Academic entrepreneurship

I recently read Paul B. Brown’s October 2013 Forbes’ article on the habits of successful entrepreneurs. As with most habits of successful people, the applications extend beyond the specific profession of the group studied. Academics–especially those of us creating new fields of interdisciplinary study or working in new, less traditional, or less well-established areas of inquiry–can benefit from these approaches.

1. Determine your goal, take a small step towards it, assess. Academics are trained to have long vision–we tend to set a goal and then build a master plan to achieve it–especially those with a focus on grants-writing or book proposals. That might not be the best practice: as Brown puts it:

“They [entrepreneurs] deal with uncertainty not by trying to analyse it, or planning for every contingency, or predicting what the outcomes will be. Instead, they act, learn from what they find, and act again.”

At some point, small steps become impossible but they are a way of starting. For instance, an expository blog post may serve to float initial ideas if you have adequate followers or a way to get the post out to fellow researchers.  This can work in the sciences too–piloting new ideas to a full research design can be a costly exercise. But, playing with an idea in writing and how it might be developed and tested is a cost-free approach that might net valuable peer pre-review.

2. Start with a market need. Do we have market needs in academia? In a sense, we do. There are certainly trendy topics that crop up for a time in job ads. The trick that every PhD student attempts to learn is gauging the timing of the trend: jump on it too late and your research is stale before you get a job but jump on it too early and your research is regarded as esoteric or boutique. There are also subtle paradigms in academic disciplines that frame what constitutes significance or value in research. If you can speak that language or win that argument, you are meeting a research community need–explaining the value and significance of your work (and therefore validating the discipline).

3. Don’t set out to be rich. This is easy: don’t set a goal to be a hot shot! Set the goal to engage intellectually with problems and questions that inspire you. Picking something that interests you while also playing to the market are not mutually exclusive events. Reconciling what you want to do with what might have a chance of success is a constant life compromise. Most aspiring hot shots I have seen do exactly what Brown says greedy entrepreneurs do:

“…if your primary objective is to get rich quick, you are bound to cut corners, short-change your customers, and fail to take the time to truly understand what the market needs.”

Cutting corners with research (trendy terms to dress up old ideas, overlooking problematic findings, spamming multiple journals with the same hackneyed piece–in short, spin and spam) short-changes the community by flooding the publishing market with papers that have no citation half-life. So many academics fail to making a meaningful contribution because they fail to understand what research will advance the discipline (rather than their own career). Journals are rife with the publications of ‘young Turks’ who, to an extent, are validated by the publication list on their CVs. But, is there quality? Take Manchester City: when I first started supporting the Citizens, they were a mid-table team in good years. An influx of oil money made them flush with cash and star players. A few high profile wins were the same as a few quick sales. Becoming and remaining champions is another story–that is where City are today after learning a hard lesson. Top researchers who transcend their own disciplines are engaged intellectually with their work and less concerned with a specific career trajectory.

4. Marketing. This is also a dangerous area because marketing is about competition and I dislike the increasingly corporate model of competition that many academics are buying into. Choosing a venue in academia is daunting. A small exploratory paper, pilot/case study, or theory piece could be tested in venue where it might be not be received with open arms (to gain perspective) or in one that will receive it positively. Most academics have received incendiary negative biased feedback from a reviewer that clearly was emotionally invested in some aspect of the work (e.g., a theoretical approach, a controversial hypothesis). That unearned wrath may beuseful. As Brown says:

“Making the world’s best videocassette recorder does you no good, if what people really want are DVRs.”

Some aggressive and competitive academics try to flood the market by exploiting multiple publishing venues with variations on the same paper (a violation of copyright that increasingly go unnoticed due to the dearth of publishing venues). This appears successful in the short-term but isn’t sustainable–especially if you need cash for your work. For example, evaluating grant proposals is a different state of mind than when evaluating a paper because the grant has a price tag.

“Tempting as it may be, don’t try to buy your way into markets where you offer the same product at a lower price. That’s where you’ll be vulnerable.”

Marketing is a strategy to get your product into the world but once your product is in the world, it has to stand on its own. If you are researching something with no staying power or substance or haven’t acquired the needed skills or background to do the work, you will only frustrate and annoy readers/reviewers. In the end, your cheap product will look even cheaper next to the ones with quality.

5. Financing. The successful entrepreneur (this includes biotech companies) starts with an average of $110,000–that is chump change in the grand scheme of modern business. Academics know this game better than the would-be entrepreneurs: we call it seed money (internal grants, student research funds, fellowships). The challenge in obtaining seed money is for those without permanent affiliations (adjuncts, term faculty) who may not be eligible for these awards. Having been in that position, I know how it curtails many a brilliant idea and slows the research process! The applied idea here is to focus on the small step from tip 1–maybe some things can be done without money or with crowd-sourced money (there are academic versions of kick-starter!). The hard point for academics is the actual financing of the project (some people can get by with a budget of $5-10K but my current grant is bulging at the seams to fit into a $300,000 price tag–I really need twice that amount to complete one portion of the project). Grant funding is drying up for the sciences (and there never was much for arts and humanities to begin with) so this will be an on-going problem to solve. Brown doesn’t mention it here but backers are how entrepreneurs try to solve this problem: academics will have to spend more time creatively finding non-profit and for-profit sources of funding rather than traditional government funding schemes. Forced into the non-government sector, academics may find fortune–the process of obtaining the money can be very quick–but may also find new challenges (how to find funding sources and pitch research successfully to applied and for-profit agents).

6. Team building or Anti-Micromanagement. Team work is an organic part of the sciences but less so in the social sciences and unnatural in the arts and humanities (I think/hope this is changing). Not having the burden of doing all the work is game-changing but letting go of controlling all aspects of production is difficult for many academics, even those already working in a team setting. The compelling argument to let go of micromanagement is:

“Since everything will have to flow through you, you will create a bottleneck”

Bottlenecks slow traffic and reduce variation (in the genetics world). Having a team means more ideas and (what we all want and need) faster results that also have quality. Managing that team effectively means that you can’t control all aspects of what the teams does.

7. Play to your strengths. I like how this is operationalized:

Wherever there is great innovation, there is a dreamer and an operator; an “idea man” and someone who turns those ideas into reality.

Some of us have great ideas but are not successful with fabricating their reality. Others are great at making an idea work. Some rare few can do both but, for the majority of us, finding others that fill in your weaknesses is key. The temptation is to find others like yourself–shared mindset/shared approach and strengths will enhance the outcome. But, finding someone who is not like you (aggressive where you are conservative, acting where you are thinking) may be the better strategy to getting something published/awarded/conducted/etc.

8. Obstacles to assets or Be Pollyanna. By taking all feedback (no matter how vicious or negative) as steps forward, you are able to recover more quickly and be more successful. You will find the truth eventually (e.g., your idea was bad, your methods were flawed, you need better techniques) so why not find out before the other guy who is thinking about doing the same thing you are doing. The other guy will still be stuck in the past while you move ahead with a fresh idea, new methods, refined techniques. But, if your research is DOA with a ‘do no not revive’ order?

Accept the situation to the point of embracing it. Take as a given that it won’t ever change, and turn it into an asset. What can you do with the fact that it won’t ever change? Maybe it presents a heretofore unseen opportunity. Maybe you build it into your product or service in a way that no competitor (having not acted) could imagine. Could you do it on your own? Could you take the idea to a competitor and use it as your calling card to look for the next job?

Maybe you were struggling in the wrong venue. Maybe you were trying to force a new idea into the canon rather than introducing it in small pieces that are more palatable to the old guard. Maybe you didn’t notice that your interests have taken you into a new field but you were still peddling your ideas to the old one. Maybe you hit on something great but need more training or different/new collaborators to make it better or legitimize it. Maybe your ideas have a market value–here, I mean, maybe you can apply your research to a non-academic job.

My final two cents is that the scholars I admire (and this includes some junior academics, some of whom do not yet have a permanent position) share the above perspective: they have intellectually greedy minds that engage fully and quickly with their work within their current capacity. As a consequence, their capacity expands with opportunities, jobs, grants, publications, collaborations, etc. This won’t be everyone–it won’t be me–but I think it is a good way to think about research because it is proactive. Brown sums his ideas better than I can:

Successful people work with what they have at hand – whatever comes along – and try to use everything at their disposal in achieving their goals. And that is why they are grateful for surprises, obstacles, and even disappointments. It gives them more information and resources to draw upon.



Published by Kara C. Hoover

I am a bioanthropologist living in Alaska studying human olfactory variation and prehistoric human health and diet.

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