Akhil Nigam – Founder and President of MassChallenge

[quote style=”boxed”]Sell your idea with passion. Realize that you will not be able to do it alone.[/quote]

Akhil Nigam received his undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City (Valedictorian) and his MBA from Harvard Business School. Before business school, Akhil was one of the founding team members (employee number 5) of a high growth startup focused on software, Internet technology and IT services. In this role, he helped grow the firm to 100 employees in 5 years across the United States, India and Singapore. He was the youngest partner elected in the firm and gained extensive experience advising top level executives on technology strategy and trends while leading the firm’s new business development initiatives. Akhil has also evaluated investment opportunities in a variety of industries for major private equity firms at Bain & Co. and at Fidelity Strategic Investments. Akhil lived in India until age 12 and then attended High School in Zimbabwe before receiving a full 4-year scholarship to the Cooper Union. Akhil currently lives in Cambridge with his wife Hemali and two daughters Diya and Aisha.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently working on building out the accelerator program for our new class of 125 companies with mentors, workshops and amazing content. I am also working on expanding the MassChallenge model to other countries and regions around the world.

Where did the idea for MassChallenge come from?

The MassChallenge epiphany came to John Harthorne (Co-founder & CEO) and I in 2009 when we were working at Bain & Co. together. At that moment everyone was focused on the worst global economic downturn since the great depression. Risk was fleeing everywhere and the whole economic system came to a standstill with nobody risking any capital or even lending capital.

Our basic premise was that startups are the source of a majority of the value creation in society and we need to focus the society more towards value creation rather than just financial engineering. Too many people and organizations were taking slices of the pie, and not creating more pies. We wanted to put the entrepreneurs at the center of the equation and provide them with all the resources needed to catalyze their growth.

What does your typical day look like?

Typical? There’s no such thing as a “typical day” for an entrepreneur. I think the really exciting part of being an entrepreneur is the fact that you work on so many different things on the course of the day. Because our program works on a yearly cycle, usually during the first half of the year my day is filled with more marketing related activities to make sure we reach out to high potential entrepreneurs to apply to the program. During the second half of the year my day is more concentrated on building the accelerator program, which means working with entrepreneurs as well as outside resources like VCs, Angels, marketing firms, etc. Our focus during the second half of the year is surrounding the entrepreneurs with the very best resources.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Number one – Sell your idea with passion. Realize that you will not be able to do it alone. You need to recruit other people whether it is team members, advisors, financiers or customers. As an entrepreneur you are always selling – your company, your product and your vision.

Number two – Execute with speed. Startups are all about day to day execution. So focus on next few key milestones and execute on them very fast. Most of the times, speed is the only key advantage a startup has in early days.

Number three – Get feedback and iterate. Be sure to keep getting feedback. It is vital that you keep getting feedback from a customer or potential customer. There is no use building a product for six months and then realizing that nobody wants it.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

For the first time in history billions of people are connected through technology and have access to technology and information. Whether it is through social networks like Facebook and Twitter or devices like mobile phones (4B+ mobile phones across the world), people now have access to similar set of information and resources. And when you give people these tools, amazing things are going to happen. We are seeing this happen in political and social revolutions e.g. arab spring as well as day to day behavior in way we interact and behave. Everything around us is being changed by technology and we are going to see a whole new wave of global innovation in the coming years.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I have enjoyed most of my jobs so I have been pretty lucky that way.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Keep more of a peer network of similar minded entrepreneurs who are going through the same problems and journey as you and can act as a sounding board and support network.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Realize that it is a marathon not a sprint, so do not burn yourself out in the first 3 months. The other one is keep up your optimism because the entrepreneur’s journey is a journey of extreme highs and lows, sometimes within the same day.

What is one problem you encountered as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Fundraising is always a big obstacle and you have to manage it as a sales process. In addition,  you have to force people to make a decision. A quick “no” is better than a long six month “maybe” which can be waste of time on both sides.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Business ideas are everywhere. Focus on building a great team and execute. Focus and execution are key.

If you could change one thing in the world – what would it be – and how would you go about it?

Encourage more people to be entrepreneurs and providing support structures for these entrepreneurs. We should start in colleges and universities and show people the way. I am not saying everyone needs to be an entrepreneur but highlight that as one of the viable options that you can do in your career.

Tell us a secret.

Then it would not be a secret 🙂

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

1. Twitter for it’s ability to bring me the news before it breaks.

2. LinkedIn for keeping connected with professional contacts.

3. NYTimes and Wall Street Journal to keep current with other exciting things happening in the world.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Mastering the VC Game by Jeff Bussgang. It brings you through the mind of both entrepreneurs and Venture Capitalist.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

1. Dharmesh Shah (@Dharmesh) and his Onstartup blog. Great advice from the viewpoint of entrepreneurs.

2. Fred Wilson (@fredwilson) from Union Square Ventures. Great advice from the viewpoint of VCs.

3. MassChallenge (@MassChallenge) – we keep up to date on what is happening in the entrepreneurship world.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Last night MassChallenge held a team dinner. Throughout the night the staff swapped life stories – things like: what’s the one thing people don’t know about you; how many bones have you broken (and how). Let’s just say the MassChallenge team have some crazy stories that I probably shouldn’t share.

Who is your hero?

Peter Cooper, Founder of Cooper Union. I went to Cooper Union as an undergrad and he is a great role model.

What should people look for when they are looking to work for organizations or hiring people?

Organizations values, products and people. Do you identify with the values, do you love their products and are you excited about working with the team. Same thing goes the other way – about the people that you hire. Do they fit into your value system, do they love your products active users of your products and will they work to make your products better. Will they be a good fit with the team and culture of the place? A lot of times we meet people who are great competent people and have all the skills we are looking for but either do not love what we do or will be a poor cultural fit and we end up not hiring them.

Where did you grow up?

India and Africa (Zimbabwe)


Twitter: @masschallenge