This is the final installment of the series on Academic Entrepreneurship! We’ve covered a lot of ground in the past few weeks: 1) the three questions everyone must answer before starting a new venture, 2) the difference between an academic and entrepreneurial mindset and 3) how to select a delivery mechanism for your big idea. If you’ve been following along, you’ve identified a problem, designed your unique solution and selected a way to deliver it, so now it’s time to move into action.
Whether your big idea involves starting a new campus initiative, launching a new business, or organizing for change in your community, at a certain point you have to take the first step forward! And the best way to do that is to get out there and start connecting with other human beings to start making your big idea a reality. At the beginning, I think it’s easiest to start by doing things that will simultaneously enable you to test your idea while building a dream team of partners, mentors, fellow innovators, beta testers, and virtual assistants.
Get Into Conversation With Potential Partners
The single biggest mistake I see people with great ideas make is to try to birth their big idea in isolation. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to create a lactation room in your department, start a new journal in your field, create a nonprofit center to support undocumented students, or establish a consulting practice based on your research expertise -- you cannot do it by yourself. Ideas need collaborators, supporters, thought-partner, sponsors and funders to get off the ground. So why not use your answer to the questions in the first column (the problem I want to solve is ______________; my unique solution is __________________) to start having conversations with people who might have similar interests and/or be aligned with your passion project. These may be people on campus or off, but the key is to start getting comfortable discussing your big idea in the spirit of making connections with others and staying open to possibilities you cannot currently imagine.
Seek Out the Right Mentors
If you want to do something you’re never done, achieve something you’ve never achieved, or go somewhere you’ve never been, ask someone who has done, won, or been where you want to go! It really is that simple: the best mentors are the people who have what you want and can tell you how to get it. The mere act of identifying people who have done what you want to do (whether it’s obtaining an NIH grant, starting a successful business from home, or founding a national organization) is a valuable activity because it requires you to get specific about what you want, who has it, and how you can get connected to those people.
Put Yourself Into a Community of Innovators
Whenever you’re doing something different from what you have done for a large portion of your professional career (e.g., teaching, research and service in a university context), it means you will need to learn new skills, new ways of thinking, and develop a new component of your identity. This process is easiest and fastest if you plug into a supportive group of people who are doing the same thing. If you want to create change on your campus, plug into a group of change agents from different campuses to share information, ideas and strategies. If you want to build a business, plug into a local (or virtual) group of entrepreneurs. If you want to start a nonprofit, guess what? Find a supportive group of people who are also in the process of building organizations. It’s hard to create something from scratch (even if you have the right partners, the right mentors, and the right resources), so you want to surround yourself with a community of fellow innovators who can provide emotional support, networking, and celebration of each other’s wins.
Gather a Group of Beta Testers
While you’re out there building a supportive network, don’t forget the most valuable part of your dream team: beta testers. All I mean by that is people who have the problem you want to solve and are eager to experiment with solutions. You’re going to want to start experimenting pretty quickly with delivering your solution. And I encourage you to do so by putting together pieces, calling them the “beta version,” and allowing a small group of people who enjoy testing things out give it a try. Calling something a “beta version” allows it to be less than perfect, empowers participants to report problems (bugs), and enables you to collect feedback throughout the process. When you find a devoted group of beta testers, they become some of the most valuable members of your dream team.
Get Familiar With Flexible Resources
You may find that there are a number of administrative tasks that need to get to done, but you don’t have time to do them. Most academic entrepreneurs don’t realize that flexible resources are amazing assets when you are trying to get a new venture off the ground. Virtual assistants, freelancers, specialists, and contract workers exist for almost any task you need done. Sites like elance.com and odesk.com are full of people with all kinds of specialized skills who can help you for a few hours per month or per week as you get up and running. They can do everything from bookkeeping, organizing travel arrangements, completing forms, designing presentation materials, creating web pages, etc. You can have a virtual team supporting you that can grow as your new venture grows.
I’m not suggesting you have to put all these things in place at once. I’m merely describing five different ways you can start moving forward this week that will help you to start getting your idea out there and building your dream team.
This week I challenge you to:
1) Start networking for potential partners, sponsors, and collaborators. At a minimum, say your answer to the following question out loud, to another human being: the problem I want to solve is ______________; my unique solution is __________________
2) Ask yourself: who could be great mentor for my big idea? Create a list of people who have done what you want to do and contact the top three to ask if you can have a brief conversation.
3) Check your local Meetup to see if there’s a group of innovators that you could meet up with for peer support, networking, and sharing information.
4) Spend 5 minutes brainstorming who could potentially serve as beta testers.
5) Take a look at what needs to get done and ask yourself if it needs to be done by you. If not, visit elance.com.
As we close out this series, I’m sending you lots of supportive energy as you bring your big idea into reality!
Peace and Profitability,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD
President and CEO, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity