Julie Tittler feels most at home in front of a computer, writing code, so she was out of her comfort zone Tuesday morning at a podium in front of more than 100 people, practicing the pitch she will make to prospective investors in her life sciences start-up, MoFin Technologies.
“I’m the consummate engineer, but I’m not necessarily a people person,” Tittler said after surviving five days of business “boot camp” run by MassChallenge Inc. The four-year-old Boston nonprofit aims to accelerate growth of young businesses by introducing them to mentors and prospective investors and by offering cash awards.
Tittler and entrepreneurs from 128 companies and a dozen countries spent much of the last two weeks in training for more rigor to come: a four-month accelerator program in which they will develop their products, services, and business strategies at a shared office in South Boston. They will collaborate, but also compete for a total of $1.3 million. They’ll be introduced to venture capitalists and connected to experienced mentors, but also endure long hours and intense pressure.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” Akhil Nigam, MassChallenge president, said of the boot camp, which was held at various locations. “This is how you do marketing, this is how you do sales, this is how you think about finance. You’re getting bombarded.”
The roster of speakers included iRobot cofounder Colin Angle, former Zipcar chief executive Scott Griffith, and Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor. The start-up veterans touched on specifics of their own companies, but focused on broader strategies that could apply to businesses in any of the many industries represented by the MassChallenge finalists.
“Entrepreneurs are so focused on their product and what’s going to happen in the next week that sometimes they forget this is a very long-term process,” Nigam said. “So a lot of these speakers are talking about really intangible things: What are your values? What is the vision and mission of the company? What kind of culture do you want to have at the company?”
On the last day of boot camp, the finalists were at Fidelity Investments, being coached on pitching investors by Fred Destin, a partner at Cambridge-based Atlas Ventures. A few brave souls volunteered to deliver one-minute spiels for critique.
Some walked away reassured of their presentation skills. “We have a problem that we’re looking to solve and we’re really passionate about that problem, so for me it’s really easy to go up and talk about it,” said Nick Dougherty, chief executive of Verbal Applications, which aims to help nonverbal patients communicate with their health care providers. “It’s also great to have the opportunity to get feedback from your peers and from people who’ve been there before.”
Others left saying they now know what to work on before the audience is a real investor.
“Shame on me: I bulleted out, like, four new things that weren’t in the structure of how we typically present what [the business] is,” said Shawn Harris, chief executive of Nyopoly, a budding online retailer that lets shoppers negotiate purchase prices. “Lesson learned.”
Joe Shartzer, Nyopoly marketing director, chimed in with some encouragement: “Maybe the first version you’re not going to knock it out of the park, but that’s what’s awesome about this whole process — workshop on the fly.”
During MassChallenge boot camp, daytime training sessions were followed by evening mixers with potential mentors — events that organizers and participants likened to speed dating sessions.
“They used an actual gong to tell us to move on to the next mentor,” Shartzer said.
By the middle of this month, every business will be paired with an experienced entrepreneur who will offer guidance during biweekly meetings for the rest of the program.
MassChallenge finalists always learn from their mentors and boot camp instructors, Nigam said, but “year after year, they say the most valuable part of MassChallenge is being among other smart, motivated people who are trying to change the world in their own small ways. It’s a pretty inspiring place to be.”