University Startups and Spin-Offs: Guide for Entrepreneurs in Academia (2015)
Part I. Strategies for University Startup Entrepreneurs
Chapter 6. Simple Strategies to Get Unstuck
Jumping off the cliff into the unknown murky waters of entrepreneurship can be frightening. You have exposed yourself by proposing a bold idea and offered yourself up to criticism from those who follow a more conventional path. Because you have no successful entrepreneurs in your circle of friends who could guide you, it is your responsibility to master each challenge on your own. What do you do when your product is too expensive for the market, but you already stripped it down to the bare minimum? How should you react when a joint-venture partner calls with an offer that is too good to refuse but will take your company on a new, unfamiliar path?
Because it is impossible to have a detailed manual for every challenge, it is better for entrepreneurs to learn a few strategies that help them tackle a wide array of situations. With those in your toolkit, you will be ready to master situations on your own. You should always be able to come up with several solutions to a challenge by yourself. When you rely on outside counsel to solve problems for you too often, you need to step up your game. It’s better to ask others what they think about your own ideas and hear their feedback than expecting them to do the work for you.
This chapter presents a few simple strategies that can help startups get an extra boost when they are stuck. These approaches are split into two main categories: those that help you take action and those that help you think. They build on each other. You may already be familiar with some of them; others may sound new. As always, see which ones you find useful, not only to get unstuck, but to achieve better results in your startup in general.
Strategies to Take Action
Another analysis, another SWOT, another research paper, another workshop, or another brainstorming session will rarely help you get your startup off the ground. Usually, what is lacking is taking action. Have you tested your prototype in the market yet? Do you believe you need funding before you do so? And how will you get funding—by writing a clever grant proposal? The current practice of entrepreneurship at universities centers on analysis: thinking about fictitious products and how the market may or may not respond to them. The most important step of carrying out ambitious visions is missing in the curriculum. As a result, most students and researchers experience entrepreneurship in a bubble. There is no shortage of innovation policy that mandates the government should do this and that, and that universities should hold workshops and programs to promote more startup activity. In such a cocoon, entrepreneurs feel little pressure to make things happen for themselves. University entrepreneurship is in many ways still a theoretical exercise and much less a practical one. This is a pity, because it makes it OK for startups to spend time writing proposals and brainstorming instead of leaving the building and collecting accurate market intelligence about their assumptions.
As long as this continues, university startups will not be in the game. And not being in the game is worse than not being good enough. When I propose to software startup teams that they create a mockup frontend for their nonexistent software as the first order of business, they often discount this as “BS.” They think they first need to complete the full backend programming over several months. Yet who knows if what they are coding will hit a nerve in the market? If it does, who knows if there will be enough clients who will buy the product? They can only find out by testing their hypotheses. If the product is software and there is no backend yet, you can create a faux user experience in a mockup program and fake the backend. This is the only way to get timely feedback on ideas.
As expected, such suggestions raise eyebrows at university startups. They go against everything a self-respecting scientist stands for. Scientific research by nature goes deep into an issue, and releasing half-baked ideas can have dire consequences. When results of academic research stand ready to be published, panels of experts review them and either approve or reject them. If a publication is turned down, then it is back to the drawing board. More research is carried out, and the paper is resubmitted. In startup land, it is quite the opposite. You had an idea this morning in the shower. By lunch, you have mocked up a minimum viable product (MVP) that you test with real potential clients in the afternoon. Come suppertime, you know whether your idea has legs. MVPs are shallow, buggy, unfinished, and have very little to do with your final product. But if the market gives signals that it would like to see more and is ready to pay for it, then you can tinker with the product and test it again until it reaches the stage where you believe it can launch.
Imagine an iceberg with a small visible tip above the waterline and a huge invisible part in the water (see Figure 6-1). The researcher first builds the huge invisible part. This symbolizes the research and data collected over many years, sometimes decades. If researchers decide to launch a startup, they build the small visible part on top of the large block of ice at the very end of the process. This small visible part represents the product that sells in the market. Startup entrepreneurs approach the issue from the other side. First they create the visible part and make it look as if there is a huge invisible part in the water. Only when the market flocks to the imaginary iceberg does the entrepreneur build out the entire block of ice under the water.
Figure 6-1. Difference in business approach between researchers (left) and entrepreneurs (right)
Scientists think that their product is the logical extension of all the research they have undertaken so far. This would be the ideal case, but they may have to adjust their expectations about what the market wants. They will have to tweak their product or come up with a different one. When the market speaks, all meticulous planning goes out the window. It is only through taking action that this process begins. How can entrepreneurs force themselves to take more action? Following are some strategies that have worked well for my startups.
One Action per Day
Avoid getting caught up in analysis paralysis. Most likely, you do not need more information, you need more action. Make it a point to take one action each day that moves your startup forward. Is it picking up the phone and setting up a lunch meeting with that potential industry partner you recently met at a networking event? Or is it finishing the one missing part of the MVP to test with a group of prospects? Draw up a list of such actions, and then spread them over the week. Pick one per day, and by the end of the week you will have completed seven. Instead of actions, you can also write down goals; this is entirely up to you.
Forcing yourself to take one action each day helps to take your mind off analysis and shift it into action. Avoid overloading yourself with tasks on one day. Spread them evenly over a longer period of time. When you have completed your daily tasks, resist the temptation to add more tasks to your list for the day. Instead, reward yourself for following through. Over time, you will form a habit of continually moving your projects forward in frequent small steps. This is much more helpful than only focusing on giant leaps, which are notoriously difficult to complete.
The Deadline Is Your Friend
Set deadlines for specific tasks, and publicly announce them. Set up interviews for your MVP tests before you have finished your MVPs. Promise to deliver reports by the end of the week that do not exist yet. Such commitments force you toward action. More often than not, you will finish your deliverables in a short time under such pressure. Parkinson’s Law puts this empirical finding in words: “Work expands to fill the time available for completion” (see Figure 6-2).1 Author Northcote Parkinson studied how the increasing number of civil servants stands in relation to their workload. We would expect the government to hire more staff to deal with its increasing workload. This increases the time public servants have available to complete their tasks, so they should get more done in a given amount of time. But the opposite is the case: when they have more staff and therefore more time available, it takes government employees far longer to complete their work.2
Figure 6-2. Parkinson’s Law
I often work with timers and alarm clocks. A specific task—for example, writing a report about the meetings that took place during the month—gets 90 minutes. I cannot go over time, but I also cannot do anything else during these 90 minutes. Author Roy Baumeister calls this the Nothing Alternative.3 The strategy is powerful to focus your attention on one thing and one thing only. Looking at the timer counting down is a compelling reminder to complete the task instead of letting it drag on. Try it the next time you are writing a report. The traditional way, this can take several days. With the Nothing Alternative, you will surprise yourself when you complete the report in a few hours, or perhaps even in 45 minutes.
Once I asked a contractor when I could expect the finished product from him. “It is finished when it is finished,” he replied. Obviously, this guy had no clue how to speed up his work. Parkinson’s Law allowed the task to mushroom because he had set no deadline. This was greatly to his disadvantage because he was paid a fixed fee for his work, regardless of whether he completed it today or in a month. If you are a startup entrepreneur, this approach is not for you. Set clear deadlines, make them short, make them public, and stick to them.
Sitting in your office or lab, surrounded by sceptics of free markets or those who have firmly subscribed to the security of 9-5 employment, will hardly stimulate you to make moves as an entrepreneur. Frequent contact with other entrepreneurs who are in the same boat as you can encourage you to get off your chair. Get their advice and feedback about how they tackle certain issues. See the way they are doing things, and copy it. Get together and discuss the specific actions you have taken this week and where they led your team. Discuss your successes and mishaps, and learn how others address the same challenges.
Going at it alone is much more difficult than approaching entrepreneurship in a group of like-minded individuals. They can inspire a healthy competition where they will call you out if you keep deliberating instead of testing in the market. Ensure that you have action-oriented people around you. A good network can have a major impact, not only on shifting your focus toward taking action, but in all stages of entrepreneurship.
Author Napoleon Hill created Mastermind Groups over 75 years ago.4 How do masterminds work? A group of like-minded people meet regularly to talk about specific challenges. They provide advice, share connections, and collaborate when appropriate. This practice is comparable to peer-to-peer mentoring. Mastermind groups are often invite-only. If no group exists in your environment, simply set up your own. Invite other startup entrepreneurs from your university to your new mastermind. Connect with entrepreneurs on the Internet or LinkedIn. Contact industry interest groups and ask them to introduce established businesspeople to you. It is essential that all members of the group are on the same wavelength. Do not include people who have only theoretical knowledge or no experience. Treat your mastermind group as an exclusive club. Not only will you add powerful contacts to your network, but the opportunities to learn firsthand from others and get in the habit of thinking big are worth the effort.
Strategies to Think
Despite what you just learned about taking action, there are of course many occasions that require you to plan and analyze the facts before jumping in. I have said that writing a business plan is unnecessary when you are running your startup lean. But this does not imply that you should never write down a word about how you plan for your business to unfold. The analysis part is important, but it should never overtake and dominate the action part. If you remember that, then the following strategies will help you tackle certain challenges in your startup from a fresh angle.
Mind Storming: The Twenty Idea Method
Author Earl Nightingale originally put forward the Twenty Idea Method.5 In a somewhat spiritual context, he noted that when a person engages in “mind storming,” the person’s consciousness expands and taps into ideas that were previously out of reach. In essence, the Twenty Idea Method comes down to putting together a list of possible solutions to a challenge you are struggling with. However, instead of just writing down 3 or 4 ideas, you force yourself to find 20 ideas in a short amount of time. The final few are often those that yield surprising insight. Repeating this practice each day for a week will help you come up with astounding solutions to problems that are unavailable if you simply try to deal with them rationally. I find this method excellent for coming up with unconventional ideas. If your entire team brainstorms together, you will have an efficient process to look at problems in a new light. How does it work? Let’s look at a basic example.
Let’s say you are struggling with your business model. You have a patent that you could let the technology licensing office (TLO) deal with on your behalf, but you want to start your own company with your intellectual property. As a business, should you sell a service, a product, or a license to manufacture the product? What are possible applications of the IP? This is a classic case for mind storming. Take out a blank piece of paper. Use pen and paper instead of a laptop, tablet, or phone—the process of writing down the 20 solutions has to be fast, so writing by hand is best. Something magical happens if you write with a pen on paper. Fiddling with a keyboard will only interfere. At the top of the piece of paper, write down the problem. In your case, this is: “What is a good business model for company X?” On the left side of the page, write the numbers 1 to 20. If there is not enough space, halve the page with a vertical line and split the numbers into two columns of 10. All the ideas should be on one page so you can always see them during the mind-storming process.
The trick is to rush yourself through this exercise. Take no more than 5 minutes to complete all 20 solutions. Set up a timer for this purpose. You begin with solution 1, which will be the most obvious one that comes to mind first. Perhaps you discussed this idea repeatedly with your co-founders, so it is nothing new. Regardless, write it down. Then advance to number 2. Same here. Number 3. And so on. Around number 10, the obvious ideas will run out. This is where the magic begins to happen. Whatever comes to mind from here on, write it down quickly. Some ideas may seem silly, but this is OK. Keep going until you have come up with 20 ideas. Then review them, and choose the three that you like best. They may be hybrid ideas, cobbled together from several different ideas. Elaborate further on those three, and find out in more detail whether they are feasible and how they apply to your startup situation.
Mind storming can be on your daily agenda for a while. You will be surprised by the strange ideas you and your team can produce. It can help to involve an outsider without domain knowledge when mind storming. Outsiders often see a problem from a completely different angle and may bring an unexpected viewpoint to your process.
Think on Paper
Never begin the day until you have finished it on paper, wrote business philosopher Jim Rohn. In a seminar on business strategy in the 21st century, he detailed his suggested practice of making several lists to guide you through the day, the week, the month, and the entire year.6 After all, a successful week consists of successful days, a successful month of successful weeks, and a successful year of successful months. If you have a written outline of what you wish to achieve each day, you will have a higher chance of staying on course. There is far less danger of losing focus when unexpected distractions come up. You do not have to go to extremes and obey your day planner without any autonomous thinking or spontaneity. However, writing your thoughts and tasks on to-do lists is a good idea.
In addition to doing daily planning, make other short lists for everything that is important. Writing it down clears your mind and frees up brain power for other tasks. If you call someone about business, make a brief outline of what you would like to talk about and what the next steps are. If you go to a meeting, make a list of the items you want solved and how they will be addressed with the next steps. You can discard these lists immediately after you have completed them. They simply serve the purpose of organizing and structuring your ideas before you discuss them with other people.
I often make a list in the evening on which I write down things to do the next day. I also have a weekly list with three larger goals or milestones for the week. If there are still items on the daily to-do list in the evening, I make a concerted effort to complete them or move them to the next day. This is OK as long as it still allows reaching the three weekly milestones. Another list I have is the not-to-do list.7 These are actions to avoid, mostly time wasters and distractions. This list is a great reminder to put up next to your computer. Experiment with what works well for you. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for thinking on paper.
You have probably heard of mind maps, popularized by author Tony Buzan.8 You may already be an avid mind mapper, or you may hardly use them at all. I find them helpful at times to summarize processes or books and bring them into a larger context. For brainstorming, however, I rarely use mind maps. For that purpose, I prefer the linear format of the Twenty Idea Method. Mind maps work better for me as a context tool. Figure 6-3 shows a mind map of the book The Innovator’s DNA.9
Figure 6-3. Mind map of the book The Innovator’s DNA
Everybody has their own mind-mapping technique. I organize mind maps of books by chapters. Each of the chapters contains other nodes that I can expand with a click. Such a summary can be intuitive and straightforward for presenting the book’s highlights to others.
Mind mapping is not for everyone, though. Some people find it cumbersome and prefer to write summaries with bullet points. I use both, depending on my mood. Try it to see whether it works for you. Plenty of free software is available that allows you to experiment with mind mapping and determine its usefulness for you. You can of course also use old-fashioned paper, but I prefer software for mind mapping because it permits painless archiving and retrieval even years later. The digital format also makes it easy to share mind maps with others.
Just Ten More Minutes
This is not a strategy by itself; it is more an add-on to give you a quick boost. When you are exhausted and have about had it with a task or problem, make it a point to spend just ten more minutes on it before you wrap up. Set a timer or alarm, and then give it all you’ve got. This will focus your thinking and assure you that after ten minutes, you can let it go.
It is surprising what this approach can do for you. There are projects where close to 80% of my good ideas happened in these last ten minutes. Try it, and see if it works for you.
Limiting the time remaining can also motivate your team. For example, if you are at the end of a two-hour brainstorming session that has failed to produce any good results, instead of finishing up and rescheduling the entire session, just give it ten more minutes. If you buckle down, you may think of your best ideas right then and there.
Most successful people I know visualize in one way or another. This simply means thinking in pictures. Successful golfers and tennis players do it. So do actors and singers, hedge-fund managers and CEOs. They see an action or event step by step many times in their mind and imagine the perfect execution and result. If Roger Federer uses visualization, why shouldn’t you?
Assume that tomorrow you will give an important presentation about your research startup to a government delegation. As the team lead, you will have the honor of introducing the project in a five-minute speech that explains how your technology is useful in infrastructure planning. For a week, you have chiseled your speech, memorized it, practiced it in front of the mirror, and annoyed your friends and family with its details. Now, on the eve of the critical day, you lie awake in bed and fret about all that could possibly go wrong. Should you have prepared differently? Should you rewrite the entire speech again? It will hardly do anything for you to say the speech out loud from memory one more time. There is also nobody left to give you further feedback on it. It is your responsibility now to make it work.
In a situation like this, visualization can instill great confidence and calm. Make sure nobody disturbs you for a while. Close your eyes, and imagine walking up to the podium. You tap the microphone, welcome the audience, and give a speech that would have made John F. Kennedy envious. There is a standing ovation at the end, and the government delegation commissions a large project from your startup on the spot. You go celebrate with a magnum bottle of champagne, and then … The rest is for you to imagine. You see how this works: imagine the perfect outcome for about five minutes with great intensity. If you are nervous right before the speech, briefly visualizing everything going perfectly can also help you calm down. It may feel silly the first few times, but visualization has helped countless successful people master sticky situations with bravado.
Many more productivity and time-management techniques exist in the literature. The ones outlined in this chapter are among those that I use daily. Of course, I am not proposing that you practice them compulsively in every situation. But when you are stuck, they may help get you and your team moving forward again.
1C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).
3Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierny, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (New York: Penguin, 2011).
4Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (Meriden, CT: The Ralston Society, 1937).
5Earl Nightingale, Lead the Field (Wheeling, IL: Simon & Schuster Audio/Nightingale-Conant, 1986).
6Jim Rohn, The Weekend Seminar (Lake Dallas, TX: Jim Rohn International, 1999).
7Dan S. Kennedy, No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs (Irvine, CA: Entrepreneur Press, 2004).
8Tony Buzan, The Mind Map Book (New York: The Penguin Group, 1993).
9Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2011).