MassChallenge – The American Dream?


Back from the study trip to Boston and Worcester 2011, we were asked to write a report on our personal insights about the environment and institutions we had the privilege to visit. For me personally, the experience at MassChallenge presented the most inspiring part of this trip. I therefore decided to share with everyone who is interested my personal feedback and reflections about MassChallenge.

MassChallenge is another type of structure that has to be considered in the Boston entrepreneurship ecosystem. The founders’ main idea is to connect early stage entrepreneurs to the resources they need to launch high-growth, high-impact businesses immediately. Indeed, the upfront observation was that despite the huge local entrepreneurial emulation, it is hard for VCs or other ecosystem’s actors (resources providers) to get a clear view of the newest projects around.

MassChallenge’s main activities include running an annual global start-up competition, documenting and organizing key resources, and organizing training and networking events.

To me, this was the most surprising and inspiring experience we had in the USA. While we were just expected to get in touch with the organizational staff, we have been offered the chance to take part in the “MassChallenge Startup Showcase 2011” on the 27th September 2011. It involved an open floor exposition with the competition’s finalists and a 50-pitch session.

The exposition offers the finalists the possibility to explain and present their business model to visitors. I, personally, got in touch with a young man providing an anti-accident radar system for airport vehicles, with a team offering an automated subscription system for amateur sport competitions and with application developers that were selling an interactive software for athletes to assess the accuracy of their moves.

The pitch session simply constituted a “one-minute” pitch window for each entrepreneur to “sell” his or her business idea, model or plan. No Powerpoint or other media assistance was accepted, it was just the entrepreneur with their pitch capacities… Since, there were about 50 entrepreneurs, the session lasted for about an hour.

I believe I rank this experience as the top one in our study trip, because it made me get through many opposite feelings in a row.

When we arrived at the Boston harbour, on the 14th floor of that unfinished luxurious building, I was in the same mood as during the other visits. Basically, I was a student in a study trip with my classmates… interested (but not that much) ready to ask, ready to learn.

As we were offered to walk around and chat with the people around, I felt it would be stimulating to challenge the finalists’ ideas with my perfectionism. I guess I was like we are asked to be in Switzerland… pessimistic, critical, meticulous and so on. I also felt some national pride wishing to prove Swiss are better than Americans. In other words, I was involved in a negative competition (where you have a winner and a looser).

After several tough discussions, I had to admit my American peers had answers to almost everything. When they didn’t, I was always faced with their strong belief in their project. At that point, I felt some jealousy growing inside of me. How come that they stay as that optimistic and persuasive? At the end of my walk, my feelings started to be completed by an inferiority complex… More objectively, I was amazed by the intensity of great projects. I thought MassChallenge was quite successful, both with its ideas of offering a concentration of ventures for ecosystem actors (VCs…) and proposing a promotion platform for entrepreneurs.

Then the competition started…

and it literally blew me away… The atmosphere, the quality of the pitches as well as the involvement of the assistance… it was a kind of communion of all the subjects of the entrepreneurship spirit. Even if it might sound like a TV show at some points, the disorganisation concerning the micros (they stopped working a few times) recalled we were in a competition organized by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, and not a tasteless professional organization with huge financial means.

I quickly realized the gap that exists among Swiss and Americans in terms of pitching capacities. 95% of the finalists mastered the exercise with a certain class. At that particular moment, I had a weird association of feelings acting in the same time. My complex was increasing coupled with a hopeless conclusion: “We can’t compare what’s on here with what we know in Switzerland, the differences reside on innate factors”. However, I also felt somehow reassured… I indeed figured a few entrepreneurs were fairly stressed (who wouldn’t… ?), which let me stupidly come to the following observation “Hey… wait a minute, these guys are human beings… and so am I”.

This changed my whole appreciation of the competition. They are good at pitching, because they have practiced a lot. They are optimistic and good sales people, because they had taken the opportunities to challenge their business ideas anytime they could. They gave themselves the right to dream and let their ambitious leading their way. And I don’t even speak about their self-confidence. This competition doesn’t have any looser… everybody wins in terms of experiences, advice and reflexions.

After the session, my 5th beer on an empty stomach, I was in a very good mood… believing  I could be one of these finalists on the top of the world☺. Thus I went on discussing about philosophical topics with Benoît… I guess that in the end, we felt both like entrepreneurs involved in and excited by the competition… willing to pitch our ideas… ready to answer, ready to act, ready to live.

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