I really struggled with this one. Not that I don’t recognize my own weaknesses, I do, maybe a little too well. I struggled with how to frame them in a way that doesn’t sound as though these are set in stone and immutable. I could also spend hours writing about them and believe me, there are many, many more. But I try not to think of them as weaknesses, more as growth opportunities as all the motivational, self-help, leadership books tell me to do. However, that’s not that easy but what is easy is to focus and get caught up in them instead of trying to work around and through them. My personal philosophy, “get out of my own way”. All in all, here is where I see potential pitfalls of being an academic first and an entrepreneur second:
1) Spinning. I don’t mean the class either. Being able to walk into a room of potential investors and spin the possibility of what we are trying to be. Make it seem like we are going to be the next FB or Twitter. Give them the most positive potential outcome, although there is no data to back it up. I tend to be more realistic, well I am a scientist and I like to project informed opinions, not belief sets. I have seen people spin their idea and am amazed at their ability to completely convolute reality. But this is what investors seem to like to hear. Investors don’t want reality they want possibilities. I like possibility too, but I don’t want to promise something I have no real idea can come true. And that doesn’t mean I don’t believe we can’t do it, I just need data to back it up. Big detriment. Not a good spinner. “Get out of my own way.”
2) Connections. Academics are inherently isolated. This is actually one of the aspects of our startup we are trying to address, to move higher education beyond it’s siloed thinking and isolated mindset. Academics have to work really hard to branch out beyond their department, institution and field of expertise. We like to do our research, teach our classes and think, preferably with other academics. So by nature, it isolates us. How does this work against me as an entrepreneur? I have to work extra hard to make connections many have made and solidified over years in various industries. I started in the negatives when it came to the right kind of contacts. It does take time to make these contacts, especially the right ones. “Get out of my own way.”
3) Money. I was in school until the age of 31 so didn’t really make any money until I started my academic career in 2002. Again, I am in education. I didn’t work for a Fortune 500 company or a tech company making a six figure salary even for the 12 years I have worked. I wasn’t able to sock away lots of savings I can now rely on. I didn’t even make a livable wage until I became an Associate Professor, 6 years in to my 12 and then it was just barely livable. So, no. I cannot just quit teaching and live off my savings, because I don’t have any. I am also not in the position to rack up lots of debt knowing I can just go back to my tech job and work a few years to pay it off. It’s not just me either, my friends and family are in a similar position. I had an individual once tell me I should be able to raise about $30k per friend and family member, you know, because he was able to do that. He raised over a million dollars in a friends and family round and we should be able to do the same thing he said. Problem is, most of my friends and family are in education. I don’t know if that is more a problem with my reality or his, but the two don’t align. Again, academics/education and salaries. Another big detriment. I don’t know if I can “get out of my own way here”, but working on it.
But here is the real question: are these detriments going to stop us from moving forward? Well of course not. Am I a perfect entrepreneur? Well, no. But who is? The success stories? How much of that was just luck and fortuitous timing? No one in this game seems to talk much about that yet we all know it’s a factor. And yes, we can debate do we create our own luck? Maybe, but only to a point. How much does just pure grit and determination play a role? Maybe more than luck, maybe not. This is why we have teams, and I have a good one. Are they perfect? No. But they have grit and determination and we all complement each other well. That’s the point of a team. Perhaps these detriments (and strengths) are what give me the skills to become an awesome entrepreneur? Detriments or pitfalls force you to do two things: quit or find creative ways around them. Here is what I can say: I don’t always know what I am supposed to do (and often when I ask I get conflicting advice), but I do know what I can do. I know where and when we can take action and we do what we can when we can. Life is less about the obstacles and more about how we work around them and not letting them stop us. Sometimes it’s baby steps, sometimes it’s giant leaps but I believe in our idea, our product, our team and most importantly, I believe in myself. We will do this and we will do it well.