SETsquared Blog

The MIT Experience: Two weeks of American-style entrepreneurship

As University of Exeter students who won the regional and national Microsoft Imagine Cup technology competition by developing SoundSynk - an innovative music app for smartphones – approaching the US market was the next natural step. So when the opportunity arose to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a two-week intensive course in entrepreneurship, we jumped at the chance. And the Americans did indeed deliver on their promise - it was intense!!

The MIT dome, famous for the many hacks students performed on it.

The purpose of the course was to help European start ups break into the US market. In order to achieve this goal the organisers, José Estabil and Luis Barros, organised these two weeks as a mini accelerator. The first week was dedicated to ‘Building and Launching’ our product, including lectures delivered by top business people, culminating in a three minute pitch in front of 60 potential investors and business people at the end of the week. The second week was then dedicated to ‘Accelerating’ our product - meaning that we had more free time to meet up with potential investors and do follow-ups with people who had approached us.

The eTeams before having lunch with the Portuguese delegation.

Thus started the two-week intensive course. Each day we refined our pitch and each day the pitch length had to be changed on the spot: five minutes on Monday, 10 minutes on Tuesday, 2 x 20 minutes on Wednesday before going back to 3 minutes on Thursday and Friday. The more we attended lectures and refined our pitch based on the feedback we received, the more we realised how different the American market is from the European one.

The European market is sophisticated. We like complicated problems, we like to build up our pitches to explain from A to Z what our product does.

For the US market? It all rests on three questions that you must address within the first minutes of your pitch:

1.    what is the problem your product solves?

2.    how does it solve it (hopefully better than anyone else out there)?

3.    how much money can you make from it?

Americans want to be blown away on the spot. Think 30-second advert versus 1-hour lecture and you will get what Americans expect from a product and from a pitch. They want it to be simple, straightforward and impressive.

Getting investment is also incredibly easy. Whereas the UK is the second country in the world with most investments made, America remains the first country by a wide margin. We quickly realised this when we were told that if we did not ask an investor for at least $1 million, we wouldn’t be taken seriously. We pitched our product to investors who did not even blink when we mentioned this amount of money. If you need money to develop your product go to America, but beware of the conditions investors can put on your company - money doesn’t come free!

Finally, we felt like we were right at the centre of where everything happens. Boston, just like the Silicon Valley, houses thousands of start ups in a very localised area, allowing for tech pitches and other events to happen all over the place and for companies to meet and collaborate over products. Thus every Thursday there was a Venture Café meet up where I met people from the British consulate, the Czech Initiative and other local start ups with which we’ve been in contact regularly.

Kendall square - home of Google, Microsoft and thousands of startups

We left Boston with invaluable contacts, a new way of approaching the US market and an incredible in-depth knowledge of what to expect when we launch our company there. So if you get the opportunity go to Boston, go to a café and start talking with the person next to you. You may end up signing the deal of your life.