10 Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Academics

As college graduation weekends and summer business incubator announcements loom, I thought I would take a few minutes to consider the connection between the entrepreneurship and academia.

Entrepreneurs, by definition,  take an idea or a concept and strive to make that idea into a operating business. To do this, we spend a great deal of time laying the groundwork: researching, modeling, testing, and (finally) executing to turn all of that work into a revenue-generating enterprise.

scientists, and pedagogues of all stripes – also explore ideas but in a theoretical structure. They use a rigorous and clearly articulated process of  scholarly examination to explore concepts through investigation, experimentation, analysis, and interpretation to (finally) arrive at a conclusion or support a theory. Although the scholarly process itself is not necessarily  about the actual creation of a concrete “something,” it doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs can not learn from their erudite cousins in academia. Here is a list of 10 things that academics do that can provide valuable lessons for entrepreneurs:

1. Academics research throughly.

Academics leverage scholasticism to answer questions and to resolve conflicting theories and ideas; the scholarly process is the formal methodology used by academics around the world for validating ideas and theories. Through the use of a similarly rational, meticulous and methodical approach to their businesses, entrepreneurs can also solve problems, find answers, and support theories in their own industries, markets, or companies.

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2. Academics believe in empirical data.

Through research and experimentation, academics collect data to produce or support a theory or to investigate causal relationships between actions and outcomes. Entrepreneurs should also collect and interpret accurate and appropriate data to support their business ideas and also to measure the actual outcomes of their strategies and tactics. We often hear the term “data-driven” used in the context of business decisions and the credible and careful collection of that data can lead to better decision making and a clearer understanding of the observed effects.

3. Academics are rational.

The research and experimentation that is conducted as part of the scholastic process is strictly logical, reasoned, and sensible; subjectivity should always play a negligible role in the approach researchers, scientists, and other academics take to their work. Entrepreneurs should also strive for the rational; the best decisions and the most successful strategies should be built on a foundation of data, historical fact, and cogent, well-reasoned theory.

4. Academics respect history.

By using the historical method and leveraging primary sources, scholars reconstruct facts, context, and derive meaning through past events. Entrepreneurs should always conduct their own historical research to better understand the context of their idea, the likelihood of the venture’s success, and to determine the value of a market or a business model. For instance, the use of comparable company data to make projections or imply valuation is one way entrepreneurs can leverage historical fact to help arrive at conclusions.

5. Academics review one another’s work.

The formal process of peer review allows for the credible evaluation of a scholar’s work. Peer review is most commonly associated with the publication of scholarly articles or papers, but extends to experiment design, grant proposals, and even software development. In business the concept of peer review is under-utilized; entrepreneurs can and should engage in this in an informal manner. Ross and I both speak often on the need to question your assumptions and to actively seek out disconfirming information; these ideas are analogous to the concept of peer research –  bringing in other qualified individuals to harshly question your ideas, criticize your assumptions, or review your data is a powerful way to strengthen your approach.

6. Academics experiment.

Well designed and executed experiments can provide valuable data for analysis and interpretation. This is true in the world of academia and scholarship, and equally true in business. For example, we often advise businesses to experiment with different marketing tactics and then to collect, analyze, and act on the resulting data. Scientists will design multiple experiments with the goal of proving or disproving a theory and those investigations can provide meaningful answers to serious questions; business people should emulate this diligent approach to their own experimentation.

7. Academics observe and measure.

A critical part of the experimentation process is observation and collection of data; high quality data is invaluable to the process and experiments are designed specifically to protect the integrity of the information collected. Entrepreneurs also need to practice and perfect the art of observing causal effects and measuring factual results as they design and execute business experiments such as A/B testing,  trial tactics, and marketing pilots.

8. Academics cite their sources.

Proper attribution is not just encouraged in scientific research and publication, but it is essential to the credibility of the author and the research itself. In business, too many entrepreneurs are quick to claim concepts as their own, and slow to cite the original source for their ideas. Business people may not be required to provide proper attribution, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t.

9. Academics accumulate knowledge.

Over time, scientists, researchers, and other academics have accumulated a huge store of knowledge and ideas. This mass of knowledge is celebrated and it is also incredibly valuable to other current and future scientists and researchers as well as to the world at large. Entrepreneurs can also benefit through the accumulation of business-specific knowledge and data, whether about their own ventures, experiences, and experiments or through the knowledge acquired by other entrepreneurs; writing, speaking, and participating at conferences and through professional organizations are ways that we share knowledge and build resources that can help others who travel the same road.

10. Academics learn continuously.

The goal for all of us, whether scientist or business person, is to constantly grow, constantly challenge ourselves, and constantly test new ideas. In academia this is completely normal and expected; those of us engaged in entrepreneurship can mimic this approach and add value to our own ventures by consistently seeking to acquire knowledge and to take the time to discovery, analysis, and experimentation.

Photo: Jon Tucker

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