Since today is the start of a new year and my PhD convocation happened earlier last month, I thought I’d reflect on what it was like being the CEO of a company while also working towards a doctorate in academia.
I started my academic journey in September 2009, when I moved my family across the pond to begin a new chapter of life in Manchester, England. Although most of my fellow PhD candidates wanted to pursue a career in academia when they were done, I always knew that my studies would eventually form the foundations of the company I wanted to start. After taking the first year to complete my required courses (such as epistemology which, to an engineer, was way too much thinking!), the company was formed.
In the early days of the venture, it was more of an academic project than a commercial entity, so I didn’t notice anything different between performing my PhD research and running the company. However, I realized how different both sets of duties were once we got into the Collider12 accelerator programme and had shareholders and mentors to answer to.
After the first few weeks of being in the accelerator, I noticed a few things that were different straight away (from a very light-hearted perspective).
But after a few months of being in Collider12, pitching to VCs and brands and having to manage a Board of Directors, employees and being knee-deep in my thesis writing (and mentally preparing for my thesis defence), I was able to analyze the two on a deeper level.
- One of the biggest similarities for both a doctorate and a startup is the pitch, or the thesis defence in academic terms. In both, you have to tell a story and try to convince the person making the evaluation to pass you, either in the form of a degree or a contract (which is like a degree but with a limited timespan).
- I’ve learned that it’s always wise to stay humble in both instances and always admit someone else is smarter than you because they will be. In academic terms, this is most likely your thesis examiner or supervisor, and in business it might be your potential VC or a mentor.
- You have to always keep surveying the landscape as other people might be researching the same space as you (or coming up with the same business idea). So competition is just as fierce in both arenas.
- For a doctorate, you have to explain things in the greatest amount of words possible whereas for a startup, you have to say things in the least amount of words and get right to the point.
- For a doctorate, you have to be very careful with your data and not make too many assumptions or causal links whereas for a startup, you can get away with saying things are a world’s first or revolutionary without actually showing concrete proof and your methods (initially that is).
- For a doctorate, there is a finite amount of time that you have to finish the degree (well, at least most people), so you know where the end game is. Whereas, in a startup, the journey doesn’t have an end goal in sight (at least not in the beginning).
I’ve run in to a lot of people that think I was crazy for doing a PhD, running a company and having two young boys all at the same time. I’ll be honest, there were times when I thought something would have to give. Luckily for me, it didn’t and I was able to keep a normal family life going, finish my PhD and have the company on the road to being a sustainable (and exciting) business. To draw on my last post about entrepreneur traits, this period in my life definitely showed my persistence in finishing what I started, no matter the odds. Hopefully this determination will help us in achieving great things for the business.