4th March 2014 Boston, USA

Discovering what it takes to be an entrepreneur

When I was a college student in chemistry (not that long ago), the general career goal associated with “making it” in my field involved thinking big – as in working for big university or big company. While entrepreneurship certainly existed back then, it hadn’t made it very far into my world. The only entrepreneurs I knew in college were mainly software developers, and my friends and I thought they were pretty crazy to risk their careers on a different sort of thinking big – thinking that their own ideas were big enough to make it.

A decade later and everything has changed! Big companies don’t seem so big anymore. Faculty positions at big universities are more and more competitive as federal funding for research continues to be an uncertainty. And the strange thing is… students are okay with that. They’ve learned that their ideas might just be big enough, and many of the brightest students are likely going to make the leap into entrepreneurship before they even graduate college.

A month ago, I continued my own education to find out just what it takes today to take the leap into entrepreneurship, through enrolling in the Entrepreneurship Development Program at the Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For six days, I became immersed in the world of an entrepreneur, forming a team with some of my classmates to go through the business planning process for a life sciences technology. Here’s a bit about what I learned:

Success is earned or lost with the customer. As a consumer, when I think about a company, I think about their product and service… but if you are company, you should be thinking about your customer first. I was surprised to learn when I began reading Professor Bill Aulet’s book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship (a very easy read, and with fantastic cartoons by my EDP classmate Marius Ursache) that 14 of Bill’s 24 steps of disciplined entrepreneurship were related to the customer and only 10 were related to building and scaling the product. Honestly, I would’ve thought that it would have been the other way around. However, when I was working in my team, every decision that we ended up making in our business plan came back to our customer persona – who would buy our product, how would they decide to buy it, and what would make them use it (and/or keep using it)?

This was the most difficult part about the team process. Each of us in the beginning had a very different vision for what our (fake) company would look like and what its business focus should be, and our team leader also had a very real investment in figuring out the best way to pursue the company outside of class (he held the IP to the promising life science technology we were again, fake commercializing). It took us three and a half days within the course to settle on a customer persona and a value proposition, which I am estimating to be six months real-time* for an actual entrepreneur. (*Estimation based solely on the quantity of melodramatic fighting that took place within MIT hallways during team working sessions and not based upon an actual mathematical formula derived by MIT… though I bet there is one.)

A good team doesn’t guarantee success, but a bad team (or no team at all) will destroy a company’s potential. In class, we discussed case studies of what makes a good start-up team, and the qualities of unsuccessful ones. In our teams, we learned that just through practice. It took a long time for my team to come together, and we weren’t the only team that faced this problem. Many of us were used to performing very different roles based upon our backgrounds and/or our day jobs, and we had to make big adjustments and big compromises to come together. All of those twists and turns ended up being worth it – the discord meant that we considered every angle, and fought (literally) for progress. If we had all just agreed with one another at the outset, we likely would have missed something. My team placed first in the business pitching competition portion of the course, and though the technology that we were pitching likely has a very bright future, and though the financials for our company were expertly done by people way more experienced in finance than I will ever be, our first place prize is a reminder to me to be a good team player first, and that we only succeeded because we were able to pull together our team dynamic enough to compromise.

Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be just about starting a company. Though I’m not sure it was completely the point of the course, I realized that many of the lectures contained case studies that were applicable to my day job in the Science and Innovation Network. Entrepreneurs exist within large organizations too, and I look forward to applying some of my learning and development towards building exciting UK-US links in science this year.

About Sarah Hokanson

Dr Sarah Hokanson joined the Science & Innovation team at the British Consulate General in Boston in January 2013 after finishing a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Sarah has…

Dr Sarah Hokanson joined the Science & Innovation team at the British Consulate General in Boston in January 2013 after finishing a NIH post-doctoral fellowship at Cornell University. Sarah has a love for discovery, whether it be uncovering the answer to a scientific question or getting to the end of a very good book. Graduating with B.A. degrees in Chemistry and English from Boston University and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 2010. Sarah’s work focuses on identifying New England leaders in bioscience innovation and building connections between the New England and UK scientific and technical communities. When Sarah is not working to facilitate scientific collaborations, she is busy pursuing independent research questions such as, “Does cake flour really produce fluffier cupcakes?” (She has since found that cake flour makes a really big difference.) Sarah also helps to organize events for the Boston University alumni club.