From academia to founding a startup: five tips.

Thinking of leaving academia to become an entrepreneur? Here’s five tips to improve your chances to succeed.

Take classes, while you can

While in grad school, you may have learned ethnography methods and Principal Component Analysis. That’s great but now it’s time to learn about cap tables, series A, and convertible notes. Ok, you could read blogs and watch Silicon Valley. But if you’re still associated with an academic institution, you have access to a range of classes you may find useful. As a postdoc scholar, I sneaked into classes at the Harvard Business School and attended many evening events at the Harvard innovation lab. They helped a lot.

Be professionally pushy

The biggest remark investors and other entrepreneurs had when I first started pitching was that I was a bit too naive and timid. I was asking, instead of taking. Scientists are notoriously bad at marketing themselves and their research. As an entrepreneur you have to sell your founding team and an idea. You may not acquire all the tricks of sales overnight, but at the very least learn to be pushy, in a professional manner.

Investor pitch \(\neq\) academic talk

Another remark that I got a lot during my early investor pitches was: get to the point and make it really really easy to understand. We, academics, often fail to be truly inspiring in our talks in favor of sounding scientifically solid. This is great and necessary for science, but whenever you are presenting your startup idea to the world, make it general and easy. Do not recite an abstract.

Take risks

I like to say that my career was shaped by two traits that I developed as a kid: curiosity and risk. Curiosity pushed me to become an academic researcher. Risk pushed me to leave academia and become an entrepreneur. Leaving academia was not easy. I had the prospect of a prolific and safe academic career ahead of me, but I decided to risk entirely for an idea. As an entrepreneur, be prepared to risk more.

Don’t burn bridges with academia

Even after leaving academia, keep a healthy relationship with academia: with your PhD and postdoc advisors, with your research colleagues, with your former professors. Why is this important? Whether you’ll succeed or not as an entrepreneur, academia will still be there. Don’t turn your back on it.

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