Saturday, October 13, 2018

Diary of a Mature MSc Student - Week 3 (Reflections on Moving from Entrepreneur to Student)

As an entrepreneur who founded and ran tech startup companies for the last 18 years, I anticipated my return to full-time education as an MSc student would be a culture shock. To my surprise while there are obviously differences, the cultural differences are not so great. Here are my initial reflections.

Context

The degree of cultural shock you experience in becoming a mature full-time student will clearly depend on your previous work experience and the course you choose to do. To provide some context my  most recent experience was as an entrepreneur developing software as a service products (SaaS), for example BuzzSumo. We operated in the fast moving and very competitive environment of social media monitoring, where new products and companies sprang up almost daily and where available social data also changed constantly. I worked with two relatively young founders. We operated virtually with staff in different cities including London, Brighton, New York, San Francisco and Madrid. We had no office and used tools such as Slack, Intercom, Zoom, Xero and Stripe to manage the business. I worked from home a lot, did a lot of conference videos and when not at home I was often travelling overseas to meet colleagues or attend events. Thus my experience may be quite different from someone who was coming to full-time education from say a job in a government department.

My previous life as an entrepreneur and speaker


Structuring Your Time

As an entrepreneur you are constantly questioning how you should spend your time. There are no rules or guidelines as to what you do each day. You are conscious you have very limited time and hence you really want to make it count. At the end of every day I always asked myself "have I contributed to the business today, have I added value?" There are dangers that this can drive short term behaviour. For example, if you do a pitch to a customer and win the sale, there is an immediate financial benefit. You can see the value you have added. However, it is equally important to work on the product, on branding and marketing, on partnerships, on strategy, on recruitment etc. Focus and time management is a key skill.

As an MSc student you have to be fairly self-directed in terms of how you spend your time but there is a lot of structure as you would expect. I have 13 hours of lectures and seminars each week, which I have to attend, plus various talks and dissertation workshops. There is mandated essential reading prior to lectures which probably takes up another 12 or so hours a week.  Plus there is additional recommended reading. In summary, a large part of each week is effectively structured for you, although you have flexibility in when to do the reading.

I also have to do six essays by January. Which questions you choose to answer and when, where and how you do these essays is flexible. Overall though I find myself as a student thinking 'what do I have to do today': which lectures do I have to attend, which readings do I have to do, and what essay preparation should I undertake. This is quite different from my previous role where it was far less structured.

I also feel I can plan for the academic year, I know when courses take place, when essays and exams are due and when I have to do the research for my dissertation. This is a big difference from operating as a SaaS startup where things can change constantly. Mike Tyson may not have been a great entrepreneur but he summed up the experience when he said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Reading 

In my experience entrepreneurs read quite extensively. They have a paranoid curiosity which means they are constantly reviewing their market and new ideas. While they may have read core startup texts such as The Lean Startup, Crossing the Chasm or Zero to One they will be intensively reading newly published books, blogs, reports and guides published by the likes of Intercom on customer engagement. I read enormous amounts as an entrepreneur but academic reading is something quite different as I mentioned last week in my reflections on academic reading. You are really studying the text, and seeking to understand it in the context of existing paradigms and theories. Thus the amount of time I spend reading has probably not changed that much as a student but the nature of the reading has changed significantly.

Approaches to Research

In my experience entrepreneurs are very empirical. We might read some theory on psychology when designing an online form or a pricing page, we might read blog posts on the topic and we will certainly review our competitor's pages but what we really do is test. For example, we will put up many different versions of an online form, display this randomly to users, and track which ones convert better. The more users you have the better this works. When we sold BuzzSumo we had 600,000 users so you could constantly change, experiment and improve. For example, whatever the psychological theory says we could prove that for us a seven day trial period converted far better than a 14 day or 28 day trial period.

The ability to A/B or split test everything from ads to headlines, combined with big data analytics, is critical to SaaS based startups. The data can reveal patterns that work even if you are not sure why they work. For example, I did an analysis of 100m headlines to see what headlines gained the most social engagement. I had no hypothesis or theory really, I just crunched 100m headlines in R to see what came out. To my surprise the trigram (three word phrase) that on average achieved most social engagement was "will make you". At first I thought something was wrong with the data but as I looked more closely I began to understand why it might work. For example, it is a linking phrase, it makes explicit the linkage between the content and the impact on the reader. It is effectively a promise and says why the reader should care about the content. It also works in many contexts such as '12 TED talks that will make you more productive' to '5 pictures that will make you feel better about the world.'

You are also conscious as an entrepreneur that things change and very quickly. Thus a headline phrase or structure that works well this month may no longer work well next month. This might be simply because if everyone starts using a headline format it becomes less effective or it could be the Google or Facebook algorithm changes. For example, viral sites were so successful with clickbait, what happened next, style headlines, that Facebook updated its newsfeed algorithm to lower these headlines in the feed. Suddenly traffic dropped and writers had to come up with new headlines that worked. BuzzFeed is well known for getting writers to come up with multiple headlines and A/B testing them with audiences to see which headlines work best. It is a constant process of research and updating.

Academic research is also a constant process but it is very different to the research we might do as a business. Academic research builds on or tests a paradigm, theory or hypothesis. It often needs to go through an approval process such as funding and it is very thorough requiring peer review. As a SaaS entrepreneur you want research you can undertake quickly and results that you can act on almost immediately.

Sense of Urgency and Keeping Up

One of the key roles of an entrepreneur is to promote a sense of urgency in the business. Competition drives innovation and speed. If your competitor brings out a better product your business can die very quickly. Most startups are in a race to build momentum, brand and revenues in a specific area. Most have a specific objective to exit the business within a particular time period, often through a sale. I always explained to my team that it wasn't enough to have the right strategy and to be on the right track. You have to move quickly or you will be run down. It is this sense of urgency that can often drive entrepreneurs to be workaholics. As an entrepreneur I think you are always conscious that things can change, you therefore need to be very flexible as stuff happens. In addition to being relentless you have to be happy in a world of potential chaos and change.

Since becoming a student I am very busy, I want to attend all the talks and do all the readings but I don't have the same sense of urgency. I can plan and I have a good sense of what the next 12 months will bring. I think it is a healthier place to be. I remain though very conscious that we can all become obsolete and I have a constant paranoia that things are changing back in my industry and I am not keeping up. I always asked my startup teams, are your skills, experience and knowledge more valuable now than they were 6 months or 12 months ago? Your speed of learning has to be faster than the speed of change in your industry. I suspect for many mature students like me, there may be a fear that while you are studying you are not keeping up with the industry you left and may return to.

Age Differences

I have previously commented that I am conscious of my age at university, where most of my fellow students are in probably their mid-twenties. However, while many successful startups are founded by older entrepreneurs with experience, contacts and money, the most successful have a mix of youth and experience. I love to work with younger people. They have a passion, an energy and most importantly new perspectives and ways of looking at the world. In my last startup I think there was a good 25 years age difference between me and my fellow founders. Thus in many ways being at university feels very similar to being in a startup with younger people.

Summary

Overall I feel my days as a mature student are far more structured than they were before and I can plan with some certainty for the year ahead. The amount of reading hasn't really changed though the nature of the reading has changed significantly. Similarly, I realise what we called research as a business wasn't really research at all in an academic sense. I suspect there will also be big differences when it comes to writing essays and how you make arguments and reference evidence. I anticipate it will be really helpful and make me more disciplined in both how I research and write.

Overall I feel much more relaxed as a student despite the essay deadlines. I don't have that same urgency and paranoia that drove me as an entrepreneur. Also by having structured days, and being able to plan ahead, I can eat and exercise more healthily than I did previously.

It is great to continue to work with and be inspired by young people. I am also very lucky at LSE in being one of the few English students on the course, this provides a much wider range of perspectives and ideas.

What I don't miss is managing people. It is called a soft skill but it is by far the hardest task. My advice to entrepreneurs in this area is to keep your team small and recruit the best people you can afford. A good person is worth ten average people, so recruit the brightest and most passionate people you can. They need less managing, which matters in a virtual business. Also recruit positive, happy people.