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What should do or consider to simultaneously succeed at my new professorship and my internet startup?

I am starting a tenure track professorship in the fall. I am also on the team of an internet startup which has received an initial round of funding. I have expressly limited my availability to the startup to the amount my university allows faculty to consult. That said, this is not consulting, and no explicit rules regarding my situation are on the books beyond broad conflict of interest rules.

I am not alone in this decision to pursue academic and startup success together, and as I talk to others starting this path I see common questions as to what challenges we will face.

What factors should a dual academic/startup founder consider, especially pre-tenure? I'm especially interested in advice from professors with a startup.

  • Happily, the research I do in my university position is quite different from the focus of the business, and I intend to be scrupulous about avoiding any use of university resources. IP conflict should be nonexistent. – Industrademic Jul 25 '18 at 14:51
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    It is probably better to include the information in your comment in the question itself. Also, I don't know what the patent and consulting tags have to do with your question. – Buffy Jul 25 '18 at 15:23
  • I add patent and consulting because I'm using the 'consulting' clause of my university to justify this effort, and because I'm open to their being IP issues beyond the (off-limits) use of University resources for Startup efforts. – Industrademic Jul 25 '18 at 15:41
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    That may be, but it doesn't make it relevant to the question posed here. – Buffy Jul 25 '18 at 15:47
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    Since you are a minority owner in the start-up, maybe you can take a leave of absence from it, at least until you get tenure. – GEdgar Jul 25 '18 at 16:57
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I have done both, and let me tell you it boils down to how hard you want to fall into entrepreneurship.

I did research for my own sake and did teaching, to see students smile when their code compiled; but let me warn you with peace and love that both startups and doing research/teaching are both very stressful. So:

If you want to be serious about startup, you will eventually be very busy with it and not so much time doing research. However, if you want to use "I'm part of a startup" just to open a presentation or conversation then you can do both.

It might sound harsh, but you have no idea how hard a startup will be, both in terms of operations and people management.

What is 'Impact' anyway? Lets consider the word "impact" that you mentioned. What is it? Well:

Researcher: if you are a researcher it is very simple: the rank of the journal you are publishing shows the impact of your work. There is a difference if I publish my work as a poster in a conference, or publish it in a journal in THE Nature.

Startup: What is the impact here? Well, do you remember the "Green energy" back in 2005-2006; "social network" in 2007, "the cloud" in 2010, or "Big Data" in 2012; or "Crypto" in 2017? What all these things have in common? The fact that someone decided that they are the "next big thing" and the rest are following. Why the are following? Well they can get funded easier if they are "crypto-based" startup back in summer of 2017. The game is to get funding by promising an impact. Who and how they can deliver this, is totally different thing and in most cases, they are BS.

Philosophical: Lets think about this philosophically. You could create the better toilet paper, and have an impact everywhere, is this something you are looking for? You could write a research paper that most people or no one in your field cares. At the same time, you could get funded and create a successful or unsuccessful startup. What I'm trying to say here is that: you could succeed or fail at anything, at least choose something that you look forward to; so you don't switch as soon as you fail.

  • Thank you, Dave. Good feedback, and fall is the right verb. Not my first startup, but the first where I'm trying to take this back-seat approach. My hope/expectation is that my involvement on the operations/people side will be minimal. I am pretty aware how that might fail; boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. The stress... is present now. For me, it's the price of impactful work. – Industrademic Jul 25 '18 at 18:06
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Nothing is impossible, but how many hours a week do you want to work? Do you have any life beyond these two endeavors. I don't participate in a startup, but at various times have published books and software and built interesting tools for students and professionals.

But the warning here is that beginning a tenure track (especially) is a very time consuming proposition, especially if you want to actually attain tenure in a few years. You need to serve the students well at what ever level you find them. You need to establish an appropriate publication (research) history as well as a recognizable place in the profession through conferences and such. You need to have, or create, contacts with other researchers to help you in your own. This might come at your own University, given a large enough faculty with good synergy, but you may need to expand your contacts outside.

In the US, the typical "slog" to tenure is seven years and you don't get do-overs. Not every paper you submit for publication is necessarily going to be accepted.

You can read other questions on this site to learn some of the other problems that junior faculty have in adapting to the academic life. Not much of it is likely to come easily to you if you are really new at it. Good things happen in Academia, but they don't happen on auto-pilot.

Some institutions have a history of tenuring most candidates. Some, alternatively, have a history of tenuring nearly no one, though some of the "failed" candidates have a good chance of success in moving, due to the reputation of the university.

All that said, many (most) junior faculty do have outside interests of various sorts that take some amount of time and effort. It isn't impossible to succeed at both, but you may need to set parameters for yourself and decide early on what is the most important thing in your life. If you sort of stumble along at both, you aren't likely to be a success at either.

Finally, what you learn and what you do in the startup may be a plus when it comes to tenure, though you indicate it is a different field, lessening the possibility. But if entrepreneurship is valued in your field it may be a help.

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    The first question is on-point! – Jonas Schwarz Jul 25 '18 at 15:28
  • To the first question, 50 or so seems to be the likely answer. I have been juggling a non-tenure research position, teaching, and startup for around a year. It's doable, even enjoyable. The coming question is whether the TT position, which combines research and teaching, will represent a net efficiency. – Industrademic Jul 25 '18 at 15:39
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    @Industrademic, Fifty sounds very optimistic. I'm thinking 80 would be closer to it. That includes all weekends, of course, so not really 16 hour days. I don't see any efficiencies, actually. However, if your partners do the day-to-day work, calling on you for occasional conceptual stuff, it won't likely dig into your time and might even be a useful diversion from you academic position. – Buffy Jul 25 '18 at 15:46
  • If 80 is the case, I'll drop out of the program or remove my association with the startup, depending on the source of the work. That is, for me, too much. :) – Industrademic Jul 25 '18 at 16:08
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    @Industrademic, just be aware of the possibility, keep your eyes open and stay flexible. But think about what your real long term goals are so that you don't get pushed by circumstances into something you consider suboptimal. – Buffy Jul 25 '18 at 16:31

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