An interdisciplinary approach to your research and professional development requires open-mindedness to adopt best practices from different fields. Why not get into the entrepreneur's mind and learn hacks to improve your grad school experience? An entrepreneurial mindset is among the top skills employers are seeking to fill increasing remote jobs.
We attended the workshop Intro to Start-Up Customer Discovery (GPCB594) to better understand the commonalities between research and entrepreneurship. Alexandra Allen, talent coordinator at District 3, shared tools and techniques entrepreneurs use during the start-up phase. We quickly saw how graduate students can benefit from using start-up business techniques in their research processes.
What is an entrepreneurial mindset? How does it help a grad student?
It is a philosophy for approaching work and life. Entrepreneurs happily overcome challenges, continually learn new skills, make hard decisions and are accountable for their success. They are not afraid of trying out new ideas and learning from their mistakes. The uncertainty of current events showed us that we are likely to thrive with entrepreneurial traits like decisiveness, confidence and resilience both in academia and work. And that is why today's employer's are prioritizing an entreprenurial mindset - they need new hires to be able to navigate uncertainity with confidence.
Here we share five insights from start-up business that must be part of any graduate student toolkit.
1. Learn From Your Mistakes
Launching a new idea in the market is not a straight-line journey, nor it is a quick path. During the early stages of a new project, entrepreneurs experience high enthusiasm and believe that everything is possible. However, when reality sets in, they realize their ideas need improvement to become attractive to potential end-users or clients. It is no use to have a brilliant idea if no one wants to support it or buy it.
Before giving up, a start-up business tries to learn more about end-users' problems. This approach is an opportunity to fine-tune the new idea or product to solve people's pain. In your research project, you need to understand the existing situation and why your project matters.
2. Networking Skills
The Customer Discovery workshop is helpful to grad students who need to learn how to network through informational interviews. This kind of interview works as an informal conversation that you can have with someone in your field of interest. It works like a research tool, and the objective is not to sell your idea (product) nor find a job, but to learn more about the industry or your informant's perspective.
Learning how to interview end-users becomes handy when deciding to move jobs or learn about the job market before graduation. Once you identified the industry and companies you would like to work with, find your first interviewees. Check for potential interviewees in personal connections (cohort, supervisor), social networks (Linkedin), contact on the company's website or bloggers in your field, or talking to people during conferences.
3. Know your End-User or Customer
You can think about your supervisor or lab team as your customer. Imagine you developed a new IT software system to improve your lab's data analysis capabilities, and you want to propose using it to your supervisor. Before offering your idea, you must discover who the decision-makers are and the factors influencing their decision process. An entrepreneurial mindset drives you to develop an inquiring attitude to understand people's needs, and not what you want them to buy from you. If you know your end user's pain, you are ready to propose a real solution to their real problems.
4. Discovery Interviews: Aim for Quality Information
Alexandra explains that you have to get end-users talking about their problem and potential solutions. By interviewing end-users, you gather valuable information to prove or challenge your assumptions (hypothesis) about their issues.
Avoid "yes" or "no" questions. Effective interviewing techniques use semi-structured questions. The objective is to get your interviewee doing most of the talk while you are actively listening. Interview end-users or customers using questions like: "tell me about a situation when…"; "what was the hardest part?"; and "why was that hard?". Then move to discover a solution to the problem: "how did you solve it?"; and "how did it work?". Alexandra recommended reading "The Mom Test" book to hone your interviewing skills by learning how to craft questions that even your mom can't lie to you about.
5. Interview Tips to Have in Mind
When conducting discovery interviews bear in mind that: opinions about your product or research are not useful; ideas about the future are likely to be over-optimistic assumptions; informants might lie to you if they think it is what you want to hear; people know their problems but lack solutions; give informants an excuse to help you understand their issues by giving them prompts to talk openly. Effective interviews challenge or confirm your hypothesis.
Remember that IT software solution that you hope to propose to your supervisor? Try to ask your lab coworkers questions about problems with data collection and processing process. What if you learn from them that the problem is the outdated hardware. The end-user needs faster hardware to run their lab tests, so your brilliant software solution is not a priority to your team. They are likely to tell your supervisor not to implement your software but invest in new hardware.