The Most Surprising Thing MIT’s “Startup Prof” Told Me

Ed Roberts began studying tech entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management more than fifty years ago. His course on entrepreneurship is famous for incubating many interesting startups. Boston’s HubSpot and Beijing’s have their genesis in Professor Robert’s class. Ed Roberts also co-founded two successful startups and has invested in numerous others. When I interviewed him for the Angel Invest Boston Podcast (Podcast on iTunesPodcast on OvercastPodcast on Stitcher) I expected to learn many interesting things about startups; I did (see below). However, what surprised me the most is what he told me about his high school education.

Ed Roberts grew up in the working-class city of Chelsea, Massachusetts where he attended the public high school during the 1950s. In the interview, Professor Roberts mentioned that he was really well prepared by Chelsea High for MIT’s rigorous undergraduate curriculum. In fact, the school used some of the same textbooks used at MIT. So well prepared was he that he was allowed the luxury of sampling MIT’s curriculum by taking course overloads. These overloads allowed him to discover the beauty of economics despite majoring in electrical engineering.

This really surprised me because the Chelsea School District has been notorious for terrible outcomes for its students. Things were so bad in Chelsea that the school district was taken over by Boston University in an attempt to restructure it back in 1988. In 2008 BU relinquished its control, after spending tens of millions of dollars of its own money. While things improved greatly during those two decades, the Chelsea school system continued to be troubled (Boston Globe Article on BU's Intervention in Chelsea's Schools). In 2016 only 40 percent of 10th graders at Chelsea High scored proficient or advanced in the math section of the MCAS (the Commonwealth’s test of student achievement) compared to the state’s median of 78%. Absent the second coming of Jaime Escalante (Wikipedia on Jaime Escalante), it’s hard to imagine MIT texts being used successfully at Chelsea High in 2017.

Ed Roberts’ experience at Chelsea High brought to mind the experience of founder and angel investor, Ralph Wagner (Ralph Wagner's Interview "Flunk Calculus, Ace Life"). Ralph’s public high school had also used college texts that prepared him well in chemistry to the point that he planned to study chemical engineering at Columbia University. Alas, Ralph’s lack of preparation for calculus at Columbia led to a painful career change and, eventually, huge success. When I interviewed VC and angel investor Wan Li Zhu (Wan Li Zhu's Interview "Wise VC") he spoke very highly of the preparation he received at a public high school for his stellar career at MIT and thereafter. However, Wan Li had attended the storied exam school, Bronx High School of Science. Ed Roberts’ experience at Chelsea High still amazes me.

As promised above, here are some other things I learned from Ed Roberts during our delightful interview:

  • How founding team composition and number affects the success of a startup.
  • How PhDs do as founders.
  • How founders tend to forget their pivots.
  • How ideas are overvalued in the cap table.
  • How Charles Zhang got started.
  • How Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah eventually found HubSpot’s sweet spot.
  • How valuable user innovation is.
  • How many MIT grads go work at startups and how many of those found their own startups.How many of those startups succeed.

I hope you get a chance to hear the whole interview which can be found here: Ed Roberts Interview "Startup Prof". At this link you can also read the annotated transcript of the interview.