By Sally Burn, PhD
Do you spend as much time thinking about the amazing idea you have for a startup company as you do about your experiments? If so a post-PhD career as a startup founder may be in your future. We chatted to Rudy Bellani, founder of tech startup Oystir, a company which matches PhDs to suitable jobs based on their skills, about his career transition from neuroscientist to CEO and asked how our readers can also make the jump.
Hi Rudy! So what exactly does a Tech Founder do?
What my function is at the company is completely dependent on the skills I have and the challenges I want to take on. For me, usually, it’s working with developers, recruiters and marketers to achieve a specific end. I function some days as a marketer, some days as a UX (User Experience) designer, some days as a recruiter, some days as a manager, some days as a grunt; it’s just totally dependent on the day. You do everything – you can’t be above doing something. What a founder does is also totally dependent on the company you start, so there’s a very big difference between a technology startup and a biotech startup from the standpoint that in one you might be really focused on say procuring a CRO (Contract Research Organization) and working with scientists in a wet lab setting.
How did you get to where you are now?
I did my neuroscience PhD at Rockefeller University in New York City and then went right after to McKinsey & Company to be a consultant. I spent two and a half years there and then jumped from McKinsey to start my own company, convinced one of my best friends at McKinsey to join me, and then we found some technical friends to join. The thing is that looking at that journey you might think that I got here because I learned business at McKinsey. The truth is I didn’t learn a lot at McKinsey that’s directly applicable to what I’m doing, even though that’s what I thought I was doing. I knew I wanted to start a company back in my grad school days but I frankly just needed money. I was so broke and I just needed to have a real job for a little while. So how I got here was I just wanted to do it and then just got brave enough to do it.
What are the key skills needed for this job? Did you develop any of them during your PhD?
It’s a lot of soft skills: perseverance, grit, and a lot of hustle. For my particular role as the CEO and the guy who cobbled together the team, there’s a lot of salesmanship. You just have to sell people on what you’re doing. You have to sell them to quit their jobs; you have to sell investors to invest in you when they shouldn’t. You’re just constantly selling. In terms of where I got those skills, I think half of it was my childhood. The other half are all of the foundational traits that led me, like most, to grad school – i.e. being someone who is willing to take on a high risk, high reward project, who is willing to be alone at the forefront of something and believe in it, when everybody else thinks it’s a crappy idea. Somebody who is able to persevere for a long time bashing their head against the wall with no seeming positive results. Somebody who loves ideas and is able to create their own path to an idea. People that like to work alone or in very small teams on things they are very passionate about… those feel like the sort of very foundational traits to doing this job. People who tend to go to grad school tend to have a lot of those traits.
What would be your advice to a PhD wanting a job similar to yours?
A startup is such a high risk endeavor that wherever you can derisk it you should and there are some easy places for people to do derisk ventures. Taking advantage of our time in grad school or in our postdoc to start working on ventures makes a ton of sense because even if we leave the lab at 8pm every day, that still gives you a handful of hours. Many of us aren’t married, don’t have kids; so you have spare time and you can use that to work on a venture to see if it takes off. Even if you do have a family, as I did, there is space within the day to daydream, go on Facebook or read Reddit – time that can be appropriated for bigger adventures. I know many grad students who have already followed that model, many that eventually quit MD/PhDs, PhDs, postdocs, even professorships once their business took off. Doing it in parallel makes a ton of sense. Or, again in parallel, apply to accelerator programs. They effectively give you a chunk of cash and they help you.
What are the top three things on your To Do list right now?
My top three tasks to do right now are: firstly, check in with candidates. We have a bunch of PhDs who are in the interview process at various companies, so I need to check in with them to see how things are going and if they need help preparing. Another task is setting up a bunch of school visits, between two and six schools each month. And another task is that we are right now in the process of launching our resume service. We’ve rolled it out to maybe a third of our users to test, and it’s gone really well so now we’re rolling it out to the rest.
What are your favorite – and least favorite – parts of the job?
My favorite parts about the job are feeling that your work really matters – if I don’t show up the company dies – feeling like you’re working on something you really care about and having a tremendous amount of flexibility. Throughout the process I had a kid, moved cities, and that made me change my schedule; sometimes I started later, sometimes I worked from home – and that flexibility has been really helpful for my own personal life. My least favorite aspect is that there’s no stability. Your company could die every week. If key people quit, your company is dead. If investors back out, you’re dead. If you fall out of love with the company, you’re dead. You are just so vulnerable because it’s this tiny group of humans doing this very focused thing. It’s hard work. The other is just how many administrative things there are… I’m not a detail oriented person, and thank god that I have Zach Marks, one of my co-founders, he’s this tremendously talented guy I met a Mckinsey who joined the company. But there are just a billion things that you need to do as a real company. Like have workers compensation, payroll, taxes… there’s a thousand minor things and they just suck. With great power comes great responsibility!
Is there anything you miss about academia?
I LOVED doing science. I even started grad school early in order to get started right away. Since Rockefeller didn’t have housing for me yet I slept underneath my lab bench, on the tile floor, for three months. When I eventually got a job at McKinsey I felt like a quitter, a failure, and was embarrassed. Eight months into that job, I was on a post-academia panel for neuroscientists as the consultant representative and this same question was asked and I answered, to my amazement, “no, I don’t miss anything about academia.” I love the business side of things. We forget sometimes that what drew us into science was that we are intensely curious human beings who love to build and create things. Building organizations has a lot of that too.
How do you see your field developing over the next ten years?
I think that we’re going to see more and more people jumping from academia to start their companies, because it’s just getting easier and easier to do. Already we’re seeing there is a really rapidly developing pipeline for grad students and postdocs to jump from academia to a biotech startup. There’s already a ton of programs for that and I think that will only grow, especially because right now a lot of that growth is based in Boston and San Francisco, and it’s just starting to catch up in New York. And certainly other schools all over the country have started to pick this up. It’s so useful having well worn track records where students can look and say five or six grad students from my department have done this, one of them has become really successful, three of them ended up getting a job… you need pioneers. But what there isn’t a lot of energy for right now is people leaving academia to start non-science based companies. And I would be part of that group to some degree. But I think that as more people become aware that they can do all kinds of different companies, I think that that will grow. And again that will be shaped by there being examples of people who can mentor and help individuals, because it’s really scary to go from something that is very structured to jump into something that isn’t. You can work out of a box under a bridge, no one cares, no one’s thinking about you.
What kind of positions does someone in your position move on to?
PhDs who start their own companies, where they tend to go is to be a manager in a bigger company of their type. So, people that start their own biotech companies and fail – which almost everybody does – pretty rapidly join manager level positions in larger biotechs. That’s almost overwhelmingly what happens. You have a biotech startup of three or four people, you do that for two or three years, it fails, then you go join a fifty person biotech company; you go in as manager. You’ve already worked with CROs and done x-y-and-z, and a lot of those accomplishments are very much rewarded. Then for non-science startup founders, they tend to do the exact same thing. The point is you build expertise in an area and that expertise is valued, and the traits that leads someone to start their own venture are very valued – the risk taking, the chasing your dreams, the go out there and do it yourself mentality – which leads to people being snapped up very quickly.
Finally, the all-important question: In the event of a zombie apocalypse, what skills would a Tech Founder bring to the table?
The startup founder is more likely to be the raider, they will get together a small group of weirdos who will go off into the wasteland and come back with treasure… or will die. Just like a startup.
For some expert advice on the post-PhD job hunt, check out Rudy’s guest posts on penning a winning resume and why the executive summary is the most important item on your resume.