Resourcefulness and Creativity

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The Role of Resourcefulness in Entrepreneurship - Doing More with Less

In the realm of entrepreneurship, resourcefulness is an art form. It’s about making the most of what you have, which is often less than you’d like. Especially in the early stages of a startup, resources can be incredibly scarce. You have to be agile, adaptable, and ready to think outside the box .

The practical application of resourcefulness is where creativity meets frugality .

Many entrepreneurs, especially those coming out from well-funded labs, face the challenge of having to deal with a minute amount of resources. Labs have accumulated tools over years, even decades . Sometimes they even inherit the tools of researchers who have retired. A startup has nothing at the beginning: no space, no lab, no tools, no equipment.

Effectual thinking is crucial to succeed at this step (we discussed it in Chapter 2). It's thinking about what you can do with the resources you have, and not long for what you are missing.

In many cases, the secret is about finding cost-effective solutions. There's a fine line between building yourself and buying off the shelf. My background as a physicist who always built tools (software, electronics, and hardware), makes me too often default to an attitude of "I can make it myself". The open-hardware community has a wealth of ideas on how to build things, you just need to learn how to read diagrams and predict the untold challenges.

Depending on the stage of the company, time may be more valuable than money, or the other way around. Carefully understanding what you are doing and why you are doing it is crucial to separating what is worth doing and what can be purchased.

In my journey, I've learned the value of leveraging existing networks and skills. More often than not, a starting entrepreneur's resources are not in their bank account but in the contact list.

For instance, bootstrapping is a classic example of entrepreneurial resourcefulness. I've used open-source software and hardware extensively to avoid the high costs of proprietary solutions. It’s not just about saving money; it’s about being smart with your choices.

Bootstrapping in science startups is extremely uncommon but not impossible. Many scientists have access to grants that can support startup (product) creation. They are commonly known in the entrepreneurial world as "non-dilutive funding". The problem I've seen often is that grants are received when people are still too early in their entrepreneurial mindset journey .

Grants should be used to catalyze the path and commitment of two co-founders who will eventually focus full-time on the company. They should be used smartly to extract the most value for the future company. People sometimes get wrapped in trains of thought such as "de-risking", "technology readiness levels", or "market research".

Entrepreneurs have only one task: understanding who their customers are and what jobs their product is going to do.

These examples underscore the essence of resourcefulness in entrepreneurship. It's not always about having abundant resources; it's about maximizing whatever you have at your disposal. This skill is indispensable, especially when you're navigating the uncertain waters of starting and growing a business.

Creativity in Problem-Solving: How to Foster Innovative Thinking

In my experience, fostering innovative thinking is like planting a garden – it requires nurturing different ideas and approaches to see what blooms. But, as with any garden, it requires tendering.

Scientists are not exposed to the practices of designers, but there is a lot that can be learned from how they tackle problems.

Encouraging Divergent Thinking : One of the first steps I took to enhance my problem-solving was to embrace divergent thinking. This means deliberately stepping out of the conventional path and exploring multiple perspectives. I learned the value of repetitively asking "Why?" to uncover hidden patterns and problems. I learned to ask myself, “What if?” and “Why not?” These questions opened up new possibilities and often led to innovative solutions that I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

I held several brainstorming sessions but a word of caution is in order.

Brainstorming sessions are an efficient way of getting an entire team on board. They can be fun and highly collaborative. But I am not completely sure of their intrinsic value. Some people swear by them, but the majority of the sessions I've witnessed tend to reinforce preconceptions and unconscious biases.

If you ask me, brainstorming is the best way to manipulate a team into your vision, letting them believe the ideas are theirs.

Of course, this is not exclusive. Some sessions have been very inspirational, especially when surrounded by people you truly admire and who are over-prepared for the discussions to be had. Whether they altered the course of what we were doing is a different story.

Cross-Disciplinary Approaches : Another tactic I’ve employed is drawing insights from different fields. Sometimes, the solution to a problem in one area can be found in the techniques or principles of another.

This pattern is incredibly frequent in science-based companies. A technique developed in a computer science lab is used in a biochemistry company. A physics tool becomes the default standard in biology. Results from behavioral psychology are used in marketing campaigns.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, embracing failure as part of the process is fundamental. We discussed failure earlier, but it is worth repeating the ideas once more. Not all ideas, regardless of the time we spend, and the resources we throw at them will be, in the end, worth pursuing.

I’ve learned to view failure not as a setback but as a vital component of innovation . Each failed attempt is an opportunity to learn and refine my approach.

Innovative thinking in problem-solving is a skill that can be developed and honed . By encouraging divergent thinking, embracing diverse perspectives, and viewing failure as a learning opportunity, we can unlock our creative potential and find solutions that push the boundaries of what’s possible.

Parallels with Problem-Solving in Academic Research

In my transition from academia to entrepreneurship, I've noticed some fascinating parallels and contrasts in problem-solving approaches that I'd like to share.

Comparison with Academic Research : Firstly, the structure versus dynamism. Academic research often follows a very structured methodology, which I was quite accustomed to. It's about following protocols and procedures to the letter. You are encouraged to keep hitting the same rock until it cracks and perhaps you learn something new.

Persistence is a key skill that all academic researchers end up developing.

However, in the business world, I quickly learned that problem-solving is far more dynamic . You need to adapt quickly to what you learn. You have no resources nor time to keep trying over and over. The quicker you learn to say "stop" the faster you'll develop your products.

This shift from a structured approach to a more fluid one was challenging .

Changing your mind frame is never easy, regardless of how much read about these topics.

Then, there's the depth versus breadth aspect. In academia, the focus is often on delving deeply into specific topics. As an academic, I spent years focusing on narrow areas of study. I would spend all 40 hours in a week to generate a couple of data points for a plot in my paper.

In contrast, when I started Dispertech, I found that a broader view is often necessary. It's about understanding and integrating various aspects of the business. It's not fixating on a single hard-to-crack problem but understanding what are the most important things to solve first.

For example, we could have focused on automating our instrument so it could be used with minimal training. But that was of very little value without first understanding what samples people would have wanted to use.

This broader approach has been an exciting expansion of my problem-solving skills .

Applying Academic Skills Creatively to Entrepreneurial Challenges :

One area where my academic background has been particularly valuable is in critical analysis. The ability to critically analyze data and research in academia is incredibly useful in evaluating market opportunities and business strategies.

We are trained to ingest vast amounts of information, synthesize it, and build on top of it.

Starting a company feels the same in many regards. You dive head first into unknown topics, try to gather information, learn, and build.

The challenge is that the information is a loosely defined idea. While you may be used to reading papers, companies are built on human interactions. Understanding how to talk to people and parse what they are telling you is as important as reading papers outside your comfort zone.

Ingesting information has allowed me to make more informed decisions and identify the best strategies for my business.

There is the flip side to that coin: The systematic approach used in research.

It has helped me in creating detailed business plans and conducting thorough market analysis. Lab journals translated into business knowledge databases, with lists of suppliers, customers, and roadmaps.

Lastly, and very importantly, many technological and scientific startups, including my own, are direct applications of academic research .

The technical skills I developed while a Ph.D. (and for a short time a postdoc) were crucial to being able to build the initial products of Dispertech. In the beginning, I was doing almost the same things I was doing in the lab, but in a constrained setting: buying components, aligning lasers, and developing software for data analysis.

Examples of Academic Skills Applied to Entrepreneurial Challenges

Throughout my entrepreneurial journey, I've discovered that many skills honed in academia can be incredibly valuable when applied to business challenges. Let me share a few key examples:

  1. Experiment design for product validation : One of the first pieces of information many entrepreneurs encounter is the Lean Methodology . It embraces different practices, but one of them is creating efficient experiments to validate your assumptions. Are you sure people want what you are building? Let's do an experiment to find out. Thinking about how to nullify your hypothesis is a skill that every scientist has developed.
  2. Data Analysis for Market Insights : One of the most valuable skills I brought from academia to entrepreneurship is data analysis. For me, analyzing data is so engrained that didn't value it as a skill, but rather as a commodity. However, few people are used to analyzing the information they are presented with and taking informed action. From marketing to market, analysis is fundamental.
  3. Research Methodologies for Customer Discovery : Thinking about it as doing a literature review on a topic you are not familiar with. You will quickly understand what topics everyone works on, and what devices they use. Who cites who. What you will never find explicitly stated on a paper is where have they failed. What are the experiments people performed that went wrong and for which you may have a solution. Guessing that missing step, guessing where people would like to move forward is also called "Customer Discovery". In the end, it is doing research, but with a very soft definition of what it entails.
  4. Collaborative Projects : The collaborative nature of academic projects has been a great model for building effective, interdisciplinary teams in a business context. If you were lucky, your project involved different groups perhaps even a company. Experiencing collaborative efforts first-hand is a great insight to plan them from a company's perspective. How do you keep efforts aligned, how do you entice researchers to work effectively towards your goals?

Creativity in a nutshell

Many people tend to equate creativity to artistic jobs. Someone who creates an infographic is regarded as creative, while the one generating the data is seen as the opposite. Somehow, the 'graphic' becomes more relevant than the 'info' when it comes to praising people.

Creativity, for me, is nothing more than an interest in solving problems and challenges, learning from the outcomes, and improving the next time we face them again.

Not everyone is learning all the time, not everyone has the ability of self-reflection. That is OK for many contexts, but not for entrepreneurs.

Academia nurtures some types of creativity, especially technical. Entrepreneurs need to expand their action radius to other areas. After all, a good product does not solve just a problem, but one that addresses many at the same time. A good company overcomes many challenges, and creatively develops new solutions: new business models, new managerial styles, and new team compositions.


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Aquiles Carattino
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