At the beginning of 2016, when I became Managing Director in Grapefruit, I set off for evolution and doing things differently. I decided that we would only work with new technologies, focus on innovation and develop our own product.
Applying and preparing for MIT
Around March I started thinking about applying for MIT Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, a program designed to teach you how to develop a strong start-up, with a high chance of success. Besides, Marius had told me about previous editions and had me convinced it was a life-changing experience.
I finished the application in June. Honestly, I did not expect to pass on to the next step. There are hundreds of applications on each edition and only a few of them are selected. However, only a few days after submitting my online application, I was scheduled for a Skype interview. Two weeks later I received the email saying I was accepted at the MIT Bootcamp Entrepreneurship. I eventually found out there were almost 800 applicants and only 71 of them were selected, from 36 countries. I was one of the 71.
The chaos that began after being selected
Prepare the visa folder, pay the tax, find plane tickets, accommodation in the hostel etc. Managing all these elements turned out to be the simplest part of all the MIT story.
One month before the MIT Bootcamp I was on my vacation. My phone was ringing at 3 AM. I looked at the notification with sleepy eyes.
An email from MIT!
It detailed all the documentation I had to prepare for the course before attending the Bootcamp. I had to take three online courses, read four books, plus a ton of articles and videos on the side.
“Lesson no. 1: If you really want it, you can do it.”
I started the intense courses. I studied between phone calls at work and after 10 PM at home, when the kids went to sleep. That month felt worse than the exams session in college. Real school. The day went by, until 1 or 2 AM, filled with courses, books and articles. I finally managed to read through all the documentation, even though I only read some of the pieces diagonally. I literally had no time to go in depth with all the documents I received.
I don’t know how one month flew by. I saw myself boarding for Boston, with tears in my eyes. I had to leave my kids and husband behind for two weeks. I had a long flight, Iasi-Bucharest-Paris-Boston, but it was well placed. Why? Because after the first to-read list I received another email detailing the pre-bootcamp challenges. They had to be completed before August 5th and I was almost there. I worked on my laptop during cruises and took breaks to upload the progress in airports. A quiet flight…NOT!
On the first day we met our mentors, professors and each other, the bootcampers. At the end of the day we had to have already established our teams, based on affinities, background and personal connections. The most important thing the mentors kept repeating was:
“Pick the people you want to work with, with whom you are compatible. Do not choose them based on their project ideas or other similar criteria.”
Many of us did not understand why they kept insisting on that aspect. We were going to find out eventually.
Following an intense marathon of “Hello my name is…”, I chose my team in the last 5 minutes. I did the exact opposite of what we were told to do. I chose a team because I liked the idea they suggested: the emotional intelligence development. It was a comfortable topic that I found easy to work on.
After the session of choosing teams, I started thinking if I truly made the right choice. I had crossed an entire ocean, left my family just to stay in my comfort zone? I pondered on that for the entire night. I finally found the courage to seek a different team, it was 12 AM, the rest of the teams were already made and the roles were established.
I went to sleep at 3 AM, lesson learned, the hard way.
On Monday morning, I decided to talk to Pilar, the founder of the Biomarkers team. It was a team I resonated with personally, but its members came from very different professional areas: Angela Scott had been in the small team that turned Sci-Fi into reality by cloning the first mammal – the sheep Dolly; Frank Xinyue, “Biosensor Scientist” at the Missouri University; Pilar Zarate, Social Entrepreneur and Marketing specialist with an extensive experience in design; Carlos Javier, Product Manager who had worked in an e-waste recycling company; Djamila Yousef, psychologist, hypnosis therapist and student at Harvard Business School. This intimidated me at first but then I pulled myself together and said to myself: “I may not know bio-engineering, but you guys don’t know digital either, so there goes nothing.”
I spoke to Pilar and so, in the second day of Bootcamp, at 7 AM I was part of a different team. It turned out that the mentor’s’ advice about choosing one’s team was very important and true.
During the second day we had to define the actual problem (that we were trying to solve), to describe it with as many details as possible and to validate it through interviews with people from our main target zone.
The problem we first defined was: the difficulty in the diagnosis of mentally impaired children. We thought we could use a gadget that could detect symptoms in children early on and indicate if they could really suffer of mental illnesses or not. Djamila confirmed that this problem is real and that we could develop an algorithm that could help us solve it.
After a long series of interviews, we realized that our problem could have severe ramifications that we hadn’t thought of to begin with. We realized people would see a specialist at the first signs of illness and they wouldn’t purchase a gadget or app as an intermediary step. Moreover, there had been cases in which families refused to accept a diagnosis even when given by a specialist.
If the problem seemed simple at the beginning, the interviews revealed that there were dozens of associated problems that we had to solve before a gadget, app or algorithm could come in handy. What actually buried the idea were the words of the mentor Bill Kirkley, who spoke about a misdiagnosis: Guys, you can ruin families’ lives if you do this. Who would have thought so far ahead?
In spite of the interviews and the conclusions, Djamila, the main supporter of the idea insisted that we went on. She had made a mistake that Marius always told us to avoid: “She fell in love with the solution, not the problem.” Again, the compatibility of the team members spoke loud. Djamila left our team to join another one with whom she worked much better. I couldn’t judge her, since I had done the same thing before and it turned out to be right.
So we decided to move on. Where to? No one knew. We had a few sessions of discussions and brainstorms, then at 3 AM we finally reached a consensus. We were set to revolutionize the medical industry and wouldn’t back down until we did just that.
The second problem we tried to solve (after rephrasing it several times) was the following: Current methods for analyzing biomarkers in cell therapies are inefficient. Nowadays it takes from 6 hours to 5 days to interpret the test results or a cancer patient and one must follow 5 very complicated steps. We decided to explore this problem and see if it could be done in a shorter time. The solution we found would help interpret the data much easier, so that the patients would receive the correct treatment faster.
Days 3 and 4
We spent Tuesday and Wednesday discussing the many aspects of the problem we were trying to solve and how we could solve it. Wednesday evening, we were finally ready to get to work and make our presentation for Demo Day (the final presentation, in front of the investors, mentors, teachers and colleagues), but we realized that for the past two days we had been talking about different problems and solutions.
Some of us were talking about a device, a gadget, that we would develop, while others were thinking about selling a software license. The difference was huge. Exhausted, we called upon one of the mentors to help us get onto the same road. Together with the mentor we managed to establish what we wanted to do. After that it was funny to see how for two whole days, five people were talking about five different problems and five different solutions.
“Lesson no. 2: make sure that your team understands the same thing you do. Write it down on the whiteboard, discuss, repeat as many times as necessary. Anything that is unclear is disastrous for the long term.“
One of the most important steps in a startup is Primary Market Research (PMR). This implies interaction with at least 50 people who face the problem you are trying to solve. This step requires as many interviews with possible clients and users as possible and unless it is thoroughly made, the chances for success are minimal.
Some of the teams changed their ideas several times during Bootcamp, because PMR did not validate their initial problem. One of the teams for instance had done 300 interviews in the first two days. You may be sure that the problem and solution you suggest are valid and many customers would purchase it. After the first interviews, however, you might be surprised to find that people face different problems or they are not interested in the solution you came up with.
In our case, the issue was the field we targeted. Where could we find so many engineers, lab assistants, doctors or lab managers to interview on such a short notice? We were close to the end of day 4 and had done only six interviews. The mentors and organizers discovered this situation and got alarmed. They almost stopped the Bootcamp because this step was paramount and we could not move forward without completing it. Finally, we reached out to all our acquaintances and connections from MIT, and managed to get 15 interviews.
The good news? The problem was real and the customers would have paid a great deal to have a solution.
“Lesson no. 3: do not skip certain steps in a process just because they are difficult to achieve. If you have an idea for a startup, it is mandatory to speak in advance with potential customers and validate the problem. Afterwards, sketch up the solution and redo the validation process.“
One day before Demo Day, on Thursday, we started working on our presentation and go through the rest of 20 steps of the Disciplined Entrepreneurship process. We highlighted the User Persona, Total Addressable Market, Beachhead Market, Value proposition, Define the Core, See the competition, Go to Market plan and Financial Projections.
Defining the financial part was extremely difficult and complex. We made 10-year forecast and had to be very precise on our request, “Ask”, to the investors. In order to complete this step, we had a lot to learn from our mentors: from basic finance principles down to the smallest details, so we could establish a realistic budget. The challenge was great and it drew six of the mentors to our workroom, each of them bringing a different view but at the same time offering us precious information.
“Lesson no. 4: hear out as many views as you can and implement that which fits your pattern. There will always be feedback and advice, but you must take a final decision and go on with it.”
Below you can view some slides from our final presentation for Demo Day. In only one day, we condensed all our work in a few slides, that we would present in front of our colleagues, mentors, professors and investors.
After finishing our presentation and financial projections, we made a mock presentation to the mentors.
They completely discarded us. After working until 6 PM on the presentation, we had to start over, remake the presentation and financial projections, which took us until 3 AM. We were exhausted when we finished the presentation new version and then Basit, our mentor, thought we should change the pricing mode. It would have completely changed the business plan. We decided together that it was a good idea, but none of us had the energy to implement a new business plan from ground zero, six hours before Demo Day.
Day 6 – Demo Day
At 7 AM we went to the hall where Demo Day would take place. I met with Angela and started rehearsing. She would present the scientific side, while I had to speak about the business plan (Tam, BHM, Go To Market, financial projections etc). We rehearsed several times, before 9 AM, when Demo Day officially started. Our team was the first to present. We had 10 minutes for the presentation and 5 minutes for questions from the investors. We were advised to finish the presentation as quickly as possible, so that we could receive more questions and raise the engagement of the audience and investors.
It was both good and bad that our team spoke first. The good part was that we did not stress out watching the other teams speak, while waiting for our turn. The bad part was that we did not know what questions the investors would ask and how the discussions would go from there on.
I was so nervous that I cannot even remember what I said during the presentation (lucky for me I saw the video recording later). I hesitated for a second while answering to an investor, even though I knew the answer, I froze and I could not speak. But I took a breath, finished my answer and it was ok in the end.
A few days after Demo Day, my team received an email from the MIT staff saying that an entrepreneur was interested in our idea. We are now in the discussion and analysis phase, but the best thing about it is that all five of us, the members of the team are on board and wish to work on this project further.
Overview and key moments
Each of the six days was so intense that we literally did not know which way to go and what to do. We had courses morning to evening, with 5-10 minutes’ breaks between them. We ate quick meals and spoke with our mouths full about a product we wanted to develop. After that, it was hard work along with the team, from 7-8 PM to 3-4 AM, 2-3 hours of sleep then start over. We had numberless meetings with the mentors, professors, bootcampers and interviews with specialists, face-to-face or over Skype. Dozens of boards were written, erased and written all over again, while debating problems and discussing solutions inside out.
I am close to the end of the story and I want to confess that many sacrifices were made so that I could participate in this program. The financial investment was approx. 10 000 EUR. Moreover, there were many aspects that I had to plan with great care, before leaving behind my children and father, who was in the hospital.
Was is all worth the sacrifices? YES! It was a life changing experience and I can’t wait to implement everything I learned in Grapefruit and in my personal life.
I got home
After getting back home and recovering from the jet lag, I tried to make a few lists that would remain in my head and heart forever. I thought it might be cool to share it with you, so here are the positive outcome of this program for me:
5 things I changed about myself after Bootcamp:
- Active listening: although in theory I knew how to do this well, it was only at the Bootcamp that I learned to patiently listen to the people around me and draw conclusions;
- I can survive and be productive an entire week with only 12 hours of sleep, which is an average of 2 hours’ sleep per night;
- I can work in a team in which I do not take the final decision and I am not in control;
- I know how to implement the 24 Disciplined Entrepreneurship steps for the Grapefruit product, and for our clients;
- The smallest problem at Bootcamp was the lack of sleep, even though it was my greatest fear.
5 MIT Bootcamp quotes:
- Sleep is for the weak, oversleeping is for the fearless!?
- Entrepreneurship is learned!
- If you can survive the Bootcamp, you can change the world! Don’t accept anything that doesn’t keep you excited!
- Look for the people when you build a team, not after the idea they want to work with!
- Drinking from the firehouse!
- MIT’s official motto: Mens et Manus (Latin for “Minds and Hand”).
4 most difficult moments of the Bootcamp:
- Choosing the right team
- Defining the problem
- The Financial stage
- The Demo Day presentation
7 things I will implement after Bootcamp:
- The development of the Grapefruit product, following the 24 Disciplined Entrepreneurship (DE) steps. We already started work on it. YEY!
- The adjustment of Job Descriptions, to find the best colleagues.
- The revision of the Prescoring system, for selecting the Grapefruit clients and projects.
- Training the internal team: how to correctly apply the 24 steps of Disciplined Entrepreneurship.
- Knowledge sharing in the local community: a workshop with entrepreneurs from Iasi and Bucharest about the 24 steps DE
- International business scaling for Grapefruit with the help of the MIT Bootcamp network and opening new opportunities for collaboration.
- Long term: in 10-12 years I will sign my children up for MIT Launch – a special entrepreneurship program for high school students.
7 mistakes I made at Bootcamp:
- I chose my team under pressure, without taking my time to consider all my options.
- During the first interviews I indicated to customers to validate both the problem and the solution.
- I worked with my team for the project during courses and missed important and valuable information for my personal and professional development.
- I labeled my colleagues based on the first impression and chose not to work with them. Eventually it turned out they were completely different than what I initially thought.
- I called a mentor to approve my point of view during an internal debate, regarding the Value proposition, instead of solving the issue myself and make myself well understood.
- I did not consider a mentor’s advice to work with a particular team, because I did not like their initial idea. It turned out they were a great team who developed a fantastic idea.
- I was very uncertain in many situations and I could hardly take a decision. For example, on the first night I would have liked to work with 3-4 teams but I chose the team who were close to my comfort zone, regarding their idea.