Being An Academic and Entrepreneur: Parallels and Pitfalls (Part 2)


Our startup TheHubEdu was founded in September 2011. We didn’t know what we were doing, both co-founders from an educational background in a whole new world. It took us a year to wrap our minds around this and we really didn’t even have a product to test until September 2012, which was then kept locked down to a small test group for 12 months. I think of those first 2 years as a pilot project with enough data collected to now warrant a round of grant funding, or in the startup world a seed round.  Interestingly I have found parallels here as well.  In academia, in order to secure a large grant you really need 3 things:

1)   Really compelling pilot data and/or

2)   Big names on the grant (of researchers who have successfully been awarded grants and published off the data) and/or

3)   A personal history of grant funded projects.

What’s most interesting are the parallels to what is needed for raising money for a startup:

1)   Lots of users (good pilot data)/revenue and/or

2)   Big names (someone or some organization that supports your idea) and/or

3)   Previous success in the startup world…meaning revenue generating companies, which have either been acquired or are still active.

Again, seems the two worlds juxtapose quite nicely and are probably more similar than dissimilar when it comes to “funding”.

Here is where I also see parallels and aspects of myself that make me both a great academic and entrepreneur:

1)   Focus.  Academics can focus, sometimes to a fault.  Entrepreneurs need to focus but also need to be flexible around new ideas and/or pivoting.  Whatever it is, it isn’t perfect.  Nor am I.  Flexible focus.

2)   Strategy.  Now I am great strategist when it comes to pedagogy.  I know how to design a curriculum and course structure to optimize learning.  Taking a startup to the next level?  That comes with experience, right?  Thankfully I have surrounded myself with people who do have more experience with this and can facilitate this process.

3)   Budget management.  I had a small budget when I was department chair/program director.  We never really had any real money because higher education is pretty much flat broke.  But it certainly helped me make smarter decisions on how to spend what little money there was and that has to help as an entrepreneur bootstrapping all the way.

4)   Passion.  I didn’t really equate “passion” with my career as an academic while in the process.  What I really am is a lifelong learner.  I love to learn new things. This is probably what drove me further into my educational pursuits and it drives me knowing we have an awesome idea and we are going to see it through.

5)   Possibilities. Being able to see the big picture has certainly made me a better instructor because I can bring that perspective into the classroom.  It also makes me a good entrepreneur, because again, I see the big picture.  I see a way education can be better and I want to be a part of that.

6)   Perseverance.  I don’t think this can really be taught.  You either have it or you don’t.  For most academics, obtaining a PhD is more an exercise in perseverance.  Yes, there are those geniuses that pretty much get to do things their way, because well,  they are geniuses and everyone knows it.  For the rest of us, smarter than average but not genius level academics, we persevered.  We wanted it bad enough, we jumped through the hoops to get it.  I know many really smart people, who couldn’t do it.  Lacked the drive or the motivation or the wherewithal.  Couldn’t succeed in the “system”.  This has to be one of the main qualities of an entrepreneur.  You have to persevere and be tenacious.  You have to be willing to jump through the hoops because this system seems just as “academic” as academia.    Thankfully, I exhibit this quality, squared!

So yes, I see many parallels in the characteristics that make a great academician and entrepreneur.   I may have some of the characteristics needed to be a successful entrepreneur, but I also see some that might get in my way.    For my personal pitfalls when it comes to being an entrepreneur, tune back in a few weeks from now.