I have two lives (My thoughts on combining science and entrepreneurship)

Do you know me through the startup world? Or through Workshoppa? And did you know that I actually spend most of my day time doing something else than business? Not enough people know this. And even though it’s a bit wrong to think that – I’m writing this post also to justify a certain lack of progress in my company, my lack of ambition to take it to the next level and why I sometimes say ‘no’ to good opportunities.

“I’m a pharmacist with a career in sciences, doing my Ph.D. in structural biology.”

Baam, now even you know this.

Some people from the scientific community around me also know that I actually run my own company. However, I think I will need to talk about this more in that social bubble too – to justify a certain lack of ambition in my research. How do these two worlds meet in me? How do I juggle in between? Do they sometimes clash? And how’s doing a Ph.D. surprisingly similar doing business?

What it means to do a Ph.D.

In my Ph.D. studies the absolutely most important part is research. The lab work, the data analysis, making progress in several projects in parallel, keeping up with the progress in the field by reading scientific papers. I’m going to explain my research in one of my future blog posts.

As if this wasn’t enough – large part of my Ph.D. is teaching. I supervise students for thesis projects and I teach laboratory exercises in undergraduate courses. I also need to study myself. (After all, I’m a Ph.D. student. Even though here in Sweden, unlike in other countries, being a postgraduate actually comes with employment and a salary.) There is a certain amount of credits I need to collect in courses throughout my Ph.D.

Part of my undergrad education as a pharmacist was an internship in a hospital.

No research is useful unless it’s shared with the scientific community. (Not everybody has this point of view.) That is why part of being a good researcher is also to write scientific articles about one’s findings and to present one’s results on various scientific conferences.

I hope you get an idea about what it means to be a Ph.D. student in natural sciences (other fields might be very different). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining here! I love the diversity of the tasks! I just wanted to point out the complexity of the job. When doing a Ph.D. the requirement of being able to effectively manage one’s time and all the projects is high. So is the requirement of being able to quickly jump from one task to another while not loosing focus.

I’m a scientist AND an entrepreneur

Starting ones own business is so much like this. An entrepreneur has to perform many very different tasks like business development, finding money, networking, marketing, managing social media, making websites, doing book-keeping, studying the market, customer support, recruiting team members, the tasks simply never end.

Good project management skills are absolutely crucial for succeeding in both research and building a startup. Doing both at the same time? Get ready to sky-rocket your management skills or to drown in chaos.

Combining doing my Ph.D. and running my business at the same time is extremely challenging. It was especially hard in the beginning but I have now learned how I work best and how to best plan my days so that I feel comfortable with my progress in both parts of my life. I’m currently employed on 70% at Lund University and I spend the rest (30% plus evenings plus weekends) running Workshoppa. Getting a 30% long-term unpaid leave was a piece of cake and I thank LU deeply for supporting this decision! If you are thinking about starting your own company but you are not ready to leave the comforts of your job – this might be something you could try.

There is another aspect that is scarily similar between starting a business and doing a Ph.D. – the roller-coaster. The ups and the down which are an absolutely inevitable part of both. Only the persistent ones win. In both.

Why scientists should get a salesman training

Sure there are parts that are completely different – tasks that I had to learn almost from scratch when starting my business and that research haven’t prepared me for. One of those skills is talking to people. I think of ‘talking to people’ as a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, a skill that is absolutely necessary in business and very neglected in science.

It sounds like a cliché but I have seen it too many times. Often scientists suck at human interaction, especially when it comes to talking to new people. At least in Sweden it’s true. And I was guilty as well. Mingling and networking on conferences was encouraged while non-existent. Everybody would just end up talking to their colleagues from the same group/department instead of learning about what kind of science happens next door and how could that be exploited. Standing on a poster sessions trying to ‘sell’ my project and make people I never met interested in my science was part of my nightmares.

Here is something: I can feel how I’m gradually becoming better and better at this, being forced by the needs of my startup.

All the pitching training, all the networking events, all the demo-days. All this helps me to become a better scientist.

The same way how I’m pitching my business idea I have learned to pitch my research project. I’m better at convincing even non-scientists that my research is interesting. (Wait until I try to convince you!)

We have plenty to learn from the entrepreneurs. We in the scientific community need to become better at talking about our research to each other, at making human connections and also at communicating our research to the broad public. This is why I believe that all researchers should get a salesman training.

Living two lives? Not forever.

I transfer my newly acquired people skills, presentation and networking skills to become a better scientist. I use my time management methods I learned doing science to become a better entrepreneur. Not being able to (read not wanting to) do either my Ph.D. or my business full time comes with a price. The progress in each of them is rather slow. And I feel like I need to justify this out loud.

If you read carefully the opening paragraphs, you have probably noticed that I wrote I wasn’t particularly ambitious neither in my research nor in my company. Dividing my attention and living two lives that are quite independent on each other has caused that I have divided how I identify myself. I love both of my lives but I believe both of them are in my world as a part of a bigger plan which yet remains for me to discover.