Jun 27th 2021 | E057: How PhD Helps in Business Development and How It Makes It Harder

In this special episode for the second-anniversary of Ontology of Value, Natalia reviews five ways in which her helps in business development – and five ways in which it makes it harder.

The episode was recorded on June 27th, 2021. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the views of their current or former employer(s).

The Ontology of Value Test’s website: https://www.ontologyofvaluetest.com

00:12 Hello, this is a special episode of Career Talks since we have a second birthday of the company, which was officially established on 1st of July 2019. And today I’d like to touch one subject that I was requested to record on on many occasions! And it’s actually about business development-one of my all time favorite topics. 

00:34 I’d like to talk a little bit about all the factors in business development that my PhD helps me with, and all these ways in which it kind of makes it harder for me. I think it might be of interest to all of you who hold PhDs and who are thinking about your own company. So, some food for thought today. So, welcome!

Introduction: First Steps as a PhD In Business Development

01:05 So, first, I’d like to say that when I was thinking about what type of company I’d like to have, I was always thinking that I shouldn’t go to the funeral industry, but rather, to the wedding industry. What do I mean by that? Once upon a time, I’ve seen a funeral house next to the wedding house. And I thought to myself: “Why do some people actually choose to go for the funeral industry and deal with misery and with sadness, and all these negative emotions in their daily practice, if they can choose to go for wedding industry instead?”

01:42 And then, even if the bad times come, then from the business perspective, you always have that associated joy because you deal with people who are at a good stage of their life, and who experience something extremely joyful. To some people, it’s the best times of their lives when they get married. So, if you have a choice, what type of business to go for? Why would you ever choose to go for funeral industry?

02:11 People will always need to organize weddings and funerals. Why wouldn’t you consciously choose for the weddings? So, with that in mind, I was also thinking: “f I ever want to launch a company, I’d like to choose a subject that has to do with joy, with development, with something progressive. So that even if I have bad times in my business, I can always experience some level of joy and excitement together with my clients.”

02:51 That’s also why I went for career development and career advisory. And, I never regretted for one day that I made this choice… even in the times of Corona crisis – and I have to admit that, it was not a good time from business perspective, because when the crisis comes, people always keep their cash close and they are not as much willing to spend, especially on external courses.

03:19 Especially if you’re coaching and if you’re new in the business, then you have a hard time to develop your practice. But I never regretted because even at the worst, when my account was empty, I was still feeling that I was assisting in something important. And I was feeling extreme levels of joy whenever I saw a client finding a new job that they were excited about.

03:48 …Or, even going through some self-development exercise that was actually changing their perspective about their own lives so that were just astonished and surprised. And then, feeling joy that they realize something important about themselves that they never experienced before. So, even at the worst when I was financially at the lowest point, I still had that joy.

04:14 So, I can recommend this approach to you. If you think about launching a business, take this aspect into account – and I feel that this is an aspect that is often overlooked. But you know, if you go for this type of business that has this joyful component to it, you will never really be down. Even if you have like difficult periods when your turnover is low, you will still have that drive and you will still have that satisfaction.

How PhD Helps in Business Development #1: Professional Ethic

05:17 So, the first thing that my PhD clearly helps me with in business is professional ethic. Obviously, as scientists, we know that there is no success without sweat and without hard work. And that is quite unfeasible to become a leader in any discipline when you only work 8 hours a day. So, we don’t have that expectation that things will go easy. We know that in order to be the best, we have to work hard.

05:46 So, this was quite a natural way of thinking for me. And I was not surprised when it came to developing a company and it was all the same. There were always way too many things at a time to do. There is no such thing as a free weekend. If someone’s interested in your services or in your product and of course, you have to pick up the phone, you have to answer the email. Sunday evening or Monday morning – doesn’t matter at all.

06:15 And you have to keep on being productive and manage your working time well, so that you can still keep creative, even though you have an overwhelming workload next to it. And that for me, this is the biggest difficulty. It’s not a big deal to work 16 hours a day. But the problem is how to still keep creative, keep innovating and developing new products and concepts, once you’re so overwhelmed with work.

06:45 I also had to change a bit in my daily practice and be more systematic with exercise, which I hate. Actually, I hate sports, but I’m trying to at least get on the treadmill a few times a week right now, because I know that I need this fitness I need to keep in shape. And I need to meditate. I just need this mental hygiene because otherwise, it’s really hard to match creativity with all the workload and all the duties that I have in daily life.

07:21 But after all, I think that PhD greatly helped. And also, it helped me learn how to self-manage, how to multitask, and how not to rely on other people and take multiple roles at work. So, I think that, as scientists, we’re naturally capable to do that. And that’s also a very big advantage in business.

07:50 And, of course, one last thing is patience. Patience, and being able to wait for delayed gratification – sometimes for years – are super important. Like the Ontology of Value Test, the project I just launched to the market more or less a week ago, was in the making from the very start.

08:16 From the very first day when I launched the company two years ago, I had this project in mind, and it was in slow development. There was a long conceptual phase. Then there was the period of building the product and the infrastructure – and it all took 2 years of time. And I knew I had to be patient if I wanted to achieve good results.

08:40 I had to do it slowly, systematically, step by step, without rushing. Give it a thought, spend enough time on this conceptual phase. Because once the model is conceptualized, you cannot really change and tweak much around it. So, I had to be patient and I think that the PhD experience greatly helped me here because it helps you manage expectations.

09:01 And, after a few years of doing research in a focused way, you don’t have that expectation that you will become an instant success and that you will get a great product overnight.

How PhD Helps in Business Development #2: Understanding Statistics

09:15 The second clear advantage from my PhD is understanding mathematics. Or, more specifically ,understanding the probability calculus and the odds of projects being successful. As PhDs, we have to often try multiple times to get to expected results. We basically keep on trying until we learn enough by trial and error about a certain problem to get the intuition in which direction to pull it further. And eventually, to get to a certain degree of success in understanding the new concept or building a new tool.

10:01 So, research is really exploratory. And to get to new discoveries, you have to feed your intuitive mind by just experiencing, trying and by trial and error. And it is the same in business – you test hypotheses in practice. You look for solutions to problems, but it’s not necessarily going to be that your first solution is the perfect solution.

10:29 And then you improve. You have to be in touch with your clients, of course, and you have to recurrently, improve your solutions, and adjust to your client’s needs to make sure that they help as much as possible. And perfecting your solutions. It’s rarely the case that you have the instant winner at the first go. It’s quite uncommon.

10:58 My PhD greatly helps me in project planning, because from the get go I understand the odds and I understand the risk-reward ratio. If you’re doing something that is really new, then you have to be prepared that you have to try multiple times, because you won’t have an instant winner and and an instant working solution.

11:21 So, I think if I didn’t ever go for a PhD, I would probably have a different level of expectations. And I might experience a lot of disappointment in the process. But since I have this PhD experience behind, this is like a default. By default, I’m used to failing in daily practice, and improving iteratively until there is a solution on the table.

11:52 Since I had a few years of this experience, there are no surprises now and I didn’t experience that feeling of disappointment in the process. I think this is really important because I think in business development, many people fail by dropping out too early. They don’t understand that you always have to try multiple times before you reach the expected results.

How PhD Helps in Business Development #3: Understanding Impact

12:24 The third clear advantage from a PhD for me is understanding impact. Even if you go to business, at the end of the day, we don’t really want just to produce cash. We don’t really want just to supply our accounts. We do business because we want to solve problems. And we want to do something impactful, or influential as well, and see the real-world results of our work.

12:52 So, I think what PhD experience helped me with was understanding that not every project has the same impact. And before you even decide what you want to do, you have to take it into account that the amount of influence that comes out of the project, is not proportional to the amount of work that you put in.

13:19 For instance, if you go to career development and career advisory, for most people, their career is one of the most important aspects of their lives. They care about their health, about their family, about their relationships, and about their careers. There is not much more than that most people care about!

13:40 So, if you produce even little contribution that helps people with their careers a tiny bit, but it can reach a lot of people around your country or even around the globe, then, in fact, the influence you produce is quite huge. And I just took it into account. I felt that I would rather choose a problem where I can contribute a little bit to a really important problem to a large group of people rather than trying to find a niche where I completely reformed somebody’s life, but it’s just a few people in the world who might be ever interested or influenced in any way by what I do. 

14:20 So, I basically understood that the impact that your project creates is not directly proportional to the amount of work. I also I learned it the hard way. My PhD was really energy consuming… It was a hard-mathematical problem that was very niche, and only a very small group of people around the globe were occupied with this problem.

14:48 So, even if I eventually got to the solution, after a few years of hard, focused work, not many people would even care about it. And then, there was little chance that my solution would ever result in any new clinical practices. There as almost no chance that anyone  in the real world would be influenced by my solution in a positive way.

15:11 So, I got the concept the hard way during my PhD. And now I understand it. So, now, before I get down to projects, I first evaluate on my mind, “Okay, is this project important? How many people might potentially benefit?” I make this evaluation for myself. It’s more qualitative than quantitative, I don’t have any numbers. It’s just my subjective feeling.

15:41 But I always do that before I start! This is a habit I learned during my PhD and now it greatly helps me. Because, again, it’s the satisfaction you get from knowing that what you do has real life consequences for people that matters. And of course, I also get feedback, which is also very positive and makes me happy.

16:03 But it’s more about my internal motivation and satisfaction that, “Hey, I did something that matters.” So, if you want to get that feeling when doing business (and I think most people in business do), then it’s good to have that habit of first evaluating projects before you really start.

How PhD Helps in Business Development #4: Acknowledgments

16:29 The fourth aspect that PhD clearly helped me with was understanding that the world is small, and you will always meet the same people again. Something I cannot really understand is that in business circles is that, from what I see, people often fight with each other. They argue on some tiny detail and then separate, and they never really talk to each other again, or even talk badly behind each other’s back.

16:58 At least, that’s what I often see among the circles that I had an occasion to meet with. But in science we are, I think, much more diplomatic, because we understand that there are only so many conferences you can go to, and so many consortia, and so many scientific circles. And you cannot just openly argue. You can, at best, avoid someone tactically if you really cannot connect with the person.

17:29 But it’s really important to keep good relations with people… Even if you actively avoid them, they can always end up as reviewers for your paper. So, what’s the point of making foes with anyone?In science, you have to learn how to be diplomatic, and how to skillfully avoid people with whom you don’t really connect and think on the same frequencies but without making open enemies.

18:00 And also, how to acknowledge people. Because at the end of the day, saying, “Thank you!”, and acknowledging someone in your work, doesn’t cost anything. And this is something that I also cannot understand – when I attend business meetings, I often see that people don’t acknowledge anyone. They just talk about their project but there is no acknowledgement slide in their presentation.

18:22 There is nobody that they would ever mention and acknowledge. And they cannot understand that acknowledging people doesn’t mean that you admit that they are responsible for your success – that’s something completely different. You won’t lose the crown if you acknowledge other people in your work!

18:43 So, I keep that in mind and I keep this habit. When I develop a company, it helps me greatly, because people remember being acknowledged; they feel appreciated an think warmer about you straight away. And again, this is quite uncommon in business and I cannot understand why but this situation helps me. It just helps me making new contacts, keeping a good vibe, building good karma, and making new connections. And I think that this is a strength that we often don’t think about, but it helps in business greatly.

How PhD Helps in Business Development #5: Prepared For The Critics

19:32 Lastly, one good habit that I brought from academia is being prepared for the critics. Obviously, in academia, we are criticized much more often than we are praised. And that’s the default. You basically work and work, and work, and get criticized, and have a long to-do list. And then, at the end of the day, you get a thumb up from the editor. And then, you keep on going, jumping over to the next project.

20:03 So, there is a large disproportion between the amount of critics and action points you get, and the amount of praise that you get. So, after a few years of living like this, I was perfectly prepared for the critics. And I have to say that I’m praised much more than expected actually [laugh]. That’s also something new.

20:27 I have no problem with critics, and I often ask for feedback and I take the comments from clients and friends on board, of course. I want to be criticized in a constructive way. And it’s often the case that I’m not but I am prepared. Of course, anonymous critics is not as fun, especially if it’s not constructive. But it’s also very rare, I have to say. So, most of the time, the comments are constructive and I’m happy about them.

21:02 But in general, the mindset is that critics is normal, being criticized is a default. And I think, if not for my PhD, I probably would not have that thick skin right now. But now I’m perfectly prepared for the critics. So, that’s a really good start.

How PhD Makes Business Development Harder #1: Being Naive

21:26 And now, I’d like to talk a little bit about the disadvantages of starting a business as a PhD. So, first of all, coming out straight from grad school and starting a company, I have to say, I was quite naive. Well, especially in the period of time between my contract and starting a company, which was about a year and a half.

21:49 In that period, I was doing a lot of projects where I think, I was spending a lot of time working for free for other people’s success. And just looking back at this, I think I was really naive. And I think this is also what we have to keep in mind when we mingle with the business culture. In business, many people will ask us to deliver, to produce, to help for free. And, we need to mind our business and ask ourselves:

22:21 “What do I have out of this? Do I want to learn something concrete? Or, is this work for somebody else’s behalf?” We have to be our own advocates. And that’s also why I launched my own company eventually: I felt that if I’m just a shareholder in other people’s businesses, I always get bad deals.

22:43 And to actually make sure that I can get out of it as much as I should, given my workload and my input into the overall success of the project, I have to launch my own business. And I think many PhDs experience this difficulty initially. It is because when it comes to business culture, they have to deal with very experienced hustlers and sales people, who can easily evaluate them and the real value that they represent.

23:17 And basically, they give them those bad deals to get more out of the project for themselves than they should, and give away as little as possible to the real contributors. Therefore, you have to be careful. If you come to business straight from academia, you have to become your own advocate. You have to also learn that outside academia, people are not always truth tellers, and they will not always give you the real motivation or like rationale behind what they do.

23:48 And they do not always have clear intentions. Although we have some people who have clearly like difficult personalities in academia, I think at the end of the day, there is no vile play. There aren’t any vile intentions. So, if someone declares that they will do something, they usually intend to do it.

24:14 I mean, sometimes they are too overwhelmed to do it, but at least they have the intention to do it. But if you go to business, there will be a lot of people who will promise you things with no intention to do what they promise. That was shocking to me at first. When I first realized that this is the case, I was shocked. But I learned since then, and now I think I’m much less naive than I used to be 2, 3, 4 years ago. It took me a while though.

How PhD Makes Business Development Harder #2: Perfectionism

24:50 The second disadvantage that I’ve noticed is perfectionism, or in other words, time management. Of course, the time course of project is a bit different in business and it’s more oriented at creating MVP, and then, interacting with clients to improve it rather than just working behind a closed door and launching a perfect product.

25:16 Sometimes I still have a hard time with figuring out when the perfect time for the project launch is. And, sometimes I hear, “Come on, your book is already 250 pages long. Why are you still adding information? Why don’t you just start writing another one?” Or, “Your test booklet is already over 250 pages. Why are you still appending it? This is just too much; nobody wants to read so much. Why don’t you just release it to the market?”

25:44 But when I don’t feel like I’m done, I cannot do it. So, I still try to figure out how to find the perfect balance between feeling satisfied from what I did, and actually releasing the product. And where is this crucial point where I should say to yourself, “Hey, this is enough and I have to launch now.” And there are different schools. I heard the saying a lot in business that if you’re not ashamed with the first version of your product, that means that you released it too late.

26:22 But I cannot really live like this; I can’t follow this rule. I couldn’t release something I’m ashamed with 🙂 So, I’m still learning, and it’s still a learning curve for me.

How PhD Makes Business Development Harder #3: The Culture of Sharing

26:37 The next difficulty that I experienced is that in academia, we have that culture of sharing – especially now, when the Open Science movement is so active. We share our pipelines, we share all the details of our protocols, and we are proud of it. And we make sure that the results are reproducible so that other researchers from other corner of the world can reproduce our results at any point in time.

27:10 But once you enter business, then of course, the culture is different. You do quite the opposite. So, you make sure that your intellectual property is as guarded as possible. Of course, you have to say in general terms what you’re doing, because you want for your clients to know that you know what you’re doing, and that it’s done well.

27:32 But you have to know at which point to stop talking about every single detail, because otherwise, you make your work reproducible for other companies on the market who could do exactly the same in no time because they are bigger than you. This is still an internal conflict for me, because when I do a project, especially if it’s a research project, I’m proud of it.

27:57 I want to share it and show, “Hey, this is how I did it and these are my great results.” But unfortunately, now I have to know where to stop speaking and where to leave some blurred lines. As otherwise, I will make my product completely transparent and reproducible for other players in the market.

28:18 So, this is a different philosophy. And I’m still fighting with my like inner desire to share and to say everything about my projects. Now, I have to cut my tongue from time to time. This is still painful for me, I have to say. But this is how business works, unfortunately.

28:21 And maybe, if the company is successful and makes enough profits, in many years from now I could actually show everything because I would not feel endangered anymore. Or, I would not even feel that I need to make any profits anymore. And then, I could show everything I have done in my current projects. But this is not my reality at the moment – at the moment, I have to make sure that the intellectual property of the company is well protected. Yep, this is not easy!

How PhD Makes Business Development Harder #4: The Intuitive Mind Is Asleep

29:16 The next thing I’d like to talk about is the fact that in academia, we don’t use intuition too much. We make hypotheses based on the previous literature and on some rational assumptions, and then we test a hypothesis. This is as logical as it can be. We rarely use intuition in our daily practice. We draw conclusions and then by trial and error, we learn more about the subject matter. However, it’s rarely the case that we use intuition to make our next steps.

29:48 It’s usually the case that we build up our prior experience. But in business it’s different. It’s much more like just navigating yourself in a very complex environment that doesn’t have any stiff rules. And, you have to use your nose and use your intuition much more. And it’s much more of magic thinking sometimes – relying on building good karma with people and making moves based on heuristics.

30:20 And trying to intuitively figure out in which direction to go next. And sometimes rational arguments don’t work, really. I had to learn that as well. Namely, learn how to reconnect with my intuitive mind and how to start making decisions more based on intuition, and less based on rational assumptions.

30:47 Because, to be perfectly honest, if I only use the rational mind, I would not have made any of the decisions that I’ve made in my company development so far. Because rationally, if you want to, let’s say, sell products online – such as aptitude tests or courses – why not just start selling things?

31:13 Why not become a marketer for someone else and start from sales and start from generating profits? If you want to develop a business, this is the most logical solution. And if you want to become a content creator instead, you have to additionally risk that you will spend years of your life building content that might never sell in the worst case.

31:37 So, to make business decisions, you have to rely on your gut, not just on rational thinking, and think long-term. And eventually, it will pay off.

How PhD Makes Business Development Harder #5: What Is The Value?

32:01 And lastly, I’d like to talk about some more philosophical problem, which is related to evaluating the value of projects. In science, we decide which projects are valuable based on our prior experience. If the granting agency has the same opinion and gives us the funds, then we go for the project. We get funds for it, we execute the project, the case is closed.

32:25 But when you launch a company, then the value of your project is in the eye of the beholder. There is no such thing as an intrinsic value. It all depends on how much someone else is willing to pay for your solution. Thus, sometimes, I have these thoughts:

32:46 “Okay, if I value something, does that mean that it’s also valuable for the audience or for potential clients? What is the real value of this project?” There is no objective value in business. It just depends on the receiver. It is, of course, both good and bad. But I feel lost sometimes. How do I decide what to do next? What my personal feeling is, might be very different from what my eventual clients will say, right?

33:24 And you might know this famous story about Henry Ford. He once said that, if he asked his clients about what kind of solutions they want, they would have told him that they dream about the faster horse. So, if he had only asked his clients about their opinion, he would have have never built Ford Model T.

33:47 So, sometimes I have to rely on my own sense of value and think, “Hey, this is the product I want to build” without really asking the clients about what they want. Because otherwise, they will tell me, “No, this is not something I want” until they see the solution. And then, they’re like, “Ooh, this is cool!” But you have to conduct the project first and show them this solution.

34:15 In such cases, you have to always take a risk. You have to invest time, effort, and you risk that you might be wrong. So, this is challenging, and I’m still learning.

Ending

34:31 So, this was a short recap of the five things that helped me in business development and five things brought from academia that clearly didn’t. I’m curious what you think! And of course, if you have any questions, please post them below. And obviously, starting a company was one of the best decisions of my life; I can already tell.

34:55 So, even though I experienced some difficulties, then I think the benefits clearly outweighed the shortcomings and downsides. I can definitely recommend starting a business to anyone who feels that they have a soul of an entrepreneur. And if you’d like to test if you have a soul of an entrepreneur, hey, you can still you can always check out our new test, Ontology of Value Test! It will tell you if your mentality and working style converges with the mentality and working style of successful entrepreneurs.

35:32 So, if you have doubts, then you can always test yourself. Well, I’m an entrepreneur now, so there must be a sale speech in this presentation, what could you expect? [laugh] On that note, thank you for watching! And if you have any comments or questions, please post below. Have a nice day and see you next time!

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