Kill the myth, follow the science

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Aki is co-founder at naavathe world leader in smart green walls, serial entrepreneur, enterprise decathlete and aspiring scientist.

The idea for this article came from a week-long discussions I had with entrepreneurs, investors and policymakers at the 2022 World Economic Forum. The central theme of these conversations was the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset and skills to help companies tackle global problems.

While chatting in Davos, I was reminded of a… NPR interview with serial entrepreneur Noubar Afeyan. Afeyan talked about entrepreneurship and getting new ideas off the ground through his own factory, Flagship Pioneering. Flagship is in creating companies that solve problems worth solving. It’s a combination of startup creation and corporate venturing – with a twist.

At the heart of Afeyan’s business creation ethos is the realization that people think of entrepreneurship in “almost mythical terms.” Names like Elon Musk and Richard Branson are considered veritable superheroes of industry and wealth, representing the pinnacle of entrepreneurial success and financial well-being.

I think one of the great myths of entrepreneurship has been the idea of ​​the entrepreneur as a lone hero, battling the storms of economic, governmental and environmental forces that stand between failure and success. But I have found that this is never the case.

What we often ignore is the other side of entrepreneurship: the sheer hard work, self-doubt, company failures, ridicule and struggle for funding, not to mention physical, mental and social challenges. For every startup success, there are hundreds of failures.

Instead of brushing aside this hard truth, embrace it.

Entrepreneurship is always a roller coaster, full of highs and lows. It often seems that there is never a steady state; you either feel invincible or you run out of ideas. However, if you have a process in place, these highs and lows can be a valuable resource to create, coupled with a North Star vision and a clear mission like a compass pointing your way.

Take things step by step.

For Flagship, the first step is ‘exploration’. This is the stage where the folks at Flagship go out into the field and talk to experts about the viability of their business idea. At this stage, entrepreneurs should ask questions like, “What if this existed?” or “What if you could snap your fingers and fix this; what would happen?”

In 2010, Moderna began exploring a little-known area of ​​science that is now considered one of the breakthroughs of our time: the idea of ​​using messenger RNA (mRNA) to teach human cells to make proteins that trigger an immune response. Afeyan’s team set out to conduct a series of experiments to tackle the challenges. They were able to solve many of these challenges in a lab environment, so the concept was taken to the next stage: the creation of a so-called ‘proto company’.

I’ve learned that building a startup is always an iterative process. You build something and if a process or role doesn’t work, you restructure or rebuild. Then again, again and again. It is rare for things to work, both when the company is made up of the founders and five employees, as well as when there are a hundred employees. I always tell founding colleagues that if you don’t know everyone by their first name, it’s time to bring in the MBAs.

Focus your attention in the right places at the right time.

Interestingly, Afeyan has a policy of not naming proto companies – they just get a number. His thinking is that names create an emotional connection with a temporary entity, and when people have an emotional connection, it becomes harder to let go.

This is healthy thinking. I would also argue that choosing a good business name is not easy. It is time consuming and often takes a few tries. You will quickly get into identity, branding, tone-of-voice and website design. For example, my own company, Naava, was not always Naava. It was Fresh Effect first (yes, I don’t know what we were thinking – sounds like a toothpaste brand), then Naturvention and then Naava.

These things are fundamental to a business down the road, but they were often just pointless distractions for founders in the beginning. All those startups out there with sophisticated websites – many fail. You must first make sure that the product is something the early pioneering customers desire before trying to sell it.

A startup is not a miniature version of a large company.

After experimenting with the proto-company for a few months, Afeyan and his colleagues became convinced of the potential of mRNA and started a real company, Moderna. By 2021, the company would be world famous – they were lucky enough to be ready to meet the rapidly changing needs of the world. They had the product ready when the world needed it, and they were ready to explore the market opportunities.

Many companies don’t get that far. But if you have the discipline to follow a proven methodology, only a few need to be successful for the whole concept to work. This is an accelerated, systematic evolutionary model for creating impactful businesses.

I’ve founded or practically helped my friends set up a new venture dozens of times, and what I’ve learned is that a startup isn’t just a miniature version of a large company. Startups specialize in value creation and companies in value extraction. This is where many experienced corporate people go wrong when they move to the other side where the grass is greener by starting a company. It’s still grass, but you may need to water and trim differently.

It is important for entrepreneurs to understand the “zero-to-one process” and to systematically combine entrepreneurial spirit and creativity with leadership and determination. And if you are goal oriented, remember that creating successful startups or businesses is ultimately a numbers game.


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