Interview with founders of Founders Bootcamp

Ashwini Ashwini
Jan 13, 2020 5 min read
Interview with founders of Founders Bootcamp

1. What inspired you to bring out a startup accelerator programme for high school students?

My co-founder, Roger Kassebaum, and I came from dramatically different backgrounds that coalesced to make Founders Bootcamp a reality.

Over several decades, Roger has accumulated a unique resume as a high school teacher: he won many national teaching awards, including meeting the U.S. president in the White House; dozens of his students got patents or got published in scientific journals while in high school; Intel recognized him as the first high school teacher ever to have electronic assignments and submissions; and he convinced NASA to let him and some of his students put a payload on a space shuttle and manage it from mission control (STS-76).

Roger’s education experience complements my own experience. I started by working as an engineer or manager on deep tech projects like a satellite, an oil detecting submarine, and a molten metal battery. I then leveraged that experience to form multiple startups and a social media organization that surpassed 20 million monthly views at its peak. Now, I’m an investor in enterprise startups like Rubrik and ThoughtSpot and in consumer startups like Lime and Impossible Foods. Most importantly, however, I am a proud member of MIT’s first set of quadruplets; based on my experience growing up, I have learned how to inspire but not intimidate my students using the success of other students.

Our idea was born at an event in which Roger was showcasing some of his students’ elite research, which I realized could become viable startup businesses. When we discovered the dearth of opportunities for teenager founders, we knew that we had to change that.

2. Having a professional background in the startup industry yourself, how do you help students become adaptable to the startup industry at this young age?

On average, teenager founders are less constrained by the status quo compared to older entrepreneurs, so they only need a little exposure to the true founder’s mindset to adopt it themselves. We provide that exposure, and more importantly empower students to provide that exposure to each other.

In fact, the heart of our program is a novel pedagogical approach: peer-to-peer teaching. During our program, although we do give lectures ourselves and have guest speakers, most learning comes from individual teams sharing their insights on a given topic with the group. Moreover, the most important part of every day is the “daily scrum,” in which every team shares their progress, sets goals, has accountability to everyone else, and asks the rest of the group advice on any 3 questions. Finally, we provide “Bootcamp Dollars” (which can be redeemed for prizes or experiences) whenever an individual student supports a fellow student. Facilitating inspiration without intimidation and collaboration without competition requires a delicate, deliberate balance.

3. Having interacted with so many startups after Founder’s Bootcamp, how do you think student’s startup differs from other startups?

For the successful startups, there is no difference. The teams who make it through our full application process each fully intend to make a sustainable, disruptive business. That, in turn, requires adopting the best processes and solutions for that industry, regardless of the founders’ backgrounds.

4. In a startup industry dominated by graduates and industry professionals, how does Founders Bootcamp help student entrepreneurs be competitive and achieve their dreams?

We empower young people to build disruptive startup companies by providing mentorship, networking, resources, and equity-free grants of up to $50,000 each. Participants have learned directly from founders of multi-billion-dollar companies (like Rob Chess and Bahram Nour-Omid), venture capitalists (like Kobie Fuller and Super Bowl champion Ryan Nece), successful CEOs (like Bryan Thomas and Nick Lazaris), institutional investors (like U.S. Ambassador Frank Baxter and billionaire Michael Milken), and many more. Our program includes graduate-level content assembled in collaboration with successful entrepreneurs, startup investors, and professors from UCLA, MIT, and Stanford.

However, the most important thing we provide is peer-to-peer framing. If we tell a student to build a feature or acquire a set of influencers in the next week, that student might become too intimidated to even get started. However, if they instead see their fellow students achieve that feat, they can become inspired to do the same.

5. Planning and execution of a startup takes a lot of experience and skills like management, marketing and financial knowledge. How does Founders Bootcamp help students prepare for that?

See Answer #4. I’ll add that one of the most important entrepreneurial skillsets is learning how to learn. After all, no matter how experienced a founder might be, they are often faced with new problems that can require learning entire fields quickly. Given that the best way to learn how to learn is by doing, we prepare students using low stakes but relevant experiences.

6. With fast thriving startup industry in India, how do you expect for the programme to expand in India?

By 2021, we hope to replicate our Philippines efforts (see Answer 9) in India.

7. What are the future goals of Founder’s Bootcamp?

The answer depends on the timeframe:

-- Our 1-year goal -- every year -- is to get at least 3-4 teams with enough progress (e.g. $1,000,000+ in revenue and/or investments) to be a sustainable full time business.

-- Our 3-year goal is to surpass 1 million annual applications by 2022.

-- Our 5-year goal is to facilitate at least 1, and preferably multiple, teenager-founded unicorns.

8. The startup industry is continuously growing with more startups emerging every day, but it is known that only a few are able to reach the prospects that they wish to reach. How does Founders Bootcamp motivate students to continue with their idea while making them aware of the possibilities of failure?

Elon Musk said, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” We don’t view failure as a possibility, but instead as a necessity. In fact, on Day 1, we literally define entrepreneurship as “the art of succeeding, of failing, and of succeeding and failing.” We instill the importance of accepting and celebrating failure from the beginning.

9. Do you plan to expand the Founders Bootcamp programme to students in countries that do not have a very developed startup industry?

We are partnering with the government of the Philippines to launch a national high school entrepreneurship competition for every Filipino teenager in June. Students learn content, collaborate with each other, and stay engaged via a gamified mobile platform.

10. What facilities are available to students’ startups after the Founders Bootcamp programme?

We consider ourselves not just mentors to our students, but also partners. That includes providing resources and facilities where helpful, on a case by case basis. For example, they year we’re providing housing/office space for one of our international teams so that they can afford to delay their fundraising round until they can acquire even more momentum in the next few months.

11. Founders Bootcamp in association with Entrepreneurship Cell, IIT Kharagpur has launched Teenage Founders' Track as a part of Empresario, the annual business model competition of E-Cell, IIT Kharagpur. What are your expectations from the teenage entrepreneurs of India?

India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is on track to grow more than any other entrepreneurial ecosystem over the next decade, potentially generating more new unicorns than from any other country. By extension, we wouldn’t be surprised if we get more great Founders Bootcamp teams from India than from anywhere else.

12. How do you think B-model competitions like Empresario (organised by E-cell, IIT Khargpur) help aspiring student entrepreneurs?

Mark Twain said that “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” B-model competitions like Empresario have a crucial role in any entrepreneurial ecosystem: encouraging aspiring entrepreneurs to get started.

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