup environment because “you get to move extremely quickly, and you get more responsibility at a startup.” Wellframe’s product helps users estimate their risk of diabetes and other diseases based on information like age, weight and other biometric data. Last year, the startup became a semi-finalist in the Data Design Diabetes competition, and received $20,000 in funding.

“I really enjoy the opportunity to work on hard problems that I’m interested in, and I get to play a lot of different roles, like technical, marketing, sales, etc.” “Mostly you sacrifice sleep,” he added. “But I think that’s normal — at MIT, if you have to stay up all night to get something done or learn something new, you will. … MIT is good training for working hard.”

Ramesh is undaunted by the lack of guarantees inherent in working on a startup. “If I fail, I’m probably going to try again and start another company,” he laughs. “But I think if you have an idea, and it solves a problem, that’s really valuable. And if it doesn’t work, you’ve still learned a lot, and you’ll come out a stronger person.”