Academics and Entrepreneurs – mind the gaps

As a consultant, my clients are split 50:50 between academics and entrepreneurs. So here, if you’ll allow for some massive generalisations*, are some broad cultural differences you should bear in mind if you’re an academic who wants to bridge the gap and work with an entrepreneur.

1/ Speed. The private sector works faster than academia. Much faster. Meetings are shorter, decisions are reached sooner, there’s a real desire to move as quickly as possible from thinking to doing. The upsides to this are obvious; time is money, so stuff gets done. The downsides are that, sometimes, the wrong stuff gets done: 20% of new businesses fail in their first year. Maybe the entrepreneurs behind those businesses would have benefitted from “a little more conversation, a little less action,” to flip Elvis on his head.

Bridge the gap: Be prepared for speed. Is there any reason why a decision can’t be made quickly? If there IS a reason to act slowly, can you explain it in practical terms?


2/ Proof. Entrepreneurs are constantly thinking “what do people need, and can I make it for them, at a price that makes me money?” There are many, many layers of uncertainty built in to this simple statement. In this uncertain world, proof often means “what works for others”. Entrepreneurs are constantly scanning the horizon for this “social proof”: signs of what is working and clues as to why it might be so. Data can be part of this “social proof” picture, but so too can anecdote and intuition. 


Bridge the gap: As an academic, you should be good with data but also know its limitations when it comes to deciding on a course of action. Don’t underestimate the power of intuition or anything else that can’t be measured in data. Accept that illogical decisions sometimes make sense in an uncertain world.


3/ Risk. The market rewards entrepreneurs for taking risks. But as customers, we rarely want to make a risky purchase (think: how did you feel as you bought your last used car?) So entrepreneurs need to demonstrate, by a series of small steps, that the new product or service they are offering is not unacceptably risky. These steps are known in the investment community as “risk mitigation milestones.” If you only have an idea, you are highly risky. If you have an idea, a prototype and a paying customer, you are a bit less risky. Ten paying customers, even less risky, and so on.


Bridge the gap: if you are offering to work with an entrepreneur, what are your own risk mitigation milestones? Does “my work has been peer-reviewed” carry as much weight as “I’ve already got ten paying customers who think my expertise is worth shelling out for”? As an aside, this is what LinkedIn Recommendations are for, people!

4/ Authority. As an academic, when you talk about your subject, you operate within a rational paradigm. You know your literature, you assemble your data, you make your argument and you establish your expertise. Everyone else – entrepreneurs included – operates within the narrative paradigm, where people make sense of the world as if it’s a story.

In this worldview, anecdote feels just as powerful as data, especially if it’s an emotional story. In the narrative paradigm, we decide how much authority you deserve based on your role as a character in that story, not on your rational expertise. Do you live up to certain values, do you act “in character”? To give a practical illustration: imagine you are an expert immunologist who happens to have a five year old son. Have you had your son immunised? If the answer is no (or “no comment”), prepare to have all your expertise and rational arguments about vaccination ignored.

Bridge the gap: learn the rules of the narrative paradigm and tell proper stories about your expertise. Don’t just rely on the letters after your name and list of publications on your CV.

5/ Optimism. Forgive me a short sideways step into politics, just to illustrate my final point. My academic clients mostly think Brexit is a catastrophe. My entrepreneur clients see it as a set of problems and opportunities (and by no means the hardest set they face). This is less about politics and more about life experiences.

If you’re an entrepreneur above the age of 30, you are a problem-solver AND a survivor of the biggest economic crash in living memory. Your optimistic world-view has been tried and tested. If you are a career academic, you were insulated from the last recession. And, until Brexit, you never had your world-view so comprehensively challenged. You can still find academics who’ll argue about whether Thatcherism was a disaster for the UK, while entrepreneurs just got on with living in the world she made. The same will apply to Brexit (as ad-man Rory Sutherland recently pointed out). 

Bridge the gap: Entrepreneurs are, by nature, optimists. You’ll need to respect that spirit if you’re going to work with them. But also remember, optimists might need a realistic/pessimistic slap in the face every now and then, just to keep their feet on the ground. 

*I am an entrepreneur, my wife is an academic. She suggested putting in the line about “massive generalisations”.

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