You Can’t Start a Company at Your Desk
Technically, you can — but should not and here is why. Every startup company requires an idea (and about a dozen spare ideas). For academics this is not a problem: we produce ideas consistently in our publications. Every startup requires passion from its founders. Academics are very passionate about their work. But every startup requires a market, and that is where similarities with academia start deviating.
A typical outcome of a successful academic project is a publication. Good publications get many citations (often this is our currency). Our audience is often limited to other academics. To move our projects beyond publications and deliver our solutions in the real world, we need to find markets for it.
My journey finding a market my ideas started past summer when I founded Aikicrypt with my friend Alex. We value security very deeply. Advanced technology is at the core of what we do. To help us find a market for it and ways to communicate it with the outside world, we joined the cybersecurity factory accelerator in Boston. The accelerator provided us with a bit of funding, office space, and most importantly quality mentors.
We spent the summer iterating over our ideas with mentors, customers, partners, etc. Having good mentors for a startup is just as important as having good mentors/advisors in grad school. Our mentors were very high quality, successful entrepreneurs and top executives: Stephen Weis (founder of PrivateCore), Maxwell Krohn (founder of SparkNotes and OkCupid), Frank Catucci (Director, at Qualys), Harold Moss (Sr. Director of Strategy for Security at Akamai), and others. They helped us clarify our ideas and expand our network.
The most valuable lesson that we learned was that it is good to stay open minded about what you are building. Markets change, conditions change, competitors come and go. To succeed, you should remain dynamic and flexible, without changing the core values of the company, of course. You need to shape your technology to address market needs, but also understand budgets and sales cycles. These things are very hard to learn from an office desk. You need to get out and talk to people. We iterated and evolved our idea multiple times based on conversations we were having.
Most importantly, I think we received a new perspective on the important problems in the real-world security, and the factory helped us accelerate the learning process. I can already see how to apply these lessons (and new problems) in both academic settings and industry and look forward to future teams from the factory.