A bias for action

Farmers_MarketEdison may have said innovation was 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration but he didn’t explain just what the perspiring was all about.

Anything can be hard work if you let it: running in circles can take just as much time and energy as moving forward. And in this way, most perspiration in innovation is misplaced–spent perfecting what inventors and entrepreneurs are already comfortable working on. If they’re engineers, that means perfecting the mousetrap; if they’re managers, it means more planning. Hard work, but not necessarily the right work for turning a new idea into a new business.

One of the core principles in the Business Development Programs at the Center for Entrepreneurship is to instill in our science, engineering, and business students a bias for action. That means, first and foremost, identifying the right actions: the activities that will move a new venture forward rather than run it in circles.
Put in the right context, our PhD and postdoctoral fellows embrace this bias.  It is, after all, built on the scientific method.

That’s because the most valuable actions an entrepreneur can take in the first year are essentially experiments, activities that test hypotheses about the idea and the business around it.  For example:

Hypothesis 1: It will work outside the laboratory

Hypothesis 2: Customers will understand and value the solution

Hypothesis 3: We are the right people to build this solution

Whatever the outcome, the results of each experiment move you forward by reducing the uncertainties surrounding your venture.

And so it’s always exciting to see some of most educated people around get out of their labs, roll up their sleeves, and take action. This time, it was one PhD in computer science and two postdoctoral fellows in the life sciences manufacturing and test marketing a line of traditional, nutritious, and very tasty drinks from Africa.

Why? Because they had developed this idea for a business and needed to know how the market would respond.
In two days spent at the local farmer’s market, they sold over $600 worth of the drinks.  And in getting there, they had to find a co-packer willing to front them the bottles and another who would work with them on the formulation; forge an agreement with a Ugandan women’s coperative to supply the ginger, hibiscus, and other ingredients; and spend hours in a commercial kitchen actually cooking up the first batches.

Sure, they could have worked on their science-based ideas about network security, alzheimers, or nutrition; or they could have spent the time re-running the numbers on their business plan from here through 2012, revising their marketing plans, or allocating equity amongst themselves. But they chose to work on this business because it was hands-on. In one quarter, they might not have learned so much about their potential business, or how to build new businesses, as they did making real juice and talking to real customers.

If and when
they go into industry R&D when they graduate, that business experience will provide them with an invaluable understanding of what it really takes to drive innovation.