Being An Academic and Entrepreneur: Parallels and Pitfalls (Part 1)

Given this time of year is prone to self-reflection and now that I have ample academic experience and a little startup experience under my belt, I thought it appropriate to reflect on these sometimes dueling models of existence.  Most of my experience is obviously in education.   I understand research and pedagogy and have probably taught over 700 credit hours over my 12 years in academia.  Many research focused faculty teach perhaps 3-6 credit hours per year.  I have taught on average over 50 per year.  My focus has been teaching, best methods, best practices, learning models, etc…I thought this would be an asset when I co-founded an EdTech startup, now I am not so certain.  Here’s why.

I know that being an academic is a way of thinking.  It’s being critically evaluative of almost every (and I mean every) possible scenario or potential outcome.  It’s a tunnel vision perspective and it can be paralyzing when it comes to making decisions.  Academics by nature are reflective, thoughtful and not really action oriented.  They are focused on one area of the puzzle and frequently lack the ability to see past that.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  We need people who can live in theory as theory informs action.  Hypotheses, data collection, interpret results, change or solidify theory based on the result, revisit.  Sounds very entrepreneurial to me.  Have an idea, test the idea, pivot or kill the idea.  In reality, these two models juxtapose one another.  It’s all about testing a hypothesis.  The academic model might be to add to a continuing body of knowledge, the entrepreneurial might be to change the world but they are more similar than dissimilar to one another in actual practice.

It’s not just research that shares these similarities to entrepreneurship either.  What do you think teaching is?  It’s pedagogical research, informal mostly.  Teach a class one year get some feedback and see what works, what doesn’t and try some new ideas the next year.  It’s very similar to both research and entrepreneurship.  In this respect academia and entrepreneurship parallel each other nicely.

Now obviously I don’t have as much startup experience and I am really new to this entire paradigm.  But I wonder, is being an entrepreneur also a mindset?  Is it about reveling in all of the possibilities and then taking action to bring one of those potentialities to reality?  Being an entrepreneur certainly is more action oriented and once past a point, far less theory oriented as well.  It requires strategy and strategic thinking.  It requires seeing the big picture and knowing how your startup fits into it.  It requires customer service skills and listening to feedback. You need to be agile and quick.  What I have also noticed is there seems to be a “standard” way to go about this startup stuff.  It’s kind of structured, much like academia.  People want you to follow a certain path to success, or at least their path or their idea of what leads to success.  Perhaps statistically there is one path that has a higher probability to becoming a successful startup.   But isn’t being an entrepreneur on some levels about forging your own path?  Is there a definitive timeline that must be followed?  Hmmm, sounds more like a structure to me, something structured like academia?

Stay tuned for part 2 in a few weeks

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Tiffany Reiss

Passionate educator, entrepreneur and health promoter.