Doctoral students can make great entrepreneurs
It is sometimes assumed that students carrying out research have their career mapped out for them as academics or in a corporate or public research institute. Although there is recognition that skills developed during a PhD can be useful in a non-research career, it is important that PhD students recognize that the skills learned in doctoral research can be particularly useful for a career as an entrepreneur.
Below find ten suggestions, which I hope will be helpful to doctoral students thinking about becoming an entrepreneurs.
1. Recognise and develop your entrepreneurial skills
To be a successful researcher - you must be enterprising – that is bold, resourceful, creative, dynamic and single-minded. When carrying research you will be required to solve apparently insurmountable problems, to come up with original ideas, to ensure that what you are doing is new, to understand what is technically feasible. All this and you have to be willing to work REALLY hard! These characteristics are also found in successful entrepreneurs – so as a research student it is important that you recognize you have these skills. It is also important to continue to develop these skills and to gain complementary experience to develop new skills.
So it is important that you recognize your strengths and weaknesses and then identify how you acquire any missing pieces!
If, as many do, you are thinking about a postdoctoral position then perhaps consider the type of position that will maximize and diversify your skill set.
2. Make use of readily available resources to hone your skills and to become more innovative
It is likely that there are lots of locally available resources, so make sure you use them. You should also make sure you are aware of and join national societies and online forums especially social networking groups. Ensure that you go to events for networking and information gathering and enter business competitions. These activities are important because they give you practice at pitching your ideas to experienced investors and entrepreneurs and help you create a network of people who can help you. Find out whether there is a local postgraduate enterprise society – if not set one up!
Meeting people from diverse backgrounds can be really stimulating. Sometimes ideas developed in one area can be used to great effect in other areas – and this can be at the heart of high impact innovation and the creation of successful business ventures.
3. Be honest with yourself about what you really want to do
Setting up a business is not an easy option and requires dedication, hard work and focus. However if your love your subject and want to be your own boss, then maybe its for you. All subjects can be harnessed for business opportunities, not just science, technology, engineering, medicine etc. For example some areas of arts and humanities can provide a unique insight into human behaviour, motivation and communication – all critical for creating a successful business.
4. Pilot the idea and test the market
Of course this is easier in some areas than others – but if you have an idea for a product and can make it – then setting up an online shop is pretty easy and can be a great way to start trading.
Ask your supervisor / advisor whether they have thought about setting up a business – if so maybe they have some ideas about low cost / low risk pilot studies.
5. Get some business experience
Most successful entrepreneurs I’ve met tell me that the most important first step for budding entrepreneurs is to get some work experience. Many PhD programmes provide this already – but if you are not on one that does so – try and include some work experience into your own research degree. Remember also, industrial postdoctoral positions can give you some of that valuable experience – which can help you in considering a business venture.
6. Be persistent - but realistic
Stubbornness and dedication are important attributes for successful entrepreneurs – and for you as successful research students. You will almost certainly encounter people who will tell you that your idea cannot make a business. They may be right, but not necessarily.
The trick is to know when to quit, sometimes that’s easy – an absence of money can often help concentrate the mind. However if you think you have a good idea and have the means to make it happen – give it a go and if you fail – try again!
7. It does not have to be just about money
Not all businesses are solely about the bottom line. So if you think you have a solution to a societal problem, maybe setting up a business can help you achieve that. You might consider setting up a Social Enterprise – a business with a social mission, and in which you reinvest any “profit” back into your business.
8. Do your homework!
Make sure you know your market. As a researcher you do this all the time, you know the value of identifying prior work, prior successes and where your work fits in. Its worth remembering sometimes a minor tweak of an idea can be a game-changer and create a great business opportunity.
9. Find a mentor
Every successful business requires energy, enthusiasm, dedication, passion etc. Almost all of them will also need an experienced mentor. Most successful entrepreneurs are happy to help budding entrepreneurs. So if you have an idea for a business and need help from someone with experience ask around friends, family, colleagues. Remember the networks you create may also provide opportunities to identify mentors.
10. Plan for success but learn from failure
Research students tend to be smart, enthusiastic, hard-working people, who are creative and diligent. Therefore you should plan on the basis that you will be successful. So make sure you work on something that matters to you, no matter how ambitious. In planning for success you also need to think about successful upscaling of your business – what it is going to look like in five years time?
If you fail, don't worry – learn from your failures – just as in research. You know that research very seldom works out first time around and that learning from failure is an essential element of finding solutions to research problems. So as researchers you are ideally placed to understand that each failure is a step closer to success. Its not always easy to deal with failure – but it’s a vital part of being a successful researcher and entrepreneur.
In summary...these suggestions are not supposed to be a recipe for success – I don’t think anyone has that. However researchers are ideally placed to be entrepreneurs because to be a successful researcher you have to be enterprising.