The National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program (I-Corps) is not a resource for entrepreneurs to get free money to nurse their startups along the road to nowhere. Nor is it a business plan competition where there is only one winner and everyone else feels like a failure.
It’s a calling.
Being a technical entrepreneur – or any type of entrepreneur, for that matter – is not a job. It’s something you do because each morning, when you wake up, and each evening, when you go to sleep, and even when you wake up during the night… you are thinking about your idea. Not worrying about your idea. You are brainstorming because of what you did during the previous day and with whom you spoke and what you read. And how all that inspired you.
That’s entrepreneurship. It’s a passion.
I spent the last three days guest-mentoring a technical team from MIT-Harvard at the I-Corps training program hosted by the University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship. And while it’s one thing to read Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany, and Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation, it’s quite another thing to see it played out among 27 academic technical teams from across the nation.
It’s a glorious living, breathing, dynamic pageant.
27 teams. Collaborating, not competing, with each other. Because everyone’s already been awarded the grant to participate. It’s the most major scientific and entrepreneurial blind date I can think of. You come together and, yes, you’ve got your own team to consider. Yet you are inspired to collaborate with everyone else’s venture, as well. You present your proposition in front of one another. You offer feedback to one another. You take your hits. You lick your wounds. You pick yourself up. You move forward.
That’s entrepreneurship. It’s a passion.
The Innovation Corps program is all about Customer Discovery. It’s about talking to real, live, potentially paying customers. For academic technical researchers who are used to attending peer conferences and publishing papers to earn tenure, it’s an uncomfortable requirement. Getting out of the building. Getting out of the university womb. Talking to customers who: 1) may not be your peers, 2) may not be technical, and 3) may hold the power to make decisions about your future.
How many grant dollars do you win each year for research projects which are purely intellectual pursuits and may never see the light of day for the greater good of society? What if your NSF funding were also based on the commercialization potential of the research? Would that change the types of students you select for your lab? Would that change the types of grant applications you submit? I think you’re catching my drift.
If you want to be an entrepreneur – and I don’t care if you have a sandwich stand in downtown wherever or whether you are going to cure diabetes – you must understand the environment in which your customers make decisions. You can’t hire marketing and sales people to have these conversations and create your markets for you, after you’ve devoted all your time to creating a product or platform that nobody wants. You must be able to articulate what it’s all about, not just to investors, but even to your employees… and your customers.
Entrepreneurship is a humbling experience. You will doubt yourself. You will question your motives. And then, you begin to leave your ego at the door. You start having customer conversations that “click.”
It’s about speaking to people. Simply. About the stuff that matters. To you both.
You are not your title, your education, your job description. It’s all about understanding your market, and what gives your customers pain, and just who those customers are. It’s about aligning your business model with your customers.
Entrepreneurship used to be treated as a mini version of how mature companies are structured. That’s hardly the case. Entrepreneurial start-ups are in a different universe. So if you left a company and are thinking about starting up your own company (and bringing the bias, baggage, and business model from your previous place of employment) Lord help you. Not gonna work.
It’s about looking at yourself from the outside in, from your customers’ perspective. Not the inside out. It’s open format and interoperability. It’s absence of silos and departmental “us vs them” mindset.
It’s not just for start ups. More than a few mature companies could take a few notes from state of the art entrepreneurship.