Simon Barker, EE Times' resident student entrepreneur, ponders his PhD studies and decides they are a good fit for business. It's all about problem-solving, organization and commitment.
NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England -- I am an EE PhD student here in the snowy north of England, and aspiring entrepreneur currently balancing the demands of my research and running a small company called Slotzz (http://www.slotzz.co.uk).
My company is totally unrelated to my research - indeed it is not really related to electronic engineering except in that it is complementary to the iPad and iPhone and to similar mobile devices. However, I have been filling in a grant application specifically targeted at young entrepreneurs and one of the questions asked was this:
"What is your highest qualification to date and how do you believe this helps you in running your business?"
Still being a year out from finishing my PhD I had to answer that my highest qualification is a bachelors degree, but I feel that the studies that I use the most in running Slotzz are those conducted for my PhD. This may sound odd, a highly technical qualification helping someone to run a mobile device accessory company, but there is a surprising amount of crossover once you leave behind the nuances of the topics in question.
1. Starting a company is a mammoth task with a seemingly never-ending list of things to do in the first few weeks. Prioritizing what to do and breaking the process down into small, manageable chunks is vital to deal with this. A three-year research project is an equally huge, daunting and seemingly insurmountable task at the start, however once you develop the skills to identify key areas, requirements, milestones and outcomes the whole thing boils down to a series of steps that should, in theory, lead to the desired outcome.
2. Running a company is a calculated risk and there are things you can do to minimize the uncertainties but ultimately it is a risk, just like research. Any new topic worth the title of a PhD is likewise inherently risky. You set out to push the boundaries of science and engineering just a tiny bit further with little idea as to how it will pan out. There are things that can be done to minimize the risk, literature review, contacting leading people in the field to discuss issues but at the end of the day no one knows for sure what is going to happen. This is probably the most important thing undergraduates, myself included, learn when transitioning into research; coping with that uncertainty and the fact that often we just don't know the answer and that's why it's research. Living with uncertainty is constant with running a business.
4. Creativity. I don't mean in the arty sense, I mean in the "How to reach this milestone" sense. Can't afford the fancy pre-printed branded bags for the upcoming Christmas sales fairs? Find a way of branding the cheaper unprinted ones and yield the same result at a fraction of the cost. Can't afford to pay the branding experts a fortune? Find a way to achieve the desired branding in-house. Similarly with research; equipment needs adapting, a machine can’t quite do what you want, a test rig needs building as no one manufactures quite what you need. These little problems that arise whilst doing research can make for some extremely creative solutions and this experience in the research world seems to be influencing my business decisions.
5. The final one is a simple one - project management. I may be in the minority, but for my PhD research I have a reasonable amount of autonomy. My supervisor is a fantastic help and inspiration, and his physics background is a huge help when dealing with a problem from a fundamentals approach, however my topic is outside his core area of knowledge. This means I have guided my project from a very early stage. Nothing could be better preparation for the CEO position of a startup. The responsibility of setting direction, ethos and committing to making products and marketing falls to the founders and dealing with some of the parallel issues in steering my PhD has been a fantastic help in the business.
Those are my five reasons why PhD students can make it as entrepreneurs. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I have not considered some aspects of a PhD which would not transfer well into business. I think though, that if nurtured properly, and given the chance, there are a lot of PhD students that are well-equipped for – and would enjoy – the entrepreneurial journey more than they probably think.
It seems like many successful entrepreneurs take the path of dropping out of school entirely (before they even receive a B.S) to start their company. Some of these fellows, such as Richard Branson, may even argue against higher education. So from this perspective, it seems like going for a PHD is following the anti-entrepreneur path.
I beg to differ.
I agree with you that the 5 skills you listed will make you a better employee in any field, but I don't think they are the distinctive qualities that make you a successful entrepreneur.
To me, the edge a PhD students have in starting their own business is their knowledge and ideas in their specific field of research.
I do not think there is a strong relationship between PhD studies and starting a business, in pratice at least. A PhD teaches you to analyse problems in a structured and logical way, how to synthesise solutions and evalue them, it makes a world expert in particular area. It's the perfect training towards a career in research and academia. Business on the other hand needs other kills including fund-raising, self-promotion, marketing etc. I am not saying people with PhDs are not capable of starting a business, I just do not see a strong correlation between the two.
@Simon, I rather think you would have been an entrepreneur with or without a PhD :-)
I have to say that I don't see a causal relationship between advanced degrees and creating a successful business. Perhaps it's because I have created and tanked two companies. Granted, a Ph.D. is a problem solver, and building a business is a steady stream of problems, but you don't need a Ph.D. to solve most of them. I think it's a matter of attitude. Recently I watched a man who had started one small business and also done some real estate development set his sights on a movie theater. He did his homework; counted the competition, lined up his ducks and rolled up his sleeves. $8 million later (mostly loans, I presume) the 8 screen all-digital theater is beautiful. But he needs a vacation, that's for sure. However, I suspect he can better afford one than I can! Business is relentless hard work; if you play your cards right with a Ph.D., you can settle down into academia and bully students forever. Who's more useful to society? That one, my friends, is a no-brainer. For the record, I hold a Ph.D.
Simon, I don't think you are wrong...but I think you are looking at things from the youngster's end of the telescope.
You have homed in on the risk and autonomy elements of PhD study and compared them with the same characteristics in business.
However, just about anything someone could do after a first degree/MSc/MA would involve risk and autonomy (unless they are so wealthy and pampered that they don't have to do anything, in which case there is no risk). Taking on risk and responsibility is part of growing older.
So for those of us looking back on a mis-spent youth the link between PhD studies and entrepreneurship via risk and autonomy seems much less significant than perhaps it does to you.
And then there is the counter argument that many PhD students are so specialized and technically detailed that they struggle with more human-modulated matters in business; with the need to understand commercial value and to sell.
For many people the BSc-to-MBA route looks like the more frequently trod path to business success.
But as discussed above it takes all sorts to make a world.
Sorry Simon, I strongly disagree...most people who have PhD (including myself) are quite weak in marketing and sales (I tried it for a year)...they are incapable of finding real business funding (not a few dollars from cousin Jimmy)...in short what makes them good in research (analytical skills etc) makes them usually weak in business...they have too much technical depth! ;-)...Kris
I have seen a complete spectrum of PhDs in action. A PhD is an achievement, but it does not automatically confer an advantage in business skills.
I believe it really comes down to personality - to quote a past movie...
Jules: I wouldn't go so far as to call a dog filthy but they're definitely dirty. But, a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way.
Simon, congratulations for achieving such success at a young age. I have to say I disagree with your thesis that PhD students are made for business or its corollary, that a PhD is a predictor of entrepeneurial success.
Having said that, you appear to have most if not all of the qualities of a successful entrepeneur, not the least of which is being a jack of all trades -- and I don't mean "jack of all trades, master of none," but rather "jack of all trades, capable in most."
Clearly, not every expert in high temperature energy harvesting and electrical systems is capable of making a successful small business out of making accessories for the iPod and iPad -- and doing the accounting, creating an effective website and worrying about such things as how to find lower-cost unprinted bags and using them to support branding and marketing during the holiday buying season.
It is more likely that variables other than academic success in pursuing research in a narrow field of inquiry influenced your business success. If that were not the case, then why didn't your thesis advisor come up with Slotzz and it's products before you did? He, after all, is the expert, and you are "just" his student who hasn't even obtained a PhD yet?
I think the answer clearly lies in those other variables, which from my point of view, include far more than academic and research capability. You are, in my book, a very intelligent and highly motivated "jack of all trades," and that is nothing to be ashamed of! I wish you and your company the best, even if you never actually use your knowledge of energy harvesting.
There is a definite personality influence in weather some one will be an entrepreneur but I thing that can be fostered in people and brought to the fore, especially if they realise the skills they have. There is the ongoing argument on if entrepreneurs are born or made and I think there is room for both, it's just getting people to see their own entrepreneurial potential.
Calculating isn't a bad thing, those people need a couple of co founders who can balance that out - I think a perfect combination would be a calculating person, a sales person and a planner.