What an entrepreneur can teach an academic

Robbert van Geldrop
October 10, 2018

At the moment I’m working for a small company making software to help entrepreneurs build businesses, called Firmhouse. And as you might know, a buzzword in entrepreneurship is JFDI, or Just Fucking Do It.

As we tried to get a group of teachers into this mindset as well, one of them remarked “it’s so easy to think of all these ideas and get excited! But when you have to get out of the building and talk to people… I’d rather just continue discussing the idea instead.”

To be honest, these words could’ve come out of my mouth. I’m also an academic who moved into the entrepreneurial field. And for a reason*: *just thinking doesn’t energise me, eventually I want to make something! But even then, I sometimes notice myself shying away from taking actions.

And I believe that’s because…

We academics are taught to fear failure

If there’s one thing you’re not taught as an academic, is to just fucking do it! I once just fucking wrote that paper, but it was downgraded mercilessly because my APA-style referencing wasn’t up to scratch.

It’s what Sir Ken Robinson refers to in his famous TED-speech: we are being taught to fear being wrong. Our grades start at a 100%, and for everything we “do wrong” points are subtracted. In school, and at university, being wrong is punished.

But failure is not the problem (anymore)

Nowadays, in many fields, things are changing so fast that making mistakes is not the worst that can happen, it’s *not learning quickly enough. *And one of the best ways to learn quickly is to go out, try something, fail, learn from it, and try better.

This is something many (big) companies are starting to realise as well, hence the proliferation of internal accelerators, startup studios, workshops & bootcamps, you name it. The Lean Startup Summit counts more visitors from enterprises by now than from actual startups. And the biggest topic there is: How to get our employees to adopt the entrepreneurial mindset? To just go out and do stuff.

As an (ex-)academic I’ve been struggling with as well, and I’m still finding ways to improve on this. Here’s what the switch to the startup life has taught me:

1. A (simple) solution is often better than no solution at all.

It’s easy to want to keep working on a solution until it’s perfect, but until that time you won’t have *any *results. I learned that it’s better to have a “minimum viable solution” so you start learning quickly, *anything, *rather than keep tweaking until it’s perfect. That way you can act on improve your solution based on actual data, rather than an image in your head.

So the next time you’re trying to look for a solution for something, don’t try to make it perfect. Rather, think of: what solution could you implement the quickest, like, in the next couple of hours? Then do that! And go from there. You’ll learn from it and be able to improve based on real feedback.

2. Some things are scary for (almost) everyone.

Like going out and talking to customers. Showing your scrappy prototype to others to gather feedback. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

What sets entrepreneurs apart is not that they don’t have this fear. It’s that they push through it and go out and get that information regardless, because they know it’s the only real way to test their ideas.

And you can do that as well. It’s all about mindset.

3. JFDI only gets you so far: you have to make bets, but informed bets.

In the end, JFDI is only part of the equation for setting up a successful business. Like one of my colleagues says: Strategy eats Lean Startup for breakfast. Running experiments can teach you a lot in a short time, but if it’s on things that don’t really matter to your business it won’t be of much use after all.

That’s why you need to start out with a strategy, and know what you want to learn (first). Then you can start setting up experiments that’ll get you the data you need. Seeing the bigger picture & understanding the different moving parts of what makes your idea work is crucial for this.

The best way to learn is by doing

For many people being able to learn fast is getting more and more important in our fast-changing society. That’s why I believe there’s a lot we can learn from entrepreneurs. On adopting the beginner’s mindset and learning to deal with “failure”. And devising a strategy to learn the right things (first).

So even if thinking ought to be your job, don’t remain stuck in thought forever. Sometimes you gotta go out and Just Fucking Do It!

(just not when writing references, mind you)