Every PhD graduate is armed with 10 transferable skills that can help create a successful business without any upfront cash or formal business training, says scientist turned entrepreneur Behrouz Moemeni.
In graduate school, we lived by two unspoken, yet sacred, rules: you never asked a grad student when they were going to graduate, and you never asked what they were going to do after graduation.
A natural progression for PhD graduates would be postdoctoral training followed by a tenured track position at a university to become a full professor. But the reality is that less than 0.5% of PhD graduates will become professors. Inevitably, the rest will have to look for alternative career paths.
What if you aspire to start your own business?
First, I have to confess that there’s a huge element of luck involved (see point #4) and I have had the support of a lot of people over the years. In any case, I’ll explain what I think might work based on my personal experience and understanding:
- Choose a topic that’s close to your heart
As clichéd as it may sound, if you start a business purely to make money or while “exploring other options” it will either remain extremely small or fail miserably. Why? Because you would be motivated by an extrinsic factor, such as money, which does not usually last long enough to create a successful business. This is very similar to what most of us learned in day 1 of grad school: only pursue research topics that genuinely interest you.
Conversely, when you choose something close to your heart (an intrinsic motivator) – something you would pursue regardless of whether or not it would become a source of income — you would move heaven and earth to make it work.
For me, it was my core belief that everyone deserves access to higher education, regardless of his or her cultural, racial or socioeconomic status. This is why my first company, BeMo, is aimed at helping students achieve their academic and career goals. This is also ultimately why I started my second company, SortSmart, which gets to the core of the problem I want to solve: making sure that applicant screening is fair and scientific, with the world’s first ever scientifically proven admissions screening platform for professional schools. If you want to learn more, watch my Beyond Sciences Initiative conference talk at this link.
- Bootstrap like your life depends on it
Without any outside investment or extra cash to hire support staff, you, as the founder, must take on all the roles and responsibilities: from creating a website, to marketing your business, to product development, to customer service, and everything in between.
This is doubtlessly a familiar concept to you: whether it was by saving expensive reagents or taking on the jobs of PhD student, lab technician and manager all in one, we’ve all had to bootstrap in our graduate years.
- Experiment like a scientist
The name of the game in business is simply experimentation. If you take nothing else from my post, take this: to become successful in business, you have to run experiments for everything you do, because it’s impossible to know what is going to work and what isn’t. So test different products, different services, different marketing strategies, different team members, etc. Test. Test. And test again. Then repeat.
- Exercise patience because 80% of your experiments will NOT work
Guess what? Just like grad school, most of your experiments are NOT going to work… so you need to accept failure on a regular basis – all the while remaining resilient.
As I mentioned, all businesses depend on an element of luck because it’s impossible to predict the future and the outcome of your experiments. Naseem Taleb explains this concept best in his book, The Black Swan. Nevertheless, I believe you need to follow certain principles, such as those discussed in this post, to increase your chance of finding luck.
- Surround yourself with mentors
Mentors can exponentially accelerate the growth of your business.
It goes without saying; you should always be willing to help others as well. In fact, that’s what a good business is supposed to be. A business’s primary objective is to serve others. Period.
- Read copiously
Remember the good old days of reading ten research papers a day? If you are starting a business without any business background (like me), then you need to dig into the literature before jumping into the unknown.
- Collaborate with others
You can’t create a truly impactful business without the help of others because there’s only so much one person can do in a 24-hour day. To circumvent this, bring in intrinsically motivated people who believe in your mission. In other words, create time. Suddenly, your days become 48 hours long, then 72 hours long, and so on, as more team members join your mission.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a growing team of A-players. I couldn’t have done it without them, and it’s been a privilege to work with them and learn from them.
- Publish or perish
As a business owner, you are going to share your new expertise with the world, and specifically with your customers, on a regular basis via web-based meetings, in-person talks, or written reports and blogs. Sound familiar?
- Be ready for a fistfight or you’ll get scooped!
Okay— I don’t mean a literal fistfight. But it’s hard to stray away from metaphors here: if you are starting a business, you should expect to get your knuckles bloody on a regular basis.
Business is a competitive sport, and truth be told, nobody plays fair. Translation? If you are not careful and/or are slow to act, you will get scooped.
- Ignore the demons inside and outside of your head
You’ll face at least two types of demons when you start a business:
- Inner mind trash that repeats “you are not qualified to run a business” and “you should be out there stabbing your eyes under the microscope as a post-doc at some brand name university.”
- External naysayers that constantly try to put you down, saying “your business idea sucks,” and “nobody will ever pay for this or that.”
As far as the former, I hope I have convinced you that you do have every skill set required to be a successful entrepreneur.
And in regards to the latter… Remember that grumpy, bored faculty member that shot down every single idea you had during your PhD? Well, this is where that experience comes in handy. There will always be people trying to put you down. And yet, the only voice that truly matters is that of the people you serve: they will tell you what will work and what will not. The rest? Well, the rest is just noise.
A special thanks to Dr. Helena Frischtak for critical review of this article.
About the author:
Behrouz Moemeni, received his PhD in immunology from the University of Toronto, where he studied T cell activation signalling and was the recipient of 19 awards and published 3 peer-reviewed articles. He is the founder and CEO of SortSmart Candidate Selection (“SortSmart”) and BeMo Academic Consulting (“BeMo”).