Alec Dingee says he learned how to launch a successful business the hard way — by making mistakes when he was young.
He made marketing mistakes. He was too optimistic. He did not realize how hard it was to raise money. “That probably was my worst mistake,” he says,” because if you don’t have money that’s just like running out of oxygen.”
Now, Dingee, who has launched seven successful businesses, and who has been an entrepreneur for nearly five decades, recently launched the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, which matches prospective entrepreneurs with volunteer mentors who provide them with the know-how to start a successful start-up.
The service, which is based at MIT, offers to anyone in the Institute community — alumni, faculty, students, or staff — advice on how to start a business. As director of the service, Dingee will talk to any entrepreneur at least once.
“When I was young, I didn’t have anyone to advise me and I was in over my head. With this service, entrepreneurs can bring an expert a list of questions and talk to them for a few hours to gain knowledge and contacts,” he says.
Dingee, who earned a degree in management from the Sloan School in 1952, says he got the idea for the service because beginning a business has gotten harder since he began his first venture more than 40 years ago. “The whole pace is faster,” he says, adding that prospective entrepreneurs now face a more competitive world. The speed of technological change, global competition, and sophisticated financial strategies often require more experience and resources than an aspiring entrepreneur possesses. “I saw a real need for this kind of help,” he says.
Dingee recruited volunteer mentors including founders, directors, chairmen, CEOs, and CTOs of successful corporations and partnerships, as well as MIT alumni and faculty. Also available are consultants, such as lawyers, accountants, or public relations professionals. The volunteers are experienced in a variety of fields, including funding, strategic planning, human resources, technology, and management.
“Ventures are so complex. Each one has its own problems and solutions, so you need all kinds of experts,” Dingee says, adding that one business might need help negotiating with an investor, while another might need a psychologist to examine behavioral problems between two team members. As many as six mentors have been assigned to one venture.
The volunteers follow strict rules of confidentiality and conflict of interest. No one is allowed to invest in or receive payment from a venture he is advising.
The free service, which was launched last year, now serves 20 ventures. Dingee hopes that that number as well as the number of mentors will increase each year. He also hopes to continue collaboration with the various schools at MIT through entrepreneurship workshops and seminars.
GIFTS OF TIME AND MONEY
“This is a great way to share your knowledge and experience,” says Dingee, who recently gave MIT $1 million to get the project going. He made the gift for two reasons, he says.
“MIT and the world have treated me very well, and I’d like to help other people have their day.” Also, he says: “This venture is just like starting another business and I felt we shouldn’t be hampered by a lack of money. I wanted to help make it possible for good things to happen.” (Last year, MIT received a gift from Prof. David Staelin, ’60, to help support the mentoring program.)
Dingee says that much of what he has given in time and money already has come back. “I’m really benefiting from my new relationships. I’ve met so many smart, capable entrepreneurs, and I am getting to know the faculty. I also love developing strategies in business, marketing, and sales, and I’m right on the cutting-edge of a number of technologies.”
At age 27, Dingee launched his first venture, a medical instrument company. Then he founded a company that made oceanographic instruments. Later, he started a venture capital company, then joined the founding team of an energy conservation company. After that, he founded a software company, then a plastic injection molding machinery company.
Most recently, he along with Ray Stata, ’57, and Mukesh Chatter, founded Nexabit Networks, a privately held developer of switch/routers to handle the Internet’s exponential growth. He was treasurer and director until the company was acquired in 1999 by Lucent Technologies.
The key to launching a successful business, he says, is setting realistic goals. “People will say, you can’t do this or that, but you just set goals and keep going. You must be determined. If there’s a block, you have to find a way over it, around it, or under it, but you just keep going.”
Dingee says the biggest pitfall in beginning a business is your own optimism. “It will help you and hurt you the most,” he says. “You have to be optimistic to be an entrepreneur, because it’s not easy. But you must temper your optimism with realism.”