Pre-Course Exercise: "Soul in the Game"

Do you have soul in the game?

Skin in the game means that you have a meaningful personal exposure to the outcome of the venture. If the company is successful, you have something meaningful to gain. If the company fails, you have something meaningful to lose. Risk and reward are connected if you have skin in the game.

Entrepreneurs by definition have skin in the game. Entrepreneurs are risking their time, energy, health and finances to bring something new into the world. Depending on your situation, this risk might be large or it might be small. For example, if you live in San Francisco and own an iPhone, there isn't much real risk to starting a software company. You'll be able to find out quickly if you have something that people care about and, if you're wrong, you'll have no trouble finding a job at another software company. People will revere you for your risk-taking.

In my world...the world of deep tech, tough tech, hard tech, clean tech, real tech...the timeline is much longer. It takes decades to bring new materials and manufacturing processes into the marketplace. It takes a long time to innovate in the physical sciences. This is why skin in the game is not enough. If you only have skin in the game, you're going to burn out or freak out before your innovation crosses the chasm.

If you are going to make the transition from PhD to CEO, from scientist to entrepreneur, you need to have soul in the game. You need to have a vocation, not a job. You need to be deeply passionate about the problem that you are solving. So before you proceed any further down this path, please ask yourself the following hypothetical questions:

  • Congratulations! You were just offered that "engineering" job at Facebook/Google/Apple/BigCorpInc. The offer is $210k/yr starting salary plus moving expenses. Do you accept?
  • Your labmate seems pretty excited about starting a company based on the paper you just published together. How does that make you feel? How would you feel if they started a company without you?
  • After seeing your amazing conference presentation, BigCorpInc is interested in licensing your patent. How does that make you feel? How would you feel if BigCorpInc took this technology to market? How would you feel about a job there?
  • Your friend Raymond confides in you that, after leaving Caltech four years ago, he hasn't learned any new science, because he has been so focused on getting his business off of the ground. The science behind is technology is exactly the same as when he left graduate school. He doesn't read JACS ASAPs anymore, he checks his iPhone a lot and he looks sleep deprived. How does that make you feel? Are you sad for him?
  • The devil offers you a $2 million investment in your new startup on a $2 million pre-money valuation. What do you do next?

I really want you to sit with these for a bit. Come back to them tomorrow, it's okay to take your time.

Do you have a sense of what I'm driving towards? Let me be more direct: if you can imagine yourself being happy doing anything else - you should probably go do that instead of starting a deep tech company. If instead you are so fired up about the possibility of bringing your ideas into the real world that you would be upset if someone else did it for you - then let's get started.

It's okay if you don't want to be the CEO. It's okay if you don't have a PhD. But don't take this course if you would be just as happy being a data scientist at Facebook. Don't take this course if your only interest in entrepreneurship is the possibility that you could make a lot of money.

Are you really committed to taking the leap from lab rat to leader?

If so, I'm here to help.

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