My transition from academia to entrepreneurship
The first image that comes to my mind when I think of my first months as entrepreneur is being overwhelmed by a whirlpool. I needed a change, and I tell you, boy, it was a huge change!
I am happy of having left Academia. It has been a hard choice; I have been doing research in theoretical chemistry for 15 years, almost half of my life. I had the tenure many of my older colleague still dream of, good funding, decent publication track record using the controversial, yet commonly adopted metrics based on H-index and impact factor. My life was safe and plain. Too safe! Too plain!
I don’t want to bore you with the reasons that eventually brought me to change career and face the uncertainty of starting a business. I would only tell what I was feeling: a desire to know the world outside Academia, to use my intelligence and the skills I have developed to do something different.
Figuring out what that “something different” was took me almost 3 years. One more year to make the decision. This time period served me to discover myself, how I relate with the external world, and what my aspirations are. I realized that what I loved of research was (1) dealing with intellectually challenging problems, (2) the freedom of organizing my own work, and (3) learning new things. This translates to “I want to do whatever I like, with no boss telling me what to do, with no regular schedule, and time to learn from different sources”. Can you imagine how to put it nicely in a cover letter for a job application? I wonder why my job search was a failure!
The possibility of starting a business came up all of a sudden when a friend told me his idea: a new concept for an online travel app! He was looking for a co-founder and managing director, and there I was! I boldly faced the challenge, and co-founded super-commuter.com, aware of the high uncertainty and of the high risk of failure. The uncertainty didn’t scare me much, after having been many years in close contact with quantum mechanics. As for the risk, well….wasn’t my professional life too safe and too plain?
Only few months have passed, and I can tell you that, starting a business, I could realize the conditions for my dream job: no boss, challenging problems, continuous learning and freedom. I also feel the excitement, passion and drive that I used to experience in my first years as researcher. I am working harder than I have ever had, but I am so focused and motivated that I hardly notice it. Believe it or not, in spite of dealing with a business completely unrelated to my theoretical background, I also discovered that many of the skills I developed in the past years have come very useful. I made two algorithms (patent application pending) that allow to lower the price of combination of repeat flights, I have written blog entries, talked and presented to investors my arguments, gone through the numbers and simulated different business scenarios. All with a methodical, scientific and rigorous approach.
Are you wondering why I mentioned a whirlpool in the first line of this post? It’s mostly for the swirling pace in decision making. As CEO I often have to assess situations and take decisions without much information available. In a lab setting, I would wait for more data and better statistics to elaborate a theory or design an experiment. In this case, the startup is an ongoing experiment itself. The decisions I make are part of the experiment. The outcome? Hopefully it will be good; statistically it won’t; personally, it has been amazingly enriching since the first day.