Similarities between an Entrepreneur and an Academic

A Mosquito Bite Worth of Knowledge

I remember seeing this illustration (awesome illustration as well if I may add) on reddit a while ago. For some reason that image stuck with me. Maybe because my brother was also doing his Ph.D

In talking to my brother over the last few months, I’ve come to realised just how similar entrepreneurs are to academics.

Don’t think so? Let me state my non-scientific case:

  1. Assumptions: The starting point for both an entrepreneur (E) and academic (A) is an assumption.
    E: I believe the world needs a social network that targets corgi dog lovers!
    A: I posit the existence of wormholes in Alpha Centuri that will connect us to an alien race!
  2. Process: The next step is to measure, test and determine empirically if the idea holds water or not. If not, why not? What other interesting problems have been uncovered in the process that can be followed up? Is it worth pursuing those problems? This is essentially The Pivot for startups.
  3. Environment: The environment in which both practitioners operate in are fraught with detractors and uncertainty. It is also one of the most intellectually stimulating environments to be in. They are also both highly paranoid that someone might steal their idea, implement it and get rich and famous.
  4. Broke: At the very early stages, the entrepreneur and academic are both broke. If it’s anyone else who knows ramen flavours better than a broke startup entreprenuer, is a broke Ph.d student. Applying for a fellowship, grant or sponsorship from a foundation for an academic is akin to applying for venture capital for an entrepreneur.
  5. Binary payoffs: You either make it or you don’t. Your idea either catches on, hopefully before you run out of money or you fade into obscurity a.k.a deadpool. In most cases, the entrepreneur and academic would be more than happy to make a small dent on society(like in the picture above) but once in a while, a genius takes the industry to a whole paradigm and completely smashes the glass ceiling. Think Einstein/Darwin/etc and Apple/Facebook/etc
  6. Cause driven: Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is it for the money? Recognition? Status? Dave McClure is fond of saying you don’t get rich by becoming an entrepreneur. There are easier paths available. I think ultimately these two characters are driven by a need to make a difference. Sure, fame and fortune normally follow too but the crucial thing is, they won’t have it any other way. If they were to be bestowed with fame and fortune, it will have to be through the validation of an idea that they had. Not through inheritance, windfall or whatever.
  7. Timing: If your thesis as an academic involved researching the dynamics of state vs. people in todays era of internetology specifically in middle eastern countries like Egypt, you’ll probably be a rockstar now. The most recent example of such a phenomenon in startup land would probably be all the M&A in social gaming in the last few years and before that virtual worlds.

Convinced? Leave your thoughts in the comments 🙂

9 thoughts on “Similarities between an Entrepreneur and an Academic

  1. You make a good point, but where entrepreneurs and academics part ways is ambition. Academics enjoyba leisurely lifestyle, while entrepreneurs work 7 days a week, stay up late, do whatever it takes to get it to work. Academics are talkers, entrepreneurs are doers. I left the university after realizing this. Meeting after meeting filled with things “we” should do never translate into action from academics.

    • Hi Kevin,

      I’m not sure what type of academics (what discipline) you’re referring to but academics certainly don’t enjoy a leisurely lifestyle. In my field of engineering research, most PhD students and young faculty members routinely work 12 hour days and also weekends. We also have to do whatever it takes to get our research results to work out.


  2. Nice article, definitely some similarities. My buddy getting his phd has called me and my cofounder “academics” because, as he put it, “academics are intelligent but non-revenue generating.” haha.

    Re: Kevin Not sure what academics you know, or in what fields. The ones I know at top 10 engineering schools getting their phd’s work like DOGS. It is not a leisurely lifestyle, it is a lifestyle of very hard, 7-days-a-week work that is quiet unrelenting, and for very little pay. If you continue to stay in academics, it doesn’t get any easier, you have post-doc work, adjunt professor work, etc. all for little pay as well. As a computer science professor at MIT once told me, “If you’re trying to be a professor in computer science at MIT these days, from my observation your first marriage just isn’t going to last.” I think the leisurely lifestyle your thinking of is for a tenured professor, which is an extremely tough position to get these days, and usually happens in your late 30s.

  3. You are exactly right! That’s why I am starting to gain interests in starting my own startup simply because doing startup/research is fun albeit “painful” in a lot of ways. I seem to me that it’s easier to find easy-going and willing-to-help type of person in startup community than the other though.

  4. Well my friend you name of anything in this world and u can find it similar to anything else if not by fact then philosophically so it’s not just about an ENTREPRENEUR & ACADEMIC .

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