Learnings From a Reluctant Entrepreneur

Posted February 11th, 2015 by Rosana Kapeller, in Bioentrepreneurship, Biotech startup advice, From The Trenches

I am a scientist by vocation and training and an entrepreneur by accident.  I got into the business of starting companies when I decided almost a decade ago that I wanted to work on a new crazy therapeutic modality and the only way to do it, and innovate, was by starting from scratch; roll up your sleeves, license the IP, get VC money, build a team, and go for it.  Luckily, when I co-founded my first startup company, I did not know anything about the process, so no pre-conceived biases informed by experience, sort of like skydiving and having absolute confidence your parachute will open, right? Nine years later, in my second company, I’ve learned some valuable lessons…

Reach out and ask for help.

That was a surprise for me.  Trained as an MD/PhD, I was used to finding answers to questions on my own, through books, papers, and lectures, all the while competing with colleagues. This approach leads one to the instantly recognizable phenotype of the arrogant, smart-ass MD/PhD who thinks they “know” all the answers.

Well, you can’t learn entrepreneurship from books.  You need to experience it.  I realized that pretty early, after a few memorable bumps that led to mid-afternoon drinks with one of my mentors and lots of “tough love” messages.  I learn reasonably fast, so I went looking for more people who could help me with my questions, the sort of people who had “been there, done that”. Most people I reached out to (a large share of Boston’s biotech community) welcomed me and volunteered their valuable and scarce time to help a rookie learn the basics of the business. I will always be grateful for the frequent advice I receive from them. I have also learned a ton from unexpected sources as well, sometimes you can learn a lot from people you would not classify as “friendly”.  But learning is learning, so it is important to take it all – even the unwanted feedback.  It’s fair to say 99.9% of people are willing to help – the key is that you have to ask for it.

Do not underestimate the importance of mentors

A lot has been written on the subject of mentorship. There are whole books dedicated to just this one topic, justifiably so. But books can’t translate the real experience of having good mentors who can help you navigate through troubled waters to reach your goal. As I mentioned above, they can help you “survive” situations that would otherwise “kill” you by landing you support and by telling you about their own successes and most importantly, their failures. One can learn a lot by listening to the success stories and emulating the behavior that leads to this particular outcome, but there is no substitute to hearing about how one overcomes “failure”. And here is one of the “unspoken” truths of this business: failure is a building block to success. Sounds contradictory but if you don’t fail, it means you have not risked enough and without risk no true innovation is possible. For me that has been one of the most valuable lessons I learned from my mentors over the years; as MD/PhDs we are only trained to “succeed”, “failure” is not an option. Pick your mentors carefully as they come in all shapes and sizes, they can be wise grey-heads or wet behind the ears, but what they all have in common is experience in a particular area that will help you overcome challenges and embrace opportunities. And remember, it is your job to reach out to them and build a productive relationship, they won’t land on your lap!

To create real value, find “your” people

Imagine this scenario: you have a refined business plan, you have licensed the IP, and you have convinced investors to believe in that asset/ plan. You are totally ready to go, but…the team is dysfunctional.

One thing that does not work in startups is to think people will change over time or that you can “fix” people.  People are not “fixable” in most instances. They are who they are and will operate within these boundaries.  The trick is to find people who complement each other and synergize.  These high performing, tightly knit teams are the only kind that can bring the bacon home, so to speak.  Given the amount of time we spend together, teams are like families, but unlike real families you actually have a choice about who is in it.  At the end of the day it is all about relationships. You can have the best asset but if you can’t execute on it because of the wrong team dynamic than you are not creating value.

Be vulnerable, it is OK

Following on the prior themes, showing vulnerability is OK – it just depends on the audience. Your team, including the folks working with you, your Board, and close advisors, should be the right audience. Vulnerability will allow you to ask questions and develop confidence in your skills – its only through admitting what you don’t know or aren’t good at that you can get the right feedback to improve. Plus, who wants to hang out with Superman?  Now, if you are Louis Lane….

Know your “expiration date”

We are like fresh produce, we all have an expiration date from days to years, and I firmly believe it’s important to know yours. It will help you and your company/colleagues, when you are the one to say, “it’s time for me to go and do something else.”  This is the hardest thing to go through, but knowing when to hand the reigns to others and leave is crucial for success. It can feel like going through a divorce and abandoning your babies, but the reality is that there are often other members of the family better suited to deal with teenagers and adult children.

Last but not least, always ask yourself two questions: do I love what I do?  Am I having fun?  If the answer is no to either one, then just move on and start your next (ad)venture. And there is always a next one… Jump with the firm conviction that the parachute always opens!

Rosana Kapeller

CSO of Nimbus
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