Home » Archive » Entrepreneurs are like scientists

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Last Fall I bought a copy of Seed magazine to read their piece on Revolutionary Minds: 18 icons and iconoclasts who are redefining science. The story on mathematician, Erik Demaine, tattooed itself on my mind and I’ve thought of it constantly since.

When Erik turned 12 he enrolled in Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, at 20 he was teaching at MIT, and now he’s 23 and co-author of more than 100 papers including the 50 he wrote in 2004.

One of his colleagues describes him as “promiscuous”. Erik is interested in everything and can make a contribution to anything. In the past year he’s worked with biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, designers, and architects on some giant, difficult interdisciplinary challenges.

His story is inspiring to me and an example for entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs and scientists share at least one thing in common: a vicious sense of intellectual territory. Erik’s story is exactly the opposite. He’s built a wildly successful academic career on reaching out researchers in other fields. Entrepreneurs could too.

Like a mathematician or physicist, entrepreneurs are often masters of a small slice of intellectual property. And like most scientists, entrepreneurs are pretty aggressive about keeping everyone but themselves off the field. But looking at open-source and the collaborative success of guys like Erik, is that model becoming obsolete?

When you read an article like the one I posted earlier you recognize how complicated the opportunities available today really are. Is the one-man-show still the best strategy for addressing these issues?

I have a dream of starting a collaborative-solutions-tank. I’d like to build a team of guys like Erik — scientists, artists, CEOs, musicians, and architects — and give them the facilities they need to do their work. But put those facilities in the mountains of B.C. or on the coasts of Nova Scotia, somewhere so beautiful it makes you cry. And invite people with the world’s biggest problems to come solve them with me and my group.

I think this model can be replicated by entrepreneurs. Whether you realize it or not, you are part of a collaborative-solutions-tank. The suppliers you use, the customers you have, and everyone else that inputs or outputs from your company is in the tank. You need to recognize the latent potential in the tank and exercise it.

The brightest guy in the room won’t be the one violently waving his own flag. It will be the guy that points all the tank members in the right direction so he can achieve something far greater than he would alone.

Commentary

[…] rrying about big bullies. Just found an article at HBS that compliments the things I said earlier today. Part of the strategy for samll niche businesses: leverage the capabilities of other […]

This is implicit in what Seth Godin has been saying about smallness. You can get a lot done as a one-man band if you collaborate with other people.

Is it?

Seth did say:

  • Small means the founder makes a far greater percentage of the customer interactions. Small means the founder is close to the decisions that matter and can make them, quickly.
  • Small is the new big because small gives you the flexibility to change the business model when your competition changes theirs.
  • Small means you can tell the truth on your blog.
  • Small means that you can answer email from your customers.
  • A small law firm or accounting firm or ad agency is succeeding because they’re good, not because they’re big. So smart small companies are happy to hire them.
  • A small venture fund doesn’t have to fund big bad ideas in order to get capital doing work. They can make small investments in tiny companies with good (big) ideas.
  • Small is the new big only when the person running the small thinks big.

The closest he comes to saying what I hoped to say is: “Small means that you will outsource the boring, low-impact stuff like manufacturing and shipping and billing and packing to others, while you keep the power because you invent the remarkable and tell stories to people who want to hear them”.

But even then it may not be implicit and only similar. There are several ways to look at outsourcing. One is to give away the crap jobs and focus on your core, value-added abilities. I think this is what Seth is referring to. Another way, and the one I was after, is to see the providers of your outsourced activities as partners to be leveraged — instead of crap shovelers. Maybe I’m reaching for something that isn’t there, but this is a subtle and important shift in perspective. Those providers aren’t just “outsourced”; they can be collaborators — coauthors of innovation.

What Seth said was good and true. But different.

[…] didn’t acknowledge the characteristics of the masters. The masters pause to think. They collaborate. They understand the difference between complicated and complex. These are practi […]

[…] ; Jeremy @ 8:32 pm Just found an article at HBS that compliments the things I said earlier today. Part of the strategy for samll niche businesses: leverage the capabilities of other […]