Erdin Beshimov

Founder of MIT Bootcamps

Erdin Beshimov is an educator and entrepreneur. He is the Founder of MIT Bootcamps, an educational program for entrepreneurs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Erdin teaches subjects such as entrepreneurial creativity, a system of techniques for generating creative ideas; problem solving, a system of tools for evaluating and addressing complex problems; and bootstrapping, strategies for growing a venture on little capital.

His case studies include such pathbreaking companies as Wayfair, Atlassian, Spanx, Patagonia, Cirque du Soleil, and others. All of the case studies are focused on effecting in entrepreneurs a sequence of small improvements that over the long-term leads to dramatic changes.

He is a producer of several MIT massive open online courses (MOOCs) on innovation and entrepreneurship, such as “You Can Innovate” and “Entrepreneurship 101: Who Is Your Customer?”. Having reached entrepreneurs in every country of the world, these courses have a mission to give people genuine and enduring confidence that anyone can be a great innovator.

Erdin is on the Advisory Board of Equity Alliance, a venture fund dedicated to expanding opportunities for investors and entrepreneurs of color, and ReACT, an educational program at MIT focused on refugees.

He believes that the key to building effective educational programs is to combine mastery and community. Mastery is a humanistic ideal; it builds the individual’s sense of efficacy and autonomy. But achieving mastery requires long-term commitment and motivation. This is what communities uniquely provide. Without a strong sense of community and a reliable path to mastery, no educational program is sufficient.

Having lived, studied and worked in Kyrgyzstan, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Erdin has degrees from Harvard and MIT. As a student he researched political revolutions, a field that he finds to be strikingly similar to entrepreneurship.

Where did the idea for MIT Bootcamps come from?

The idea for MIT Bootcamps came from my mentor at MIT, Sanjay Sarma (who is an amazing person, by the way). At the time I had produced MIT’s first massive open online course (MOOC) on entrepreneurship and was managing its community. In the early weeks of the MOOC, more than 60,000 participants enrolled in it. That was more people than the total number of students who had taken an entrepreneurship course at MIT before in its entire history. And these MOOC participants came from every country in the world too.

It was really exciting for all of us to be part of this global community, which literally came out of nowhere––out of the global woodwork, so to speak. And this community was so vibrant and fun from day one. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. Participants were posting projects that they were working on and inviting others to work with them. They also were posting pictures of themselves and their friends and families and sharing about their lives. It was a “Hello World” moment lived 60,000 times. I got a picture from a participant watching our course videos on a transoceanic tanker, a picture of another participant on the job fixing airplane engines, a picture from a mom showing our course to her kids, and many others like these. It felt genuine and very human. It was a course that became a movement.

I learned something important about the world through this experience. I realized that there was a lot of latent positive energy in the world. You just have to find a way to unleash it and channel it. And this energy grows exponentially when you meaningfully bring people together.

What we were really doing at the time was building a mechanism to identify on a global scale some of the most motivated up-and-coming entrepreneurs in the world. Not only that, we were turning this globally dispersed group into a community with a real sense of belonging. We were transforming a university into a global innovation community, which was very exciting. I also think it’s a real trend and it will remake education. The best universities of the 22nd century will be innovation communities.

So Sanjay had a hunch that we could take a step further. He has a very productive sense of intuition and he felt that there could be real magic in combining a MOOC with a learning event on campus. This way entrepreneurs could meet online and then come to MIT to work together on a startup. And he was right.

We piloted this idea and the most important thing we did was to introduce the process of selection. While anyone can enroll in a MOOC, we created a selection process to be admitted to the Bootcamp. (In general, I think there are so many opportunities in the world to give people a genuine, meaningful sense of pride.) The selection made every “bootcamper” so proud of being there. It was this feeling that gave the idea life and made it real.

We’ve now offered our bootcamps all over the world–in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Korea, Mexico, Taiwan, and Turkey–and have trained over 1,500 entrepreneurs from 100 countries and counting. I am particularly proud of our partnership with the MIT ReACT program through which we offer entrepreneurship education to refugees.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

It strikes me that there are two kinds of productivity: creative productivity and process productivity. The first generates good things to work on, while the second completes that work. And how one stays productive really depends on which of these two productivities one is pursuing at a given time.

Creative productivity, I believe, should be measured–if it can be measured–by the volume and variety of new questions raised in one’s mind. New questions are sparks for new directions. So during periods of creative exploration, I speak a lot on the phone, see old friends and reconnect with distant colleagues, meet a lot of new people, read and take thorough notes, and generally keep my schedule fluid. A typical day at this creative stage is input-driven.

Process productivity is one’s rate of progress along a sequence of small steps that together aim at a larger goal. Here you commit yourself to a process and move steadily from one task to another. During such times the schedule becomes rigid and the focus sharp. A typical day at this process stage is output driven.

How do you bring ideas to life?

There is something important to understand here. Creativity doesn’t reside within us as much as it resides between us. What I mean to say is that ideas are catalyzed and evolve through interactions. Rarely are they products of a single mind.

So interactions are the basic life-giving force in ideation. They create escape velocity, allowing an idea to escape the gravitational pull of the status quo and break through into the universe of possibility.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I believe that one very exciting trend is what I call Entrepreneurship 4.0.

Entrepreneurship 1.0 is the kind of entrepreneurship that’s always existed in human society and exists to this day. It is about people creating small businesses to support their livelihoods.

Entrepreneurship 2.0 is the invention of the modern corporation. This is people pulling capital together, through the mechanism of a joint stock company, to pursue risky ventures.

Entrepreneurship 3.0 is the present-day technology startup. While these ventures scale globally, they still start locally.

Entrepreneurship 4.0 will be ventures catalyzed by globally distributed teams of co-founders. Networking platforms, project management tools, distributed ledgers, MOOC platforms where people learn together and collaborate, and other connectivity technologies are all building the foundation for this emergent reality.

This has not been possible before because the seamless global connectivity that we enjoy today is still a relatively new phenomenon. 20 or 30 years is a long timeon the time scale of a single individual. But on the time scale of society it is but a dot on a line. Complex innovations–those that have technological, societal, cultural, regulatory dimensions–take a while to ripen. So the future will continue surprising in big ways.

Furthermore, entrepreneurship is becoming somewhat standardized. Yes, of course, every entrepreneur’s path has idiosyncratic dynamics (and that’s the beauty of it), but there are some things that entrepreneurs do–such as customer discovery or prototype development–that are quite similar across the board. In the future, the global “crowd” will drive those work streams.

As part of that what it means to be a co-founder will see redefinition. Our economies will have “micro-founders,” people who contribute to a venture through some very concrete, short-duration activities or “micro-tasks.” These individuals would be awarded micro-shares. There will be people who are micro-founders of hundreds of companies. And there will be platforms that mediate these activities. I think this future will be very exciting.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I take notes. First by hand, and then a week or so later I review and digitize them. Forgetting is not a weakness and not an attribute to be ashamed of. It’s a very natural aspect of how our brains work. We forget 80% of what we learn. This is a big loss. Forgetting, as I think of it, is one of the most powerful forces in society.

And, considering that entrepreneurship really is a process of learning and a process of knowledge-creation through mental associations, forgetting produces an unacceptable level of information loss. But we forget a lot less if we continuously remind ourselves. Often it is better to be reminded of something that we had learned before that to learn something new.

In general, I think schools and companies would benefit from teaching their students and employees, respectively, to take good notes, organize, and continuously review them.

What advice would you give your younger self?

This is a very interesting question, which I once asked a friend. He said, “I would tell myself to keep it up!” That was a fun and unexpected answer to a question that seems to want a pensive retrospective. We had a good laugh.

I wouldn’t give the same answer my friend gave, but I would also note the worthiness of my friend’s answer. He is taking a future-oriented perspective rather than a past-driven one. This is hard to do. The future is an amorphous concept, while the past is concrete and so its weight can hold us down. But don’t we all want to fly?

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I think such a proposition is philosophically impossible.

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

I do not believe in universal recommendations. Getting others to do the same thing that you do is both unrealistic and, importantly, not so fun. But I can share about some things that I do frequently and repeatedly that I think are useful. I speak on the phone a lot, with a lot of different people. The best information in the world continues to reside purely inside people’s brains–the Internet still doesn’t come even close. Having conversations is the only way to really tap into this rich, invisible, neural network.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We’re in the field of education, which is a very particular kind of business. You just cannot be transnational. Transactional businesses in education either fail or are morally harmful. So in education I speak of business strategies with a deep sense of reservation. Not that education businesses shouldn’t be strategic, but that the focus has to be on value creation and less on value capture.

With this caveat, the strategy that has worked well for us has been making education fun. This is a good strategy because education should be inclusive. It should invite people in with the promise of what they can be, instead of turning them off at the door with a reflection of their current deficiencies.

So we’ve worked hard to make our online courses inviting. We’ve wanted to invite learners in with simplicity, but inspire them with rigor. We’ve also been intentional about introducing humor into our courses, holding the belief that the rigor would still come through. And our learners have responded very positively to that. In the process, they have taught us that learning is not just a cognitive, but an emotional process. When you get it right, it’s just magical, for it feels so rewarding.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

The one that still gnaws at me is the fate of the MIT Entrepreneurship Review. This was a student publication that I co-founded with a number of my classmates at MIT. Our idea was to publish short-form articles of entrepreneurial commentary on scientific breakthroughs. It was a great idea and the team was unbelievable. I look back on those days with real nostalgia.

We just couldn’t figure out how to make the publication sustainable beyond our own time as students. It was great while we were in school, but the publication faded after we graduated. I thought our job was to find great editors and writers, and it was. But the far bigger job was to build a sustainable publishing organization. But by the time we realized it, it was too late.

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

Here are two.

1. When video teams prepare to shoot videos, a critical stage in the preparation process is identifying a location. It’s a very time-consuming process. You run from one location to another, taking notes, and passing them on to your team. This process is poorly digitized. There are some localized online platforms, which are often managed by municipal film offices. But even there the information about locations could be presented a lot better. There are many factors that make a location advantageous: cost, proximity, relevance to story, sound isolation, and more. These factors should be addressed when a location is presented in order to help the video team make an informed assessment. But they are not. Furthermore, there is increasingly a need for a global video locations platform. This is because there are video teams now (in travel, food, nature / reality TV, mini-series, and other topics and genres) shooting videos worldwide, and you so you need a service to match that process.

2. Buying a new car today generally involves going to a local car dealership. Dealers represent specific manufacturers and have exclusivity in a specific region to distribute that manufacturer’s fleet. So if you’re at a Chrysler dealership, you cannot compare right there and then an equivalent Honda vehicle. But consumers need the convenience of immediate comparison and choice. It’s a hassle to go to a Chrysler dealership to see a car, weather through a sales pitch there, then have to drive to a Honda dealership, then to a Hyundai dealership, and so on. This current process takes a lot of time and it’s not very pleasant. If you can find an efficient way to showcase several equivalent vehicles to a consumer at the same time, you’ll have a business.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently spent about that on a pair of glasses from Warby Parker. They sell nice glasses, and they are inexpensive. But what truly stands out is the service. They are the only company in my experience whose customer service interacts with you by email. You know how we often get emails from “no-reply” email addresses. Well, you actually can reply to theirs and they’ll respond. In the world of automation, sometimes it pays to be a human.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Adobe Premier or an equivalent video editing program. It’s such an essential tool for educators today. More and more people communicate by video. YouTube is the second largest search engine.

Creating video lessons in advance and then dedicating class time to discussion rather than lecture is great for students. They learn better and have more fun this way. You also become a better educator by editing your own videos. It’s a way of giving yourself feedback, which is how we learn.

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

I recommend Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog. Most business executives (or celebrities) don’t write their own books–ghostwriters do it for them. I’m not making a value judgement–who would ever have the time. But I feel that Phil Knight did write his own book. Reading it and feeling its language, I just can’t see how someone else could have communicated that emotion on his behalf. So it’s a very genuine book and it provokes deep feelings, which is unusual for a business book.

What is your favorite quote?

“From afar every galaxy looks like a star.” – Sanjay Sarma

Key Learnings:

  • The universities of the future will be global innovation communities.
  • Education businesses cannot be transactional. If they are, they fail or do moral harm.
  • The post-pandemic will bring about Entrepreneurship 4.0. You may become a “micro-founder” of hundreds of ventures.