My primary goal in becoming a professor was to turn my (hoped-for excellent) research and teaching into startups. For that reason I created the Startupinformatik program and set-up my teaching to support it. Sadly, I’ve been noticing over the years that things don’t seem to get easier but harder. Specifically, “the system” (I’ll explain below) seems to view professors with mistrust rather than as the natural allies they should be when it comes to leading students to create a startup.
A few days ago, I participated in a panel on entrepreneurship in the beautiful but small city of Göttingen, Germany. While a university town, it isn’t exactly the Silicon Valley either, much like my current home town of Erlangen.
Thus, on the panel, I ran into the usual German morals on what makes a good entrepreneur, respectively, how to treat one:
I just returned from a presentation (and panel discussion) about entrepreneurship and Startupinformatik, my structured approach to creating student startups from a computer science Master’s program. Below, please find the slides of my presentation.
Für Uni1 (http://uni1.de) suchen wir mindestens einen weiteren technischen Mitgründer (oder frühen Angestellten, wenn weniger Risiko gewünscht ist).
Uni1 will die Zusammenarbeit zwischen Unternehmen und Hochschulen weltweit revolutionieren. Uni1 hat bereits Kunden und basiert auf einem erprobten Konzept. Wir können zur Zeit wg. (noch nicht) ausreichender Softwareunterstützung leider nicht skalieren.
Today, I was in two places at once. I participated in the Offener IT Gipfel of Germany’s green party where I had been invited to give a talk on open source and to participate in a panel moderated by a member of the German national parliament.
I was also present at the Hochsprung Award ceremonies by way of a video recording where we received first prize for our Startupinformatik concept for creating student startups from our computer science Master program.
I would usually would have chosen to be in Erlangen to receive the award in person, however, I had long been announced in the Offener IT Gipfel program and could not withdraw, after the Hochsprung-Awards had been decided. My students represented me well.
As part of being a professor, I’m trying to motivate student startups. Here, I want to talk about student startups coming out of a Master’s program. These are different from startups coming out of my research lab, which are based on work with my Ph.D. students. Master student startups are typically smaller, not based on significant intellectual property, and my working relationship with the team has been much shorter than with my Ph.D. students.
What are the three most important factors that make a startup successful? As the old saying goes: Team, team, and team. There is plenty of advice on the web on finding and building teams. I have a bit to add to this as well, but will do so in a different post. Here, I would like to focus on the next two most important success factors, which are product and passion. Without a good product there is no money to be made, and without passion, the startup will fall apart too quickly.
Sadly, being a student, having a good product idea, and having passion for it are factors that are hard to align. The following figure helps illustrate the problem.
A student of mine pointed me to this article about who founds companies. It is a well-known fact (or at least lore as I have no reference at hand) that the highest success rate as a founder is with those around age 40 (38 according to the article). At that age, a founder has worked in his or her industry, knows it well, is connected, and probably has a reasonable business idea to begin with.
The article referenced above, however, wrongly suggests the next big-time entrepreneur will be one of those fourty-somethings. Maybe. But statistically, despite the high success rate, not likely. Why? Because business ideas that someone at that age typically comes up with are “reasonable” and “rational” and “rooted in reality”. Because they are based on a lot of experience. Which may well blind the entrepreneur to the more far-out ideas that, if successful, provide the home-runs that VCs are looking for.