“Much of what has been done in entrepreneurship so far is story-telling as opposed to rigorous work — this gives practitioners access to ideas which have been proven to work and a framework to apply them, with a direct impact on their ability to create new ventures,” Aulet said.
William Kenneth Aulet is Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das, Aulet discusses why entrepreneurship is now essential across all organisations:
Q. Can you tell us about your research on ‘disciplined entrepreneurship’?
A. The field of entrepreneurship has not been rigorous and relevant at the same time. There’s been research but it hasn’t been tied back to the practice as well as it could be. Alongside, practitioners haven’t had a body of knowledge they could use for achieving greater success. ‘Disciplined entrepreneurship’ aims to consolidate and make a recognised body of knowledge that is both rigorous and relevant.
Much of what has been done in entrepreneurship so far is story-telling as opposed to rigorous work — this gives practitioners access to ideas which have been proven to work and a framework to apply them, with a direct impact on their ability to create new ventures.
Q. What are some of the most important topics you focus on in this area?
A. We start with exploring ‘Who is the customer?’ This is often called user standard design or live thinking. The second theme is ‘What can you do for your customer?’ Once you understand who your customer is, you can learn the opportunities that lie in their world or the problems you can solve.
The third concept is ‘How does your customer acquire the product?’ That goes into how you go to market and the deci sion-making processes to sell what you create. Then, we look at ‘How can we make money from this?’ This gets into unit economics, the cost of customer acquisition and lifetime value to customers.
We then ask ‘How do you build the product?’ — this looks at efficiency and effectiveness in design and integrating the product with customers. The sixth theme explores ‘How do you scale the business for impact?’
Q. You’re known for your success in entrepreneurship — are you seeing the field changing today?
A. Absolutely. Entrepreneurship was once seen as this small economic exercise that made start-ups. Today, entrepreneurship is seen as something that must be ubiquitous in society. We must have entrepreneurship in government, big companies, non-profits and our personal lives. The rate of change in the world is only growing faster.
Nothing made this clearer than the pandemic. If you weren’t an entrepreneur then — which means the ability to embrace change and see adversity as a factor that can make you better and help you thrive — your business would have had a hard time. Alongside, fundamental changes are also being brought about by climate impacts, technological evolution and societal disruption. Given such challenges, we must interweave entrepreneurship into all our organisations now.
We use the term ‘anti-fragile’ to learn how to thrive in tough situations — entrepreneurship teaches us precisely this. There is growing interest in this idea. We presented a speakers’ series on anti-fragility for our students. We did zero marketing for it — yet, over 50,000 people watched this.
Q. Are there examples of entrepreneurship which exemplify these values but have also succeeded financially?
A. I don’t consider entrepreneurship an economic activity — I consider it an ethical activity. However, if an entity isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t have a tremendous impact. So, we teach people how to make new ventures that make real value and work economically. An example is Bilikiss Adebiyi Abiola from Lagos, Nigeria. She created Wecyclers, a recycling operation based on disciplined entrepreneurship.
They gave bicycles to unemployed kids who’d cycle around town, pick up garbage, bring it to recycling points and be paid for the plastic, paper, etc., they’d bring in. The project produced a cleaner city and more jobs and corporate backing made it economically sustainable.
Biobot Analytics is another example — this is a for-profit mission driven project started by two women entrepreneurs. This analyses a city’s health block-wise by using indicators like wastewater. This enterprise has been fundamental to fighting Covid-19 in the US. It’s worth millions and recently picked up another $20 million. These are good examples of principled entrepreneurship where the founder’s vision helps them thrive in tough times.
Q. What is the core of ‘anti-fragility’?
A. At MIT, we explore its ‘four Hs’ — the first ‘h’ is ‘heart’ or the ability to be different and see what needs change. The second ‘h’ is ‘head’ or knowledge acquired in a systematic manner towards this. The third ‘h’ is ‘hands’ or developing real-world capability to conduct one’s enterprise which needs training and apprenticeships. The fourth ‘h’ is ‘home’ — that means investing in a community which doesn’t report to you but which helps you when you see an opportunity or a problem.
Howard Stevenson, a leader in this field, said, ‘Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunities with resources beyond your own control.’ This view is very different to what we’re taught in management which is a command, control and conquer mindset. That creates fragility because you cannot move swiftly enough with this. A distributed model is far more agile, anti-fragile and successful in this rapidly changing world.
Views expressed are personal
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