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Knowledge transfer is understated asset for entrepreneurs

Posted by Chad O'Connor  November 18, 2013 11:00 AM

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It is well known that Boston has become a thriving ecosystem in which entrepreneurs forge their businesses. There are accelerators for hardware, healthcare, software and social enterprises; affordable shared workspaces; open curriculum and workshops for those looking to build new skills, technical and fundamental. The list goes on.

Perhaps the most significant characteristic is the wealth of human capital, budding and seasoned with experience, providing a powerful and enhancing contrast of perspective to address business opportunities across industries. Annually, 250,000 eager young minds return to higher ed institutions here to learn how to create and innovate. Worth noting, though, is not that this vast human capital pool exists, but how well it facilitates incredibly synergistic interactions between individuals.

My place within this ecosystem is as the Chief Executive Officer of IDEA, a student-run venture accelerator sponsored by Northeastern University. I work with 19 other undergraduates on IDEA’s management team to deliver the best resources possible to the 150 seed-stage companies in our program including business planning tools, in-kind services and non-equity seed funding. An important part of our acceleration process is helping our ventures tap into the community here in Boston.

To this end, on November 13, 2013 I enrolled 6 ventures from IDEA in a marketing “hack” with MITX Up, a network of 200 marketing, communications and creative professionals run by MITX out of the MassChallenge office at Fan Pier and sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs. The hack is essentially a focus group where 4-6 MITX Up experts sit with a venture for 2 hours, learning about the company’s marketing strategy and then breaking that strategy down completely to rebuild it from every angle through an open dialogue with the cofounders.

The exchange of suggestions, critiques and connections that occurs during this 2-hour hack session was amazing to watch. I spent about 20 minutes observing each group pepper their venture with clarifying and critical questions to understand the business, its value proposition, and where it sits in the competitive landscape. Then the marketing and domain expertise of the MITX mentors kicks in and the venture is bombarded with strategic advice about everything from its business model to its audience to channel and partnership opportunities. For the young entrepreneurs receiving the feedback, it is a little bit like drinking from a fire hose.

The quality of knowledge transfer is incredibly high. My first stop was with Samurai Investments, a venture at IDEA that provides cloud-based trading tools for aspiring investors. Mark Gallagher, cofounder of creative agency BlackCoffee, asked Samurai CEO Zac Sheffer if his goal was to gain lots of new users or fewer paying subscribers over the next 6 months. The group then walked through the implications of each with a volley of input from around the table. When I left, the group was discussing the benefits of building a social component into the service to enable novice traders to learn together.

Another IDEA venture called Tablelist, which enables nightclub owners to sell excess VIP space at a discount to last-minute club-goers via mobile app, was learning about the psychology behind reaching their target market effectively. Marketing executives from Baskin Robbins and Google were posing questions like, “How are you present when the consumer is making the to decision to buy? And then how do you influence [that decision]? You spend money to understand your customer’s behavior.” The CEO of Tablelist, Julian Jung, walked away with a substantive list of action items for customer research and channel development.

The value of interactions like these is obvious. But why are they so seemingly easy to foster? What are senior marketing executives and ad agency pros gleaning from a roundtable discussion with a young entrepreneur?

The mentors that I’ve met through IDEA, MITX Up, MassChallenge and other organizations pay it forward with a genuine interest in helping entrepreneurs achieve success. There might also be a selfish component – if Boston business leaders want our city to continue to lead the country as an innovation hub, then they should take a stake in ensuring that the ecosystem grows and sustains the entrepreneurial mindset of aspiring professionals, if not new venture creation as a whole.

I see all of the above activity unfolding at Northeastern on a daily basis. Northeastern has realized the importance of supporting the entrepreneur, beginning at the undergraduate level with IDEA, and driving that support outwards to alumni. Our ventures are materially better off as a result, and the ecosystem continues to grow stronger. We will be celebrating that ecosystem at Northeastern on November 18-20 as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. I encourage any curious or interested Greater Bostonians to come witness the magic – you can learn more about the event lineup and register here.

Max Kaye is the CEO of IDEA, Northeastern University’s Venture Accelerator. He is working on his anticipated 2014 degree with a Finance Concentration at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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