Welcome to part two of our interview with Aaron Baskerville-Bridges, who is the VP of Operations at AeroShield. We learned a lot of great insights from part one of this interview, and highly recommend you check it out before continuing with this article. Now, we have a lot more to cover in this article, which is described below.
As a brief reminder, Aaron is a recent graduate of the prestigious LGO dual graduate degree program at MIT, and has taken a leap into the startup world as the VP of Operations for AeroShield. His prior experience includes being a consultant at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), completing his undergrad in Chemical Engineering, and raising over $180,000 for cancer research.
Last week we covered:
- Aaron’s story
- How his background helped him with his job at BCG
- The biggest unexpected learnings from consulting
- Going back to school
- The MIT Dual Degree Program Outcomes
- AeroShield: Transforming an Old Industry
This week we are going to dive deeper into how Aaron was able to set himself up for this entrepreneurial opportunity and the biggest learning he has had so far as the VP of Operations at a startup.
Here are the sections of this weeks article:
- AeroShield: Transforming an Old Industry (recap)
- Walking Away from Safety
- VP of Operations at a Startup
- Recommendations to other Entrepreneurs
AeroShield: Transforming an Old Industry
When Aaron first met the AeroShield co-founders, Elise Strobach and Kyle Wilke, during one of his entrepreneurship classes at MIT, he was certainly intrigued. AeroShield has invented super-insulating technology that can dramatically reduce the heat lost from windows. The window industry is old, and with so much focus on various digital technologies, it means that other industries don’t get as much attention. However, that doesn’t mean they are not important. In fact, it is estimated that one-third of a home’s heat is lost from windows and doors, according to the Energy Information Administration.
If anyone is going to revolutionize this industry, I would bet it is the people who got their PhDs from MIT in Engineering, invented the technology that is trying to be commercialized, and won the MIT Clean Energy Prize. I can certainly see why Aaron stayed in touch and when presented with the opportunity to join their team as the VP of Operations, he took it.
Walking Away from Safety
Aaron got new grad offers from BCG, Amgen, other big companies, and AeroShield. “The starting point in my head was financial,” Aaron said, which makes sense. According to the MIT LGO (dual degree program) website, two years of tuition is around US$148,000. This amount of money would require anyone to think about the financial aspect of your job choice. However, what Aaron said next really stood out to me.
I started to lump things together and knocked out certain options. I look at operations jobs compared to consulting jobs. Then I narrowed it down to a couple of options. But the startup, AeroShield, is just so hard to compare to anything else. You can’t use a financial lens [for a startup], it just breaks down.
It’s going to sound crude, but I felt that the whole experience made me realize I could choose the job I thought was the coolest. One of the things that got me there was having the job offers in the first place. It gave me the confidence to say that if this all falls apart, it is not that big a risk. I’ll lose some time, but there will still be offers out there at the end of this.
[I thought] I am at the perfect point in my life… When else am I going to get this chance?
It didn’t seem like that big of a risk when I put it in these terms to myself.
That to me captures such an important point of entrepreneurship. The mentality that you are not afraid to fail, that the opportunity to join an exciting company and have a positive impact provides a much larger upside than the small downside of things not working out. Of course, this type of decision was based on years of planning.
Saving, investing, and living frugally for years contributed to giving Aaron the flexibility to not worry about money for the next year or two. It gave him the chance to take a risk on something he thinks could be a game-changing product.
Who would want to say no to an opportunity like that? Again, I want to reiterate that this was not a reckless decision. It was years in the making. Setting yourself up as Aaron did is something I think we can all strive for because it gives you something much more powerful than a high paying job, it gives you choice.
VP of Operations at a Startup
I’ve talked about this before, with the CEO of VizworX Jeff LaFrenz, but one of the things I find most difficult to obtain as a startup is credibility. However, having a fantastic team with their PhDs from MIT provides you with a lot of credibility right out of the gate. Although, there was something else that took Aaron a little bit to figure out, and it shows how listening to your customer can pay dividends.
[In the window space] people understand the value we can create as long as we communicate it properly. So, we make aerogels that are super-insulating and super-transparent. However, people in the window industry have seen aerogels in the past and they didn’t work. Now, we think we’ve solved a lot of the prior issues, but for people to take us seriously we don’t introduce ourselves as an aerogel company. We talk about making transparent insulation.
By learning the correct way to depict their product, they were able to build credibility and have suppliers listen to them. As someone who has created a product, I want to stress that this skill is critical. Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent your product to solve the same problem. Sometimes, you just need to make sure you are explaining the problem you are solving.
Not everyone is going to initially care about all aspects of the underlying technology, that usually comes later. What your customer is interested in is ‘what is the problem you are solving, how is it helpful to me, and show me some evidence that your product works.’
Biggest Learnings as a New VP
I wanted to add a short Q&A section I did with Aaron about his biggest learnings as a new VP. Check out his responses below.
How do you plan what you are going to do next?
At BCG, there were people whose roles were dedicated to coming up with a plan and assigning the tasks to other employees. As the VP you are making the plan. In consulting you know the scope, with a startup you have to define it yourself.
We get emails every day from people about cool opportunities. By choosing one option we are inherently rejecting another because we have limited resources. So as VP, it's not just managing yourself, it’s managing the company's momentum and path all at once.
How do you find investors?
I started by looking up clean tech investors. When you look up “clean tech investors”, there are about 600 [resulting firms to choose from]. Now, how many do I reach out to? Even screening 600 companies would require a lot of time. We ended up reaching out to about 20 or so, and almost everyone we contacted came to us through warm introductions.
What is your biggest challenge so far working in an old industry?
For one, we are making a physical product. This makes it easy to explain how this product is better than others out there and to explain that no one else has ever made something like this. So people understand the value proposition.
However, as a manufacturing company, we can’t scale like a tech company. It takes a lot of work to get that done. A big part of this is funding and grants. There is a tradeoff that comes with each and figuring out the best combination is something I am involved with, which has been challenging.
Recommendations to other Entrepreneurs
My final question for Aaron was, “Do you have any advice for people looking to go at it on their own or join a startup?”
“It's a good question,” Aaron chuckled.
If you are coming at it from a financial perspective alone, the math probably won’t work. Liquidity is a long ways off, and you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you are resentful of a choice you made. For me, a lot of it was putting myself in a position where I didn’t feel I was putting myself at risk. Now I am in a position where I am not distracted.
I couldn’t agree more. Being an entrepreneur, in my mind, takes planning. It can, but doesn’t need to be a rash decision. Taking your time and being methodical about how you can set yourself up for entrepreneurship can greatly increase your odds of success. This is because, once you dive in, you won’t have any distractions, and you can focus on whatever it is that needs to get done.
I just wanted to say thank you again to Aaron for his time. He has an awesome story and I am excited to see what he and AeroShield have in store. Be sure to check out what AeroShield is doing by following their news page and on social media.
Want to learn how to set yourself up for entrepreneurship?
Setting yourself up for entrepreneurship like Aaron has takes planning, especially financial planning. If you would like to learn the fundamental personal finance topics that will help set you up for the financial situation you want, then please check out our free personal finance course!
Disclaimer: Aaron Baskerville-Bridges was involved in the making of this article and approved all content written. Thank you, Aaron!