Two months ago, I began telling the story of my friend and colleague Paul who has an invention he thinks might have commercial value. Paul led a normal life as an experimental physicist at a national laboratory until, in semi-retirement, he had an opportunity to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure. Paul and I had lunch together not long ago.
During lunch, Paul asked me lots questions about how to proceed. I did my best, but I couldn't answer them all. So I urged Paul to do what my advisers told me to do when I was starting out: Get advice from as many knowledgeable people as you can. To seek advice, far and wide, is good advice whether you're in a startup company, an established business, an academic career, or just about anywhere else. But it's especially valuable for the new entrepreneur.
Escaping the ivory tower
Asking for advice can be hard for accomplished academic scientists. For all the lip service about interdisciplinary and collaborative science, the culture of academic science values independence and self-reliance. Many Ph.D. advisers think it's better to let a graduate student struggle over an important new skill than to train their students properly; somehow the struggle is supposed to reinforce the lesson. Graduate students learn to seek advice only when they are at an impasse, as an admission of defeat. This attitude persists beyond the Ph.D. Being a "principal" investigator means you've "made it." Single-author papers are given more weight than multi-author papers. And the most important awards are handed out to individuals instead of teams. For someone who has spent a career in academia, it can be a hard lesson to unlearn.
When I started building my business, I assumed that the rest of the world worked the same way. Why would a seasoned business leader be willing to give me advice if they had no direct financial stake in my venture? I was desperate, so I asked anyway. I threw myself on anybody who was willing to answer my e-mails and phone calls.
I found people in the business world astoundingly honest and forthcoming--much more open than my peers in academia had been. CEOs of public companies spent an hour or more with me, patiently answering questions and providing encouragement. It was like being a first-year graduate student and having long, one-on-one meetings with Harold Varmus, Francis Crick, and Craig Venter.
After meeting with a few seasoned entrepreneurs, I began to understand why they are so accessible. Entrepreneurship is hard. It requires taking enormous risks and living with gobs of uncertainty. It can be downright scary at times. Most folks who have made their way through the process end up with deep empathy for people just setting out. Plus, most people on the entrepreneurial road have themselves relied on advice from others, so there is a real sense of communal debt, an obligation to advise others. It’s like giving back to the Great Karmic Well that they dipped into when they first got started. I explained this to Paul and urged him to find other people who could help him.
"But I don't know anyone who has started a business," Paul lamented. Not to worry, I told him--that's what networking is for. I gave Paul several suggestions for how to connect to people in the entrepreneurial world. Here are some best bets.
Many parts of the country, especially large urban centers, have centers devoted to helping entrepreneurs. Sometimes these centers are funded by the region or state in an effort to promote economic growth; often they are run in conjunction with a university. Others are for-profit ventures, helping to incubate new start-ups in exchange for equity in the ventures they support. In California's Bay Area, where Paul and I live, one of the largest and best respected is TVC--the Technology Ventures Corporation--which is funded by the Department of Homeland Security. TVC's goal is to promote the commercialization of technology from various national labs around the country, but it's willing to help just about anybody who walks through the door. TVC's staff of experienced entrepreneurs and business experts helps start-ups with everything from writing a business plan to incorporating. They also hold seminars and workshops and provide direct connections to investors interested in early-stage technology companies.
Members of business-school faculties often have entrepreneurial experience. Some business schools organize their entrepreneurship activities into a program or center, and they usually offer open lectures and workshops for students and local entrepreneurs. At my school, University of California, Berkeley, the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship has an outstanding program that includes an annual business plan competition, the vehicle I used to launch my venture 6 years ago.
Professional organizations in some cities provide a place for local entrepreneurs to gather and network. I attended several meetings of the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs--SVASE--and although at the time the organization was heavily focused on software entrepreneurship, I made several valuable contacts and learned a lot about the resources in my area.
Only a small percentage of scientists end up pursuing an entrepreneurial venture--but almost all scientists have opportunities to change course, and many are forced to. It may be a good thing, like an invitation to teach for a year at a different institution, or something apparently bad, like not getting a grant renewed, being denied tenure, or being forced to relocate. Breaking out of the rugged-individualist mindset that prevails in academia and seeking advice from people with experience is crucial to making the most of changes good and bad.
Paul called me two weeks later. Following our lunch, he had contacted a local entrepreneurship center and was invited to attend a half-day workshop called “Getting Started in the Entrepreneurial World.” During the workshop, three serial entrepreneurs gave hour-long talks about their experiences. These presentations answered many of Paul's questions, and he began to feel like he had a sense of the scope and direction of his entrepreneurial venture. And now, he knew a few more people he could count on to help him on his journey.
Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Geoff Davis, of an upcoming blog on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.
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