Ten Years of Student Startups

A main reason why I became a professor is to create and guide student startups, in general, and from my research projects in particular. It has been a bumpy ride, to say the least, but I guess, every learning curve is. Data points (startups) are still not plenty, but I can nevertheless discern some learnings. Without further ado, the usual bullet list of insights:

Learning is by person. Large companies can talk about organizational memory and capabilities building all they want, in a startup, knowledge walks in the door (and out) by person. A new person basically starts over and makes all the same mistakes the person they replace also made… two years later. So, avoid losing good people.

Access to talent. Despite being at the source (university), access to talent is uneven. While I can find excellent engineers and help grow them, access to capable business students has been less easy. Despite outreach efforts (e.g. startup events) I have less of a history with them (than with my engineers) so attracting and hiring them is harder.

Experience matters. I’m generally able (and fortunate) to find really smart students. But even their skills and hard work can’t compensate for lack of experience. What to make of an engineer-turned-business person, who calculates revenues using the e notation (scientific notation)? So, recruit experienced people early on.

Protect your startups. German universities are state-funded and broadly protected. As a consequence, performance doesn’t matter as much as it should, turning startups into objects of prestige and desire (rather than real reputation and bread winners). I had at least one startup shot down by a colleague, so hide and protect yours.

Looking outside. With uneven access to talent , I have started to look outside the walls of the university for business talent. This goes against much of the stories of how the hard-pushing student team can go it alone all the way, but this is sailor’s yarn anyway. So, I recommend you network widely outside the halls of academia.

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