MIT graduate Alper Celen shares his ideas about entrepreneurship
First, could you tell us about your education and the highlights of your work history?
I am a geek turned business guru slash entrepreneur. My education gave me the discipline and problem solving skills and working in some of the top companies in the world allowed me to apply what I learned to real life. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As an engineer I worked at a NASA subcontractor and at IBM where I designed some of the earlier 3G mobile phone chips. I then switched to the business side of high-tech at Ansys, a simulation software company, and had a one year stint at Nokia Corporate Strategy before joining McKinsey & Company. For the last year, I have been running my own management consulting and investment firm out of Dubai called Commit Network.
How was it studying at MIT, one of the best schools in the world?
Studying at MIT is like drinking from a fire hose. The energy of the place is overwhelming and makes you dream and achieve things not possible most elsewhere. What is most important about the Institute is the can-do attitude it fosters. The experience is transformational; no one comes out as they go in. In fact, I always say that the one thing people will not do when they graduate is what they planned to do before going in.
Why did you want to become an entrepreneur?
We had done a study at MIT Entrepreneurship Center on what makes entrepreneurs successful. One clear reason was having entrepreneurs as parents. My father has been my role model my whole life. He is an insatiable entrepreneur and inventor and continues to amaze me with his energy, wit and attitude. I would say he is the main reason that I am not satisfied working at a large company. The other reason is my desire to generate as much impact as possible. When you are in a large company, many factors and people decide how much you matter: in a small company, especially one of your own, you decide if you matter… I like that.
What in your opinion does it take to succeed as an entrepreneur? How important do you consider education?
I think there are some hard skills such as knowing how to sell, budgeting, and some planning. But it is very important to have some soft skills as well such as a positive attitude, a go-getter nature, and a nearly unrealistic level of optimism. Most entrepreneurs fail… You need to be optimistic enough to think you are different. The other thing that is crucial is to pick the right partners and customers. Business depends on people and I find that my most important luxury these days is being able to pick who I work with.
What do you think makes a start-up business promising?
Solving a real problem. If you can cure a real pain passionately, good things will come to you. And of course sales… Most people eat meat and few are hunters. You need to have good sales people to succeed. Otherwise the cash flow monster will get you.
What are the greatest challenges when starting a business of your own?
The ambiguity and the unknown. If you have been an engineer and a McKinsey consultant for enough years, it is difficult to let go of ”the plan”… For an entrepreneur, it is a jungle out there, there is no map, it is getting dark, and sometimes you don’t even know what kind of animal just growled behind the bush. You need to have the skill set to face challenges real-time and be quick witted. Otherwise, the opportunity may pass you by. There are no sleepy successful entrepreneurs. You need to be alert on 4 hours of sleep a night.
Everyone’s talking about the importance of networking. How valuable do you think networking really is?
Networking is a great expediter of business. You can have the greatest idea, but since business is about people, it can sit on the shelf and have zero impact. But networking is not meeting people, but knowing how to generate the desired reaction from them. I would suggest not collecting every business card out there and inflating LinkedIn lists but rather taking the time to understand how each person you meet in a business setting can help you and how you can help them. You have to also remember that most effective networking happens when you think of the second.
Do you have any tips for students dreaming about entrepreneurship?
Try it during school. It is a great low-risk setting where you can take risks and no one will write about it (unless you lost Facebook to Mark Z.). But don’t just start companies with your best friends, that usually doesn’t work. Go across the campus to other schools and build something multidisciplinary.