Sunday, December 6, 2009


Life could be so easy. I'm on track for the PhD, I'm doing interesting research, and in two or three years I could be Dr. Outlier. Humming along, busily researching away in my comfortable niche.

I've always expected that after picking up my final diploma I'd go to work for a startup, or be somehow involved in an entrepreneurial venture. In fact, I've made my PhD minor "entrepreneurship."

And that has led me to take a class about how to start a company, where I am working on a business idea with a team. The good news is that the idea turns out to be a very good one, and throughout the class the signs have all been positive. Inspection of the finances shows that the business could be worth millions in several years. (And I'm an engineer, remember - so I don't throw those numbers around lightly or without justification.)

And now, dear internet, life gets complicated. I'm at the point now where I have to decide whether I want to take the idea from a class project into actuality. Now is the point where things become suddenly, frighteningly real.

First I have to decide if the idea is worth pursuing. Yes, I have decided, it is. 

Then I decide if the team I have is a) willing to go forward with the business, and b) the right team to work with. In the case of a), I think that all my team members are excited about moving forward. Unfortunately in the case of b), they are not the right team. For this idea, we need three people - a technical person, a business development/finance person, and a sales/marketing person.

I already cover the technical role. None of my team are sales/marketing people. And the two business people are not at the right stage in life to launch a company - they have wives, and jobs to go back to after they finish their MBA degrees. There is a thing called a "risk profile" or a "risk tolerance," and all founding members of a business need to have the same risk level. A married man with two small children will bail out long before a young, unattached grad student willing to live on beenie-weenies to make the company succeed. So am I prepared to hand out pink slips to my teammates?

And then, I have to think - do I know the right people for the team? And yes, I do. Would they want to work with me? Yes, I think they would.

So now the question comes down to me. Do I want to start this company? CAN I do this while still doing a PhD? If I get an investor to sign over a quarter million to me to start this business, I can't tell him I'm just going to work on the side - I have to be ready to dedicate myself to the startup. So am I willing to GIVE UP the PhD (even if only temporarily) to go after this? I mean, it worked okay for Bill Gates.

So do you give up the good thing you have going, to go after what might be a better thing?


  1. What options does your grad program afford you? Could you take a year or two hiatus and then come back? Does the idea for the company have enough to do with your research that you could use it for your thesis?

    Are there any professors in your grad program that you could talk to about your options?

  2. I am finishing my PhD (thesis submitted) with a minor in entrepreneurship too.