As some of you might have heard, this past summer I co-founded a company based on my former Ph.D. student Parmit Chilana‘s research on LemonAid along with her co-advisor Jake Wobbrock. I’m still part time faculty, advising Ph.D. students, co-authoring papers, and chairing a faculty search committee, but I’m not teaching, nor am I doing my normal academic service load. My dean and the upper administration have been amazingly supportive of this leave, especially given that it began in the last year of my tenure clock.
This is a fairly significant detour from my academic career, and I expected the makeup of daily activities that I’m accustomed to as a professor would change substantially. In several interesting ways, I couldn’t have been more wrong: doing a startup is remarkably similar to being a professor in a technical domain, at least with respect to the skills it requires. Here’s a list of parallels I’ve found striking as a founder of a technology company:
- Fundraising. I spend a significant amount of my time seeking funding, carefully articulating problems with the status quo and how my ideas will solve these problems. The surface features of the work are different—in business, we pitch these ideas in slide decks, elevators, whereas in academia, we pitch them as NSF proposals and DARPA white papers—but the essence of the work is the same: it requires understanding the nature of a problem well enough that you can persuade someone to provide you resources to understand it more deeply and ultimately address it.
- Recruiting. As a founder, I spent a lot of time recruiting talent to support my vision. As a professor, I do almost the exact same thing: I recruit undergrad RAs, Ph.D. students, faculty members, and trying to convince them that my vision, or my school or university’s vision, is compelling enough to join my team instead of someone else’s.
- Ambiguity. In both research and startups, the single biggest cognitive challenge is dealing with ambiguity. In both, ambiguity is everywhere: you have to figure out what questions to ask, how to answer them, how to gather data that will inform these questions, how to interpret the data you get to make decisions about how to move forward. In research, we usually have more time to grapple with this ambiguity and truly understand it, but the grappling is of the same kind.
- Experimentation. Research requires a high degree of iteration and experimentation, driven by carefully formed hypotheses. Startups are no different. We are constantly generating hypotheses about our customers, our end users, our business plan, our value, and our technology, and conducting experiments to verify whether the choice we’ve made is a positive or negative one.
- Learning. Both academia and startups require a high degree of learning. As a professor, I’m constantly reading and learning about new discoveries and new technologies that will change the way I do my own research. As a founder, and particularly as a CTO, I find myself engaging in the same degree of constant learning, in an effort to perfect our product and our understanding of the value it provides.
- Teaching. The teaching I do as a CTO is comparable to the teaching I do as a Ph.D. advisor in that the skills I’m teaching are less about specific technologies or processes, and more about ways of thinking about and approaching problems.
- Service. The service that I do as a professor, which often involves reviewing articles, serving on curriculum committees, and providing feedback to students, is similar to the coffee chats I have with aspiring entrepreneurs, the feedback I provide to other startups about why I do or don’t want to adopt their technology, and the discussions I have with Seattle area angels and VCs about the type of learning that aspiring entrepreneurs need to succeed in their ventures.
Of course, there are also several sharp differences between faculty work and co-founder work:
- The pace. In startups, time is the scarcest resource. There are always way too many things that must be done, and far too few people and hours to get things done. That makes triage and prioritization the most taxing and important parts of the work. In research, when there’s not enough time to get something done, there’s always the freedom to take an extra week to figure it out. (To my academic friends and students, it may not feel like you have extra time, you have much more flexibility than those in business do).
- The outcomes. The result of the work is one of the most obvious differences. If we succeed at our startup, the result will be a slight shift in how the markets we’re targeting will work and hopefully a large profit demonstrating the value of this shift. In faculty life, the outcomes come in the form teaching hundreds, potentially thousands of students, lifelong thinking skills, and in producing knowledge and discoveries that have lasting value to humanity for decades, or even centuries. I still personally find the latter kinds of impact much more valuable, because I think they’re more lasting than the types of ephemeral changes that most companies achieve (unless you’re a Google, Facebook, or Twitter).
- The consequences. When I fail at research, at worst it means that a Ph.D. student doesn’t obtain the career they wanted, or taxpayers have funded some research endeavor that didn’t lead to any new knowledge or inventions. That’s actually what makes academia so unique and important: it frees scholars to focus on truth and invention without the artificial constraint of time. If I fail at this startup, investors have lost millions of dollars, several people will lose their jobs, and I’ll have nothing to show for it (other than blog posts like this!). This also means that it’s necessary to constantly make decisions on limited information with limited confidence.
Now, you might be wondering which I prefer, given how similar
the actual jobs the skills required in the jobs are. I think this is actually a matter of very personal taste that has largely to do with the form of impact one wants to have. You can change markets or you can change minds, but you generally can’t change both. I tend to find it much more personally rewarding to change minds through teaching and research, because the changes feel more permanent and personal to me. Changing a market is nice and can lead to astounding financial rewards and a shift in how millions of people conduct a part of their lives, but this change feels more fleeting and impersonal. I think I have a longing to bring meaning and understanding to people’s lives that’s fundamentally at odds with the profit motive.
That said, I’m truly enjoying my entrepreneurial stint. I’m learning an incredible amount about capitalism, about business, behavioral economics, and the limitations of research and industry. When I return as full time faculty, I think I’ll be in a much better position to do the things that only academics can do, and argue for why universities and research are of critical importance to civilization.