Steve Blank explains the parallels between science and start-up companies.
Contributor Ada Yee
“Curiosity is what drives both entrepreneurs and scientists,” observed Steve Blank, a serial entrepreneur, author, blogger and educator based in California’s Silicon Valley. Blank’s comparison, made at the Naturejobs Career Expo 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts during a conversation with Naturejobs editor Julie Gould, was bolstered by the appearance of several scientist-entrepreneurs that day, including Professor Robert Langer and Nina Dudnik. Gould and Blank discussed how entrepreneurial and scientific attitudes converge — but also lessons academics entering the start-up world must learn.
It was partly Blank’s role as an educator—he teaches courses at Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Columbia among others—that helped him realize how the scientific process could be used to build businesses more efficiently. He began dissecting what distinguished “visionary” companies from the “98% that were hallucinating”.
First, Blank took on a key assumption in the business world: the value of the business plan. “You used to start with an engineer or scientist who had a great technical idea, and make a business plan: nine or ten slides that you’d take to venture capitalists,” Blank told us.
The business plan outlines a company’s long-term path, and its importance has been drilled into entrepreneurs for decades. But such plans, Blank argued, don’t adapt to market demands that might be discovered along the way. “No business plan survives the first contact with customers,” he said.
Instead, Blank and his collaborators have put forward a new methodology—now taught as the Lean Launchpad that borrows heavily from the scientific process. “In a start-up venture, all you have are untested hypotheses,” explained Blank. “You’re collecting data to gain insight and validate your hypothesis.” In business lingo, hypotheses include questions such as: Who are my customers? What are our regulatory issues? What patents might block our way?
Instructors of the Lean Launchpad class don’t challenge would-be entrepreneurs’ hypotheses—they know customers will. Instructors also teach the idea of a “minimal viable product,” or prototype that you present to customers, in order to gather data for further adjustments.
What must young (or old!) academics learn in order to familiarize themselves with the commercial process? Blank offered audience members—who, by a show of hands, were eager to become entrepreneurs—some pointers.
First, separate technical hypotheses from business hypotheses. “Your idea might make a nice Nature, Science, or Cell paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s a viable product,” he said. Such ideas may be too immature or too outdated to form the foundation of a business. They also might not be scalable, or could run afoul of others’ patents.
Secondly, for commercial hypotheses, there are “no facts inside the building”: you must leave the safety of your company’s walls and interact with customers to find out their needs. Scientists aren’t trained in talking with people, but Blank stressed that you must seek opportunities to practice communicating, especially if you’re working in a second language. “There’s nothing more frustrating than having a great idea and being unable to communicate it,” he said. “It’s a loss for you and a loss for the world.”
Blank, who calls himself a “slow learner,” said he chose to start out by apprenticing in other people’s start-ups. There, he learned how to make eye contact. “Boy, I didn’t even know how to get out from behind my desk,” said Blank, now extemporizing with ease onstage.
For help on beginning a start-up, Blank noted that nowadays, resources are plentiful. “In the 20th century, information was transmitted via coffee—you were limited by your coffee bandwidth.” Now, anyone can get guidance online. There are “meetups”, Startup Weekend and I-Corps, a curriculum developed by Blank with the NSF and NIH.
Passion and persistence
The chat closed with a comment on personalities of successful entrepreneurs. “The myth is that it’s about money,” said Blank. “The best reason to do a start-up is like being an artist wanting to paint—you want to share something with the world.”
Passion is necessary to weather the challenges of creating a company from scratch. “Starting a company is one of the world’s most miserable jobs,” said Blank. “There’s a lot of failure, like in the lab.” But in the entrepreneurial world, failure is sometimes celebrated: it makes you “experienced”.
“Entrepreneurship is not a job—it’s a calling,” he concluded. “Don’t do a start-up because it’s trendy; do it because you feel this tug inside.”