I'm planning to get double honours in CS and Pure Math. (Link to my previous post.) But I'm very confused about getting a PhD. Will it help me as a startup founder?

The only thing that is stopping me from getting a PhD is time. I have excellent grades(almost perfect GPA). I'm very motivated to launch startup after graduating(maybe after working for a year or so). The only thing that's worrying me is that if I get stuck on a problem while working at my startup and the problem involves some sort of research, Will I be able to do research and solve that problem with my background(CS and Pure Math)? Say that problem is related to machine learning and involves creating a more intelligent machine.

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    There's also a Startups stack exchange that might have information for you. – Jeff Nov 21 '16 at 22:55
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    If you're serious about starting a successful company in a CS/Math area, you should be reasonably confident that what you are doing requires no further original research. Even successful researchers in these areas fail at most of the problems they attempt. It's also possible, if there isn't a known good reason to the contrary, that even approximating a solution to the problem you need solved is actually (provably!) NP-hard, in which case you are stuck for good. Brin and Page came up with PageRank BEFORE starting Google. Most startups operate very far from the frontiers of research. – Alexander Woo Nov 21 '16 at 23:07
  • This is going to be a wild guess: In a startup, maybe it would be to your benefit to be as young as possible, to withstand the ridiculously long hours? I have never worked in a startup, so maybe my image of them is wrong. – aparente001 Nov 22 '16 at 4:02
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    You can hire academics to conduct research for you, rather than doing it yourself. – user2768 Nov 22 '16 at 12:18
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    @AlexanderWoo though theory is beautiful and powerful, sometimes intuitive heuristics can go a long way in real-world scenarios (even if the approximation is NP-hard). – Bitwise Nov 23 '16 at 9:47


Disclaimer: I am an academic. I have zero experience with startups.

  1. A PhD can be a great way to develop cutting edge ideas, but a startup is not the place to conduct research, it's the place to translate proven research into a business. Major conceptual roadblocks should be sorted out and methods proven before you start a company. Consider the difference between Google as a startup and Theranos. Google had a working research artifact that they needed to develop into a commercial platform. Theranos is apparently going to implode because their basic concept has never been proven even after $400 million dollars of funding.

  2. Startups generally aren't founded on an amazing technical idea. A well-motivated undergrad could build the basic technology platforms behind successful startups like Facebook (databases), WhatsApp (sockets programming), or SnapChat (databases plus sockets programming). There are definitely some startups that are successful because they have a great technical edge that no one else has figured out (see again Google for an example), but they're probably the exception. The bigger value of many tech startups is the fact that they serve an unrecognized need. Their future value comes from their mature systems engineering and user base. For example, Twitter serves about 350,000 tweets per minute, which is not a trivial system to create. WhatsApp and SnapChat have a user base that makes them incredibly valuable.

  3. Research conducted in a PhD program tends to be "basic research". Research conducted for business purposes tends to be "translational research" or "development". They are related but different things.

  4. A PhD program is probably not going to afford you the opportunity to work on a project of your choosing related to your business.

  5. If you are able to work on business-related research there will be a minefield of legal questions over the ownership of the intellectual property when you want to monetize your venture. Unless very specific conditions are met and agreements are made before you start your program, it is guaranteed that the university or your adviser will have some claim to the intellectual property that results from your degree. This isn't necessarily a deal breaker, but it's probably beyond you if you don't currently have the resources to hire a lawyer. And you're not going to get the university to sign away its rights.

  6. There are huge opportunity costs to getting a PhD. You will only have time for a business alongside a PhD if you are extremely dedicated. It is not uncommon for PhD students to work 50-60 hour weeks. If you work on federal research your stipend will be around $25,000-$30,000 per year, which you can easily double as an undergrad doing low-level CS stuff at a company. If you are a hard worker in the right place you could easily triple that number after the five or six years it would take you to get your degree.

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    Great answer (+1), but just out of interest, could you add a brief remark about what "culture" you are basing your observations upon? I posted an answer with my observations from Germany, and curiously, some of your points seem to be in direct opposition to mine. – O. R. Mapper Nov 23 '16 at 10:29
  • Only a note to add - one might consider Stephen Wolfram as an exception. He created the basis of Wolfram Mathematica during his years at Caltech, which became a successful business. Unfortunately, he is not working anymore in theoretical physics. – Mikey Mike Nov 23 '16 at 14:15
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    I did not mean to construe it as though a PhD does not give you an advantage in business. There are definitely great businesses that come out of academic departments. Wolfram Research and Google are great examples of this. However, there are better ways to spend your time if your goal is "business". – David Nov 23 '16 at 17:32
  • @O.R.Mapper As above, my experience is as an academic in the US. My graduate department was unusually entrepreneurial, with about 1/3 of the faculty spending some of their time starting or running a business. I think the difference in our two answers is this: You illuminate the many advantages that having a PhD can grant you when starting a business. I tackle the question of whether someone who wants to go into business should get a PhD. If OP's only concern is whether they should learn how to do research before starting a business, my suspicion is that the PhD won't help them. – David Nov 23 '16 at 17:41

It's impossible to say whether you personally getting a PhD will help you personally as an entrepreneur, but I'll give you some anecdotal insight into the level of educational attainment typical of Silicon Valley startups.

I'm unaware of any research of the success rate of startups and associated founder educational attainment. So - I expect anecdotal evidence is the best we can do.

I have worked in 5 Silicon Valley startups, and am familiar with many more from tiny two person shops to billion dollar unicorns.

In Silicon Valley, it is unusual for startup founders and early employees to have PhDs.

Of the 5 startups I have personally been involved with around 1 in 10 founders has had a PhD. Of those 5 companies, 1 grew directly out of academic research, 1 had some relation to academic research, and the other 3 had nothing to do with academic research.

I would estimate the percentage of early employees in startups I am familiar with having a PhD at 5-10%.

You can get a feel for this by looking at lists the startups funded by a various VCs, and then looking on LinkedIn to see the educational attainment of their founders:

Here is Andreessen Horowitz's portfolio of startups: https://a16z.com/portfolio/

Let's take a look at a few of their companies and founders highest educational attainment:

  • Actifio - MS
  • Airbnb - BS, BFA, BFA
  • Asana - Both founders are somewhat unclear, either no degree or a BS/A
  • Box - No degree, BS
  • Buzzfeed - No degree
  • Ditto Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. Not a PhD in the bunch and I think the only one with a BS is Woz. – Dave Kanter Nov 22 '16 at 19:26
  • You mention in your post "settling" for anecdotes, but I just want to emphasize caution over looking at the educational attainment of the founders of five startups and drawing conclusions from that. – Jeff Nov 22 '16 at 20:10

Will it help me as a startup founder?

I am going to consider this question as "Will doing a PhD help me as a startup founder, as opposed to having any other job?", based upon what I have observed with various startup-founding colleagues during my doctoral candidacy in Germany1.

One way how it might help is by giving you an opportunity to build up a start-up while working towards your PhD. This only works with PhDs that you can get in such a way that you have an income to cover your living costs (e.g. when doing the PhD is connected to a job at the university, or similar).

If that precondition is met, however, here is how the opportunity works out:

  • Working in research often allows you to manage your time very flexibly. Evidently, this is beneficial for preparing another project such as a start-up at the same time. (That does not mean you'll spend less time working as such than in a job in the industry. However, it can mean that you'll have the chance to attend a talk about founding startups in the middle of the day and come back to work later, or possibly even as a part of your working time if your supervisor thinks the knowledge gathered at that talk is also beneficial for the university department.)
  • It depends on the person, but some PhD supervisors are quite eager to help their advisees with endeavours such as building a start-up, certainly more so than commercial employers who couldn't care less about their employees' spare time activities and may even be opposed to the possible transfer of knowledge to a possible future competitor.
  • While working in research, chances are you have some influences on the direction your research goes towards, making it possible to somewhat align your research and startup topics. In most other jobs, you do not have much choice about the tasks you get assigned.
  • Unlike commercial entities, universities are often not that "protectionist" about their resources. In fact, transfer of acquired skills and knowledge into startups is a part of their mission. Hence, obstacles imposed by the university for using some research results will probably be much less of an issue compared to obstacles from a commercial employer.
  • The university brings you in touch with plenty of people with similar interests as yours, both among your fellow PhD candidates/colleagues and among the students you might be teaching. That is an excellent opportunity to find partners for jointly founding the startup, get in touch with who might become your first employees a few years later, or even just to discuss and exchange ideas.

1: Note that when we hear "startup" over here, we do not think "Google, Facebook, the next breakthrough product that will change our daily lives, the first step to what will soon become a multinational corporation". Rather, we think "a small consultancy that does contract work for a special niche subject, which might grow to a size of 10 to 50 employees in the next 5 to 10 years, another one among thousands".


You totally dont need a phd for starting a company. You need

  • friends
  • a vision
  • enthusiasm
  • a cheap place to sleep

A guy makes an interesting point comparing advantages and disadvantages


Given that most of the answers ignore seemingly related and important aspects of your question, I'll provide another view on it:

Will it help me as a startup founder?

It depends, of course.

Reasons why it might not:

  • you will mostly be preoccupied with your research for which there is only a slight chance it might be connected to the focus of your potential startup
  • it might be better for you to devote the time you would spent on getting a Phd to the startup directly

Reasons why it might:

  • potential ideas -- as you gain knowledge and expertise in an area, you might recognize a potential problem that could lead to a startup
  • startup culture -- depending on what your startup is doing, you might need more experts which you might be able to attract easier if you have a Phd
  • connections -- grad schools might be a good place to get them

Will I be able to do research and solve that problem with my background(CS and Pure Math)?

You will definitely more likely be able to recognize and solve a particular problem if it's in the area in which you are pursuing your Phd in. However, related to the previous question, it is less likely you will have time to do your research and apply it. (It's doable, but very hard.)

The only thing that is stopping me from getting a PhD is time. I have excellent grades(almost perfect GPA).

This is perhaps a minor thing, but just to mention that having good grades might be required for doing a Phd (at a particular place), it is by no means sufficient for a successful Phd. I suggest deciding to do a Phd only if you are familiar and fond of all (or most of) the aspects about it.

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