Monday, March 23, 2015

Doing a Startup is like doing a Ph.D.?

“You will flip rapidly from a day in which you are euphorically convinced you are going to own the world, to a day in which doom seems only weeks away and you feel completely ruined, and back again. Over and over and over.”

Which Ph.D. candidate has NOT felt this way during the long 4+ year journey?! J

MarcA goes on to say, “Second, in a startup, absolutely nothing happens unless you make it happen.” In a Ph.D., nobody forces you, not your supervisor (till after 4 years!), not your friends, not anybody. You get it done yourself due to some inner drive. And the long hours and the intense, unwavering focus – the same inner drive! One difference is that your march to dissertation is not affected much by things like stock market crashes, terrorist attacks and natural disasters; on the other hand, your galloping startup can grind to a halt if any of these happen at an inopportune time.

So, what lessons are transferrable?
·       The ability to work long hours with unflinching focus – in my opinion, this is really the main thing you learn while doing a Ph.D.! Increased knowledge in your domain that you acquire/ create during your Ph.D. has a short shelf-life; till other young upstarts come and revolutionize your field.
·       Carefully crafted presentations and write-ups. All acronyms expanded on their first occurrence. All figure axes labelled. Consistency of terms and definitions throughout a presentation. And many such excellent documentation habits.
·       Persistence – it is the hand-maiden of innovation and creativity. Ph.D. journey teaches this lesson in spades. This can be a plus or a minus – startups sometimes requires sudden “pivots” to survive; persistence, unless of the enlightened variety, can be a burden then.

When you have a Ph.D., at some time or the other, you knew more about some topic than anyone else in this world! Don’t carry over this “know-it-all-ness” to a startup – it will usually create friction!

On balance, there are more positive things to transfer than negative. Mr. Ph.D. will have to engage co-founders/ co-workers with the humility born out of the realization that startup is first of all a business and that too with many facets beyond his thesis topic. Ms. Ph.D.’s focus, hard work and persistence will lead her to having strong opinions and the willingness to fight for them - this is a great positive signal to all that she is deeply involved and care deeply about the startup. If co-workers can embrace this level of engagement without questioning motives, tremendous value-add will naturally follow!

PG Madhavan, Ph.D.
CAO & Founder
Syzen Analytics, Inc.
Bellevue, WA

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