2013-11-20

Co.Labs

A Brief Manifesto For Misfit Entrepreneurs

I came to a journalism startup from a background in engineering and business. Is outsider status really an advantage in the startup world?



“Are you a real journalist?” asked the editor on the other end of the line. “Is this what you do?” It should have been a routine call in my role with the journalism nonprofit Student Reporter, but this woman had smelled my lack of experience in the industry and balked at our paid syndication proposal. “What’s your background?” she pressed.

At that time, I was an Engineering and Business Strategy graduate research assistant at the University of Michigan, doing work in corporate sustainability strategy; my previous life before that being spent mostly in nanotechnology laboratories (“cleanrooms”), researching and developing technologies for biofuel applications. For her, journalism sounded like an “extracurricular” interest of mine. Is that such a bad thing?

Today, I work on Student Reporter professionally, and we’re on track to incorporate as a business news outlet for young people, leveraging our global network of experimental newsrooms. I’m here because I am passionate about entrepreneurship and industry transformations--especially those that are disrupted by technology and driven by altruism--and because I want to take an entrepreneurial role in the transformation, something no job I had interviewed for seemed to offer.

What Good Is Fresh Thinking?

I am certainly not alone in making an entrepreneurial career move into a new field: more than half of entrepreneurs start businesses in industries other than those in which they had previously been working. This phenomenon has been studied and written about extensively, from academic literature, to passionate entrepreneurs’ stories we see regularly on the New York Times bestsellers list.

As Noam Wasserman in his classic book Founder’s Dilemma, there are certainly disadvantages to changing industries: inexperience, lack of human and social capital, difficulty in transferring mental models developed in one industry, just to name a few. He says grimly:

Many of those founders like to believe that ignorance of the industry in which they are founding is a benefit because it leaves an opening for fresh thinking. This can be true, but the advantages of ignorance are often easily outweighed by the disadvantages of inexperience.

It is admittedly difficult to ignore these glaring disadvantages, and while “fresh thinking” sounds great as an anecdote of success for specific problems, it hardly seems to justify such industry or career changes. However, the ability to apply different frameworks to challenges, and being able to connect dots in a new (and maybe more rational) way is an important advantage that gets lost easily--especially when entrepreneurs get caught up in trying to build a narrative to justify their industry change. After all, innovation oftentimes happens at the fringes of academic disciplines and mainstream thinking.

An Entrepreneur’s Scientific Method

How can a background in engineering, sciences and research can benefit an entrepreneur? One major boon is the scientific method. One of the most common advices that investors, mentors and more experienced entrepreneurs give to young entrepreneurs is customer or market validation: “test your product before you develop the entire thing”, then “don’t be afraid to pivot.”

This is the classic scientific method.

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Form a hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis
  5. Analyze data
  6. Draw conclusions

Any scientific researcher can relate that oftentimes steps 3)~5) are reiterated over and over. Much of the time is spent in either the experimental laboratory or analyzing data, tinkering with different conditions and variables. By the time something works, we are often left incredulous, thinking, ‘something must not be right,’ because we are so used to our hypothesis being proven wrong."

In a way, entrepreneurship should be like this--a constant tinkering and testing of ideas. Entrepreneurs are constantly told not to develop the full product before testing the market, that much of our time should be spent tinkering and testing. For example, in a cleanroom laboratory (where nanoscale and microscale materials and devices are fabricated) a researcher would never batch process their substrates before making sure that all specific conditions were developed to create the prototype desired.

So what’s different? For scientist-cum-entrepreneurs, it’s easy to see the dots to connect. (We even share buzzwords--disruptive innovation, anyone?) While both scientific researchers and entrepreneurs are passionate problem-solvers, entrepreneurs have a huge uncertainty in distribution, or how you go to market and find customers. Your product can be perfect, but if you don’t have customers to pay for it, your company is not a business, but just a product developer or manufacturer.

Emergence Of The Misfit

Industry changes among entrepreneurs have been common for the some time. However, there is an emergence of the concept of misfit that notes a cultural and generational trend towards exploring other industries to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities.

The most prominent example of the misfit, is the forthcoming book Misfit Economy by Alexa Clay and Kyra Philips. Through the use of archetypes, they introduce “diverse innovators operating in the black, gray, and informal economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges.” A similar focus on “on-the-fringe” innovation and unconventional thinking is also distinct character of the author and entrepreneur Peter Sim’s newest venture BLK SHP Enterprises. In academic institutions, the MIT Media Lab comes to mind, where the director Joi Ito once told me, “we look for antidisciplinary students. If you don’t belong in a disciplinary, you belong here.”

While the institutional push for the concept of a misfit individual is helpful to encourage young entrepreneurs and innovators, there also emerges a trend to brand oneself as a misfit. Coming from my experience with academia where switching disciplines was disadvantageous, it was refreshing and comfortable to be surrounded by young entrepreneurs that seemed to have made similar jumps, from industry to industry, from discipline to discipline. The trendiness of a misfit individual provides a comfortable place, a sort of safe haven, as we are constantly struggling with trying to be marketable with expertise and experience, and at the same time, be authentic with our backgrounds.

But in the end, it’s what we do that matters, and the expertise and experience needed to do it. To be distracted or shamed by your misfit status would miss the point of being an entrepreneur--something to remember when someone asks, “so what do you do?”

[Image: Flickr user D. Sharon Pruitt]