INTERVIEW by JOSHUA WONG | PHOTOGRAPHY by JODI-TATIANA CHARLES
A breakup is never easy, but sometimes some time apart can be the best thing to inspire change in a relationship. Perhaps it is time for entrepreneurs to take some time away from Corporate America to focus on themselves, find new ways to stand on their own two feet, and #FixYoungAmerica. When it’s time to get back out there and work towards their passions, John Harthorne and Akhil Nigam, co-founders of MassChallenge, are ready to serve as entrepreneurial wingmen, placing clients on an accelerated track to creating the jobs of their dreams. On a mission to “catalyze a startup renaissance,” these two have built MassChallenge into the world’s largest startup accelerator, helping over 111 entrepreneurs raise over $100M in outside funding and create approximately 500 new jobs in 2010 alone. Providing mentorship, funding, and office space to passionate entrepreneurs with high-impact ideas, MassChallenge is making it easier for young Americans to find work that they truly love. We spoke to John about it all.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea for MassChallenge originate?
Our whole mission was to help people create more value. The concept was developed at the very depths of the recession. December 2008 was the very start of the idea and we started working on it through January, February, and March. We gave notice and left our jobs in May and got our first round of funding in June 2009.
What made you decide to leave a stable job in corporate America to start MassChallenge?
You know, I was married, I had kids, and I had a really good job. We were getting paid good money as Bain & Company strategy consultants, and we felt I could coast and be okay. But it felt like America had gone astray. The American economy had begun to focus too much on taking value and how individual companies can make themselves rich. If you go back to the original definition of capitalism, it has it in there that your job as a corporate entity is to maximize profit. The challenge is, on what time frame? Short-term incentives are driving these companies to focus only on taking and not on creating products that customers will love, adore, and buy forever.
So MassChallenge is about finding long-term solutions?
What we wanted to do is refocus the spotlight in our country on creating value. What we’re looking for are game-changing and long-term solutions. We are not about a short-term, get-rich-quick scheme. It’s about, how do I cure blindness? How do I educate people that would not normally have access to education? How do I change the way people make or consume energy? How do I improve the way people communicate with each other? We’re looking for people tackling big challenges and for entrepreneurs who are genuinely passionate about their startup.
Those seem like pretty lofty goals. Are MassChallenge entrepreneurs really tackling issues like curing blindness?
A great example from this year is Alkeus Pharmaceutical. This company has developed a cure for the leading cause of blindness in children, Stargardt’s disease. From the onset of this disease in, say, a six-year-old, until clinical blindness sets in about three years later, you just slowly watch this child go blind. He’s developed a modified form of Vitamin A that, when taken as a pill, will radically slow down the process. With the hypothesis that instead of three years, it will take about forty years for the blindness to take effect, you’re gaining an enormous amount of time.
When you hear him talk about his startup, he is incredibly smart, an MIT PhD, but he doesn’t talk about money. He is a savvy businessman, he runs a profitable company, and I think it has the potential for very significant profit. He is not motivated by profit. You can see it and feel it in him that he is motivated by curing blindness.
What if you’re not an MIT PhD graduate?
Another good example is a group called Vsnap. They developed a platform that makes it easy to send short, simple video messages. What the team found is that when you send someone a video message instead of an email, there is a 40% greater likelihood that they will open the message and act on it. Using video, you can regain that engagement potential and have a significant impact on communication.
This is not as obviously impactful as curing blindness in kids — very little is — but these people are deeply passionate about it. There is an excitement in their eyes when they describe it, and you can just see that they know they are on to something, and they are not going to let go. They really believe in it.
So, you have convinced me to follow my passion and become an entrepreneur. Where should I start?
The best way is to find something that you love. It is much more about understanding yourself first than understanding a market. I really think that entrepreneurship is a passport to personal enlightenment. You have to be your own IT department, your own sales department, your own finance department, your own HR department. You have to run an entire business by yourself. That is why it is so hard, and that is why you have to do something that you love. You could find the greatest marketing opportunity in the world, but you are going to suck at it unless you love it.
I would encourage people to introspect and figure out who you are and what you want out of life. Your first instincts are normally very short-term id-oriented (sex, parties, cars), but if you really think it through, you realize that those things are not really what fulfill you and make you happy; inevitably, it will be some larger cause.
In terms of industry, I would ask, what do you know? What is your background? If you had to build a team today, who do you know and who could you go get that share your values and that will help you to focus on the industry and technical areas? Then you just brainstorm it out on whiteboards and mix with hours of caffeine or beer.
Any advice on applying to MassChallenge?
Stick to your values — it is the number one thing. It really is incredible to me how much of our success is derived from just being frank and sincere. Our mistakes are almost always caused by being disingenuous with ourselves and trying to impress a certain audience. As long as you are just honest and genuine about who you are and what you want, people will automatically appreciate that. People want genuine.
What’s next for MassChallenge?
What’s next for MassChallenge is scaling it up even more. We’re already the largest startup accelerator in the world, but we are not nearly the size we would like to be. We want to reach more entrepreneurs in more places around the world.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
In the very short-term, before April 11th, either enter a startup idea into the competition or tell someone with an idea to enter. We are looking for committed, high-quality entrepreneurs with good ideas. Most of the startups that enter are just at the idea stage, so maybe you’re not yet fully committed, maybe you don’t yet know all of the answers or have all of the solutions, but if you think it’s probably a good idea and you might be able to get committed, that’s still worthwhile. Part of our process helps people to decide if this is the idea for them or not.
Over the longer term, we want to open multiple locations and hopefully expand our program to people all over the world. To do this, we have to figure out a more sustainable financial model. We are a non-profit that decided to forego the equity, which is where there is a lot of upside and money, so we are living off of sponsorships and grants. Help us in finding a more sustainable model or by contributing a donation.
Finally, help a startup today. Whether it is one of our startups or not, just do something. Make an introduction for them, set up a meeting, set up a call, offer some advice, buy a product, whatever it is you can help to do to promote a startup. Or just reach out to them and ask, “What can I do to help you achieve your goals?”