What I learned past few months...
…about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. In this time I was attending quite a few conferences in industry, I was informally involved in some projects, and I made many entrepreneurial friends. And, I was observing. As for a researcher who spent her whole youth solving integral equations, this is quite a new and exotic experience. I am on the learning curve now, in this fascinating new world. Hereby, I would like to list a few stereotypes I had about entrepreneurs, and how I feel about these stereotypes right now.
Entrepreneurs are bright personalities. True. Most of entrepreneurs are typical alphas who like to connect to others on emotional level (while, for a comparison, scientists are typical betas who primarily connect on intellectual level). Meeting alpha people feels completely different than meeting betas: the primary goal for casting a meeting is to get a good feeling, or a team spirit, rather than go through a to-do list or carry out some group trouble shooting. For alpha people, impressing others during conversation is very important - you will definitely score some extra points if you possess some collection of art, or you are fluent with topics such as the history of whiskey or where are the most hip bars in the city.
I was amazed with how different the meetings are in this world. As a researcher, I usually come to the meeting with a list of points to discuss - only to find out that in order to have anything done, I need to chitchat about parties and vacation plans for two hours and then ask a brief question at the door when leaving. And then the deal is done.
Entrepreneurs are money oriented, cold cash machines. In most cases, false. I would rather say that entrepreneurs are primarily freedom- and progress-oriented. Of course, there are people who only have cash on their mind, but those often do not end up at the top. Vast majority of people I have met launch businesses mostly because they want to be independent and financially free, and money is only a mean to achieve this personal goal.
Also, in order to sell any service to anyone, you need to well understand other people and their needs which obviously requires human empathy. Most of the startups fail because they cannot understand the consumers’ needs well enough. Most of the successful entrepreneurs I have met to date have a human side, are empathic and sympathise with others. However, to be successful, you also need to be competitive and sometimes, bury your empathy deep under the ground. For instance, if you are competing for the same client with a single mother of two, you can feel like a criminal - and you need to ignore this feeling and reach out for the fruit anyways.
Fake it till you make it. True - but this is not as negative thing as it sounds. In academia, we approach research problems by using some of the numerous research tools we have at our disposal. The process of building a project on the free market is even much more complex than that. You need to face new challenges every day - do not have any better way than learning on the fly, and pretending to the potential customers and partners that you have a good grasp of what is actually happening. One day you need to spend many hours browsing in order to learn about tax benefits to apply for, the next day you need to fix the bugs in your product with your team or jump on the flight to another country in order to promote yourself and your company. You sleep two hours a night and you have many worries but when a potential investor appears, you need to play relaxed and stand on your eyelashes to entertain the person. No one can know how uncertain you are deep inside. And there is nothing wrong about it, after all, you are the leader of the project.
The survival mode is on. True. I went to a few meetups for entrepreneurs and I was amazed with the dynamics at these meetings. At scientific conferences, it is a standard to chitchat with someone for an hour or two during an evening out, and chilled relax together. At entrepreneurial meetups, you do not have more than an hour or two for networking during the evening, so each conversation lasts for literally two to five minutes. You are quickly classified as either potentially useful or quite useless to the other party, you receive a business card or not dependent on that - and then you immediately proceed to the next person. If you are useless, you will not gain anything from any meetup.
So, if you want to get anywhere, you need to be useful to others. Your overall value in your environment scales with the number of people you know, and the skills you have - so networking and personal branding are everything. I am trying to look at this as a good thing; at the end of the day, your need to know very well who you are in order to move in the space. This really helps in growing up.
Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. True. Unlike scientists, entrepreneurs celebrate every little success. When you are a scientist, you stick glued to your computer for months and months before anything presentable comes up. Then you go to your supervisor who ‘constructively criticizes‘ your work, then after many iterations you send the paper to outer space only to get bashed by the reviewers over and over again. If you are lucky, after a year of this painful process you get the paper published. And, then, you get a handshake from your boss and maybe some apple cake at the nearest lab meeting. And that would be it. Iterate.
When you are among entrepreneurs, you are praised for everything. You sent an important email? Wonderful! You asked someone something? Marvellous! You made a new picture for the business plan? Fantastic! Every occasion to cheer is good. Honestly, the difference is like between having an orgasm once a year and having it every day. That’s quite a difference if you ask me.
There is no free lunch. Unfortunately, true. You can expect that people who will be the most generous when it comes to making compliments, be appreciative of your work, and pouring drinks into your glass, will be the least generous when it comes to paying you or sharing profits from the project. You need to be certain of your worth, learn a lot about negotiations and make sure that you do not end up underpaid.
Entrepreneurs are smart. Partially true. In fact, I have seen a number of very smart and hard working people who never managed to pull of a project successfully. But I have also seen a number of people who are not much smarter than average, but became successful mostly because they partnered with smart people and stayed loyal, or kept on trying as long as it took to succeed. In order to be successful in science, you need to first become a world class specialist in some discipline. In order to be successful in business, you need to understand two things: people and equity. Some people are working for others without the basic understanding that if you do not have equity in the project, you work on someone else’s dreams. If you work for a startup, you will hear ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘our company’, ‘our product’ a lot. But if you do not have an equity in the company, this team feeling only gives you a mirage of co-owning the success. So, if you are able to recognize good, professional, honest people, stick to them and if you care about equity, sooner or later you will become successful - if not, your high IQ will not help you.
Information is gold. True. You need to know what you can say, when and to whom. If you say nothing about your project or if you sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement every time you talk about your project with anyone, no one will know about you. If you disclose all the details to everyone you meet, you expose yourself to potential competition. Making decisions about whom to trust and what to say, is difficult and I still have not fully figured how to do this optimally.
Entrepreneurs flock together. True - and this is definitely a good thing. As a matter of fact, entrepreneurs are scarce compared to people working on contracts - and for the most part, they have no comfort zone. In such conditions, it is good to support and coach each other. I generally like the idea of peer coaching and of partnering between mentors and mentees so this model based on self-help groups works well for me.
These are my first impressions and first conclusions. Let’s see what I can say in a few years :) What do you think about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship?