The similarities between being a junior researcher and a high-tech entrepreneur
March 2010 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
I discuss several similarities between working as a junior researcher in an academic lab and an entrepreneur starting up a high-tech company. Even though the goals of these two occupations are vastly different, their requirements for success and work environments share many similarities.
For the past few years, I've been immersed in the world of working on the 'front lines' of academic research as a graduate student in the Computer Science department. And since my school is located in Silicon Valley, I have friends who are on the 'front lines' of starting up high-tech companies. Although these two occupations might seem quite different, I've come to realize that they actually share some remarkable similarities, which I will discuss in this article.
At first glance, academic research and entrepreneurship seem like polar opposites. The stereotypical image of academia is that of an aloof Ivory Tower where eccentric weirdos can work on esoteric problems, shielded from the griminess of the real world. In contrast, the stereotypical image of an early-stage start-up company is that of facing the griminess of the real world head-on with a cutthroat pragmatism where all that matters is making enough money to survive. The primary metric of success in academic research is publishing in prestigious peer-reviewed publications, while the primary metric of success in entrepreneurship is making money. So what can they possibly have in common?
Three similar requirements for success
First, they have similar requirements for success. I remember an old professor explaining to me the three requirements necessary for success in academic research: Formulating a worthy research idea, executing it skillfully to demonstrate that it actually works, and selling it convincingly to other researchers to get it published in reputable peer-reviewed venues. It turns out that these same requirements seem to apply to the start-up world as well, although the end goals are far different.
Research: Formulating a worthy research idea is the first step necessary for success in academia. Above all else, a worthy research idea must be original and innovative, since the goal of research is to advance the state-of-the-art in knowledge and/or technology. It must also be technically deep and substantive. Lastly, it must be tackling a problem that the academic community deems to be important and relevant at the moment. This final requirement is perhaps the hardest for most junior researchers to accept. Because one's research is reviewed by (oftentimes older) peers, it can be difficult to publish work that the mainstream in one's academic field does not deem to be important or relevant.
Worthy research ideas don't simply come out of a vacuum; most successful researchers don't just sit with a blank pad of paper and pencil and think up great ideas in isolation. Rather, they read lots of papers in related fields, draw on their previous project experiences to reflect on what worked and didn't work, and learn from their colleagues and mentors. It can take Ph.D. students anywhere from 4 to 6 years of reading papers, attending technical talks, working under the supervision of professors and older students, and failed project attempts before they can start formulating worthy and potentially-publishable ideas.
Start-up: Formulating a worthy start-up product idea is the first step necessary for success in starting a company. Above all else, a worthy product idea must meet the needs of paying customers, since the goal of starting a company is to make money selling something that customers are willing to pay for. It should also be somewhat innovative, since that's a good way to differentiate from more established competitors. However, extreme innovation isn't a key requirement: Lots of people start companies selling seemingly-boring products or services, but as long as they have paying customers, then they can be successful. Lastly, it must be tackling a problem that paying customers deem to be important and relevant. No matter how cool you think your new start-up idea is, if nobody else thinks it's useful enough to actually pay for it, then it's not worthy.
Worthy start-up ideas don't simply come out of a vacuum either; most successful entrepreneurs don't just sit with a blank pad of paper and pencil and think up great ideas in isolation. Rather, they learn about their target market's needs, draw on their previous entrepreneurship experiences to reflect on what worked and didn't work, and learn from their colleagues and mentors. It can take budding entrepreneurs many years of failed attempts before they can come up with a worthy idea that has the potential to make money.
Research: The most time-consuming requirement for producing successful research is actually making the research idea into a reality. After all, no reputable venue is going to publish an idea that simply sounds good in theory; the researcher must show that the idea actually produces concrete and convincing results in practice. Executing a research idea can involve many rounds of designing and running experiments, collecting and analyzing data, or building and testing experimental prototypes. Junior researchers such as Ph.D. students spend most of their days and nights on the execution phase.
Execution speed directly contributes to success: If two independent researchers come up with the same (or very similar) idea, then the one who can execute it faster and more effectively will be more likely to get published in a prestigious publication, while the other one will have a much harder time publishing or even receiving credit (this is called 'getting scooped').
Start-up: The most time-consuming requirement for producing a successful start-up product is actually making the product idea into a reality. After all, nobody is going to pay money for an idea that simply sounds good in theory; the entrepreneur must actually create something tangible and useful. Executing a product idea can involve many rounds of design, prototyping, debugging, and iteration. Start-up founders and employees spend most of their days and nights on the execution phase.
Execution speed directly contributes to success: If two independent entrepreneurs come up with the same (or very similar) idea, then the one who can make a working product faster will be more likely to get the initial customers, while the other one will have a much harder time attracting customers or even receiving credit (people might perceive them as copycats).
Research: The final major requirement for success in research is the ability to effectively sell your idea and execution to paper reviewers, so that they can approve your papers to be published. The introduction section in a research paper is its entire sales pitch: It must convince reviewers of why this problem is worthy of being tackled, why your approach is innovative and technically substantive, and how your execution shows that it actually produces positive results.
First impressions matter a great deal, so being able to make a concise and convincing sales pitch is essential for getting one's research published. Reviewers usually only spend a short amount of time reading each of the many papers they need to review, and prestigious publications only accept maybe 1 out of every 7 or 10 submitted papers. Thus, if reviewers don't buy your sales pitch after reading the first page, then no matter how great your idea or execution was, they are not likely to approve your paper for publication. They don't care how much time or effort you spent building your prototype or running your experiments, or what kind of neat technology you used in your work. If they are not sold on the idea up-front, then your chances of getting published greatly diminishes.
Start-up: The final major requirement for success in a start-up is the ability to effectively sell your product to customers. The product website, advertising campaigns, and word-of-mouth publicity are its sales pitches: They must convince customers that you are addressing a real problem of theirs and why your product is better and/or more affordable than its competitors.
First impressions matter a great deal, so being able to make a concise and convincing sales pitch is essential for attracting customers. If potential customers don't buy your sales pitch after spending a small amount of time learning about it, then they are not likely to buy your product. They don't care how much time or effort you spent building your product, or what kind of neat technology you used to build it. If they are not sold on the idea up-front, then your chances of making a sale greatly diminishes.
Low chance of project success
Most research projects are unsuccessful, at least in their first incarnation. Researchers abandon many attempts mid-way when they realize that it's futile to proceed further, and the projects that eventually end up becoming successfully published only do so after undergoing several rounds of tweaking and revisions. A successful researcher needs to be doggedly persistent, willing to try out many different paths knowing full well that most attempts probably won't produce any usable results.
Similarly, most start-up companies will fail, at least in their first incarnation. Many start-ups die mid-way when the founders run out of money or willpower, and the ones that eventually end up becoming financially successful only do so after undergoing several rounds of tweaking and revisions, sometimes selling a completely different product than the founders originally intended. A successful entrepreneur needs to be doggedly persistent, willing to try out many different paths knowing full well that most attempts probably won't produce a successful product.
Definitely not a 9-to-5 job
Doing academic research as a junior researcher (Ph.D. student or post-doc) and working in a start-up are definitely not 9-to-5 jobs where you can clock in, do 8 hours of fixed tasks, and then clock out, go home, and veg out for the evening. You are either working on or at least thinking about some aspect of work during most of your waking hours.
There is always more work to do, since you can always try out something new in your research or product implementation with the hope that it makes an incremental improvement. Since you are often in fierce competition (to be the first to publish or release your product to the market), you know that every moment you are not working, you are potentially falling behind your competitors.
Sure, it's important to take occasional pit stops to improve your overall productivity, but overall it's a non-stop race, lap after lap. People who are working in research or start-up jobs must make a concerted effort to lead a balanced lifestyle, or else risk getting engulfed by thoughts and worries about work.
Small, hyper-focused teams with relatively little bureaucracy
In both an academic research lab and in an early-stage start-up company, people either work alone or in a small tightly-knit team (of no more than ~5 people). Unlike a traditional big-company or government work environment, there is relatively little bureaucracy or management overhead. Therefore, everyone is hyper-focused on the task at hand, which is either implementing novel research ideas or creating a marketable product.