4 Things That Make Professors Great Startup Executives—And 4 Things That Make Them Terrible

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Whether from computer science, engineering, biotech, or medicine, professors at major research universities live their professional lives on the cutting technological edge, teaching and doing research on the frontiers of their field, disseminating and advancing new knowledge that helps further the state-of-the-art. It is no surprise that many professors, at some point during their careers, hit upon ideas that can bring near-term value to the marketplace. When this happens, professors are faced with the possibility of being startup founders, taking a leave of absence from their academic duties to commercialize their innovations, raise venture capital, build a team, grow a business and deliver value to customers. Most professors did not get their Ph.D.s to become entrepreneurs, but sometimes the desire for impact and the lure of a big win can entice even the most ivory-tower types.

So how do professors fare as startup executives? As a professor at the University of Washington Information School and as CEO of AnswerDash, I have spent nearly three years undergoing the transformation described above. As with all comfort-zone-stretching life journeys, I have come away with more self-knowledge than I thought possible. Some of it is positive and some I’d rather not admit, but all of it is valuable for any startup executive to consider—professor or not. Below are the strengths and weaknesses of professors as startup executives. Do you see yourself in any of these tendencies?

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Four Strengths of Professors-turned-Executives

  1. Undeniable work ethic. Professors at top-tier research institutions represent only a tiny fraction of people awarded Ph.D.s. They often got hired as one person out of an applicant pool numbering in the hundreds or even thousands. Their central professional mission is to advance the generalizable knowledge of their field—not an easy thing to do. Professors who succeed at all this do so because they know how to work incredibly hard and stay focused for years on end—exactly what startup founders must do.
  2. Good writers and presenters. Professors ultimately must communicate their scientific findings through writing and speaking. Although we all know some nerdy academics who get lost in their own details, most accomplished professors are actually very good at teaching and presenting, which can help when convincing others to fund or join a startup team.
  3. Experienced at leading small teams to accomplish great things. Most research in science, engineering, and technology fields occurs in small teams of fewer than ten individuals. Professors lead these teams of collaborators in coordinated efforts that have budgets, plans, timelines and deliverables. This kind of project management experience makes professors well suited to leading small teams, exactly like those in early-stage startups.
  4. Close to the secret sauce. Many successful technology startups are based on some “secret sauce” that gives them an advantage over competitors. Nobody is closer to the secret sauce or in a better position to create it than professors who spend their days pursuing scientific breakthroughs. This access to breakthroughs can be a big asset to any founding executive team.
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Four Weaknesses of Professors-turned-Executives

  1. Poor delegators. Professors often have a hard time delegating because they achieved much of their success through individual heroics. Relying on others can be difficult, but every successful executive must cultivate those working for them.
  2. Too focused on the details. In science, engineering, and technology research, getting the details right can be the difference between a trustworthy result and a botched one. But in business, getting the details right is only helpful if the overall strategy is sound. It is easy for professors to focus on details and sometimes neglect the larger strategic arc.
  3. Placing too much emphasis on novelty. Research is about knowledge discovery, which requires that ideas and findings be novel. Follow-on research is rarely given as much credit as the first investigation into an unexplored idea. In business, novelty is of limited value. Being best is better than being first. Facebook certainly was not the first social network but it was the best of its kind. Microsoft has rarely been first at anything.
  4. Uncomfortable with visionary claims. Professors are careful not to overstate their research findings. Solid, repeatable evidence is required before making claims. But in a startup business, a founder must sell a vision—a state of the world that has not yet happened, but could. Claims about the future are usually required before that future can be realized.

Nobody is born an Executive

Every startup executive was something else before they decided to make miracles. Nobody is born an executive and everybody must learn which of their prior skills improve their performance and which hinder it. It comes down to having self-knowledge of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of whatever jobs anybody has held, having self-knowledge is the most important—and most difficult to develop—skill of all. Only then can we play to our strengths and avoid our pitfalls.