I recently enjoyed seeing a Broadway remake of The Graduate, which focuses on a deeply confused and frustrated young man, Benjamin, who simply does not know what to do with his life. Benjamin eventually realizes that what he wants to do is to marry the one special girl in his life, Elaine, almost at all costs.
Starting a high-technology-based business almost always has its initial excitement-driven surge--much like Benjamin?s urge to take Elaine from a wedding altar. However, starting a business also has its own reality checks--a much less forgiving process than the uncertain state of affairs that Benjamin and Elaine find themselves in.
Accessing and Leveraging Your Intellectual Property
Is your technology enabling and applicable? If so, is it unique? Does the technology really belong to you? Unless you can answer yes to each of these questions with a greater than 75% certainty, you probably don?t have a qualified rationale to start your business.
To succeed in your business, you need to create practical products or services that fulfill some compelling need or demand. You can afford to spend only a portion of your valuable time and resources on your own research. Once you make the switch to entrepreneurship, your success will depend much more on how well you manage and execute the development, commercialization, and exploitation of your product.
You also need to look for fundamental obstacles. For example, will your product be more expensive than existing commercial products? Will it introduce some significant regulatory compliance challenge in its development?
Independently, you should determine if your technology has already been invented by someone else by doing a complete prior art analysis comparing the claims of your technology against what has already been patented and/or published. (Patent searches can be done at www.uspto.gov.) Ideas discovered during university-sponsored research are typically owned by the university. To start a new company in these circumstances will involve a delicate, artful negotiation with your university administration--a skill that is not often learned in graduate school.
Does Your Business Plan (and Presentation) Make Any Sense?
Writing business plans is a complex process. Most plans require many revisions before they are ready (i.e., tightly focused and comprehensible). That?s the bad news. The good news is that there are plenty of resources to help create a business plan, starting with the federal government?s Small Business Administration (SBA) Web site. SBA will guide you in the process, but nothing beats getting feedback from an accomplished entrepreneur or prospective investor. Venture capitalists often complain that business plans are written in a manner geared to make a sale--to get funding--as opposed to actually explaining what it is that you are going to do to grow and manage your business.
Prospective investors will quickly confront you on how you expect to make money through your business model. Sometimes cynical investors will begin by simply asking how they can liquidate the stock in your company with a substantial return on their investment in 2 years. These questions require credible answers, as do a whole slew of due-diligence questions relating to your business plan that cannot be comprehensively discussed here.
Building Your Team
Unless you?ve been through the process of starting a business, you may know little about what you need to do from this point forward. That?s largely because much of the learning is too often done through a humbling process of trial and error. The first step in taking a more organized approach toward building a team is to take inventory of the skills and business experiences you lack.
Your initial management team may simply be you, plus a number of external helpers such as intellectual property, licensing, and corporate attorneys and financial, marketing, technical (scientific, engineering, or medical), and business consultants. Consultants are supposed to be there to help you grow your business, and they sometimes make good mentors. Stock options and promises for a future business relationship are often solid inducements in lieu of salaries, but you can?t expect a consultant?s priorities to necessarily include bailing you out of a challenging situation.
As your business grows, being the employer and/or being your own boss has its upside. But note that it also places significant responsibilities on you. Often it is a challenge to balance the proficiency of your business operations with the quality of your relationships with your team. They will also expect you to take interest in their professional development and be sensitive to their personal or family constraints.
You Need to Make It Happen, and Good Luck!
Unfortunately, there are no clear road maps for success in any business. You could find that your industry and respective competition are unique and your technology?s role in that industry is unique. At the end of the day, you need to make the process work. You need to anticipate expected obstacles and factor in breathing room for the unexpected ones. Plan sensibly, and be willing to learn. New business leaders are required to think creatively and resourcefully.
Taking an idea to market has its rewards: The feeling of accomplishment enhances your self-esteem, creating room for you to explore your own creativity and potential. And, of course there is the social and economic independence. If you are self-driven and have a strong vision of how to exploit an unmet need, then by all means go for it and don?t let the small stuff or critics easily discourage or excuse you from your adventure!
John Higuchi has been actively involved in product development, raising money, and managing start-up business ventures in the medical device and biopharmaceutical industries. Higuchi has a B.S. degree in chemistry from Hope College and an MBA and a masters in science in information systems from George Washington University.