PhD and entrepreneurial journeys have more in common than is often thought although the perceived gap between research and business skills may initially suggest otherwise. Here Ana Barjasic (founder and CEO of Connectology, PhD candidate in Behavioural Science, LSE) shares advice on how to start a business while doing a PhD and reflects on the value of learning new things.
More frequently than not, researchers and students reach out to know more about the possibilities of starting a business, but always repeating the same issue – comfort zone. Entrepreneurs jump off the cliff and assemble a parachute on their way down, as famously stated by Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of Linkedin. This may sound absolutely terrifying to someone with a research mindset, used to the safe environment of rightfully high academic standards while following well established scientific rules and procedures.
However, throwing yourself into the unknown may be equally as liberating. Constantly looking for perfection does not allow much room for failures, or even worse, the fear of failure may inhibit any attempt of getting out of the personal comfort zone. The world of entrepreneurship, on the other hand, considers perfection to be the enemy of execution.
For entrepreneurs, business as usual includes numerous situations requiring quick decisions, leaving no time for extensive research or testing for potential outcomes. The formula sounds easy – you will not know what you are capable of unless you consistently try many different approaches. What’s the worst that can happen? Sometimes excellent and valuable research never sees the light of the day because it is not translated into business.
For researchers wanting to start a business without too much risk, but not knowing where to start, there are several things to focus at first.
- Find co-founders or mentors with a business background
A common bottleneck for researchers to start their own business is an excuse of not having business skills. Basic business concepts and etiquette can be mastered to a certain extent without a problem, but until then, the easiest way is to reach out to potential co-founders who can be in charge of business development, or strategic mentors with a track record in the sector of interest, ultimately in exchange for a percentage of equity, especially if you cannot ensure the funds right away.
- Talk to clients
No matter how great your idea is, what really matters is what your potential clients think about it and how much they are willing to pay. After identifying who your potential clients are, contact at least a dozen to understand whether they would be interested in your solution and whether it solves any of their problems. Talking to potential clients often inspires new ideas applicable to the project and most importantly, proves (or not) the market need.
- Project on the side
Starting a new business is risky, and it needs to be well planned, regardless of the motivation behind becoming an entrepreneur. Some people appreciate the freedom of being a business owner, while others simply cannot find a new job, so they try entrepreneurship. Ideally, researchers should regularly dedicate free time or even work part-time on developing passion projects. If the project does not work out, time may be lost, but you will surely learn a lot. However, once the business takes off, it is easy to quit the current position.
Too many startups overestimate their funding needs and pitch to investors, when actually what they need are clients, not investors. There are enough (inter)national grants out there to support businesses in their initial phases in the UK and the EU. Building software from scratch versus using software as a service in the beginning, renting offices, buying cars, hiring administrative staff are examples of unnecessary funding needs of an early-stage startup without clients and a minimum viable product.
- Lack of ideas
Not everyone has an idea for a passion project. Nevertheless, there are numerous resources and information out there (e.g, Entrepreneur.com, Shark Tank, CB Insights) on startup ideas and business practices waiting to demystify any belief about entrepreneurship. Sometimes the best business ideas are the simplest ones. In case the business idea is more complex and involves intellectual property, it is strongly advised to understand your ownership rights in relation to the university. However, not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur at first. Startups often need a specific skill set, and you can try to nominate yourself as a co-founder or an employee, and still take part in the entrepreneurship world without running a business.
Academia and entrepreneurship have much more in common than it may initially seem, but more importantly, they are often complementary. Even in the worst-case scenario, challenging yourself to give a chance to the private sector can only be a valuable experience.
LSE Careers supports the career learning of PhD students. Speak to Catherine Reynolds in a one-to-one confidential careers meeting to discuss your career plans, book a time online using CareerHub Appointments. Careers events and seminars to support the career development of PhDs and research staff are listed on CareerHub Events.
For entrepreneurial advice, speak to LSE Innovation which provides support and advice concerning research commercialisation or LSE Generate which supports students and alumni throughout their entrepreneurial journeys.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on events run by LSE Generate and LSE Careers in cooperation with the PhD Academy. The LSE Generate x LSE ABC: The Other Side event series seeks to facilitate business engagement and create exchange between the LSE PhD community and LSE graduates with commercial experience.