By Melinda Thomas, EIR for NYC.
I could have titled this blog The Five Hardest Things About Working with a Scientist in a Business Environment, but I chose the more positive approach of speaking to how a scientist can avoid the common mistakes of someone coming right out of academia into a startup. The scientific paradigm and the business paradigm are fundamentally different, so unless you understand the differences, there will be unneeded tensions. Let me remind you that this is also the view from an inherently biased business person’s perspective. That said, I have recently presented this information at a number of forums full of post docs, and there was a lot of nervous laughter suggesting that my observations hit home for quite a few of them.
To be clear, the number one thing you need to do to succeed as a scientist in a company is good science. That is not all you have to do though. In a startup you are also a big part of the company as a whole, since there are so few of you. This is exciting because you get to be part of that bigger whole and play a bigger role, but it does mean that you will need to stretch yourself to accommodate this new blended science business paradigm.
One of the differences between the paradigms is that in science you question everything. You do not take anything for granted. This makes sense because what scientific research aims to do is discover something new and, frequently, only through questioning assumptions can this be done. How this conflicts with the business paradigm is that in business you need to pick those areas in which you have a core competence and then not reinvent the wheel in other areas. For example, I have worked with a scientific founder who wanted to have a 2 hour meeting on how we did payroll. I had to assure him that payroll was handled in a very standard way and that it was not an area in which we could create value for the company or the customer.
A tried and true business paradigm is to celebrate your successes. This was the area I found most disconcerting when working with scientists. They do not like to celebrate. Or even use enthusiastic adjectives. When we had completed a major milestone in a very aggressive time frame with better than expected results, I thought it was time for a party. These guys could only see what they did not accomplish; they used terms like “pretty good” to describe the fantastic results. It is great to focus on problems so that they can get solved, but you also need to balance your view of a situation and give credit where it is due.
Scientists love to discover new things. They wilt at the thought of doing something twice the same way. They are easily bored and always want to be chasing a new idea. In a small company with limited resources, sometimes the scientific people have to be your process development and production people, too. Also, if your senior management team is composed of many scientists, especially those fresh from academia, it could lead to a lack of focus in terms of which markets and applications are best suited to the technology. The scientists will be entranced with all the many different ways that the technology can be used in a customer’s hands and may want to chase after them all. What is required in a start up is to focus so that efficient use is made of the limited resources.
The corollary here is that scientists sometimes get caught up with trying to answer an interesting scientific question without putting their resource-use decision through the rigor of “will the answer be something that will add value for our customers?” This is not Science Camp. At the end of the day, you are trying to develop something that someone will buy.
The last and hardest thing to deal with while working with scientists is that they evaluate everyone according to their scientific abilities. They believe that the science is the hardest part of the process and that everything else is so much easier. This even manifests itself frequently with scientific founders thinking they can do all the jobs better than people who have trained in those disciplines. For example, they think they know much better than the marketing person how to market the technology. Or that because the manufacturing person is not as good a scientist -and they measure this by creative capacity- then that person should not be paid as much. They do not understand that you do not want your manufacturing person to be inventing on the production line. That discipline is all about consistency. I frequently asked the questions, “How many companies do you know that did not succeed because their technology wasn’t good enough? And how many do you know that failed because their execution was flawed?” The answers to those questions is clearly more of the latter, suggesting that actually running a business may not be trivial in comparison to scientific discovery. Therefore, all company functions should be valued.
At the end of the day, there needs to be a balance between the paradigms. If you can achieve this, then you will be successful and have fun in a start up. Both paradigms are effective in different ways. Being a scientist at the beginning of something is so energizing. Figuring out new ways of answering old questions is intellectually stimulating. The breadth of what you get to work on in a startup is wonderful. And the people who are drawn to startups are usually adventurous. I cannot recommend it more highly. Or as my scientist friends would say, “It’s pretty good.”