Am I doing the right thing: How can I know when I should start a business


I am extremely confused as to whether I am on the right track with the way I planned things to be.

I wanted to start my own company in IT. I did a special degree in Geology and with effort I changed my field to the type of thing I always liked to do: things about GPSs, navigation systems etc. For the speciality of the interest of mine in my country, soon after my degree I was offered a good position in a company.

After that my plan of starting a business by my own has been put on to a hold not knowing where to start. I always thought it is a great thing to start something in the US.

Now I have been offered a PhD position in a US University in the exact same field I am interested in. If I accept the offer it will take five more years to complete it and come back to my country.

I am 26 at the moment, do you think the things I have been doing and am planning to do will make me start a good business? Or should I do things differently? I have not done any business even though I strongly want to.


asked Apr 20 '11 at 02:45
Pathum Mudannayake
178 points
Top digital marketing agency for SEO, content marketing, and PR: Demand Roll
  • Thanks Matt, for adding on to the readability. I am really sorry for not formatting the text. Thanks again – Pathum Mudannayake 13 years ago
  • It might be better to ask something that we can actually answer :) For example "Are there people who are PhDs in xxx that have started businesses after 30?" It's impossible for us to say what you should do at this point... what metric should we use? most fun? most money? least amount of work? – Michael Pryor 13 years ago

3 Answers


In my opinion, getting a PhD is the wrong direction for starting a company.

It takes a long time and is essentially training for being a professor at a university. If your career goal is not to be a professor at a university, the training is not the right kind of training.

To be successful as an entrepreneur you can't hesitate. If you're wavering, the first time you reach an obstacle, you'll give up. The best entrepreneurs are a little bit reckless and convinced that no other alternative is possible. If you're not feeling this way, entrepreneurship may not be for you!

answered Apr 20 '11 at 11:45
Joel Spolsky
13,482 points
  • Hi Joel, it is a great honor to have answered a question by you. You may be correct with your view. But in my case getting a PhD will not make me have millions of opportunities (simply because I don't want to accept anything but what I always wanted to do in my life). There for I am also pretty much stuck with only one option, to execute my idea(s). I thought the PhD I am going to pursue will add more sustainability to the business I am going to start. In fact I am thinking of researching on my business idea as a PhD student. By the way stackexchange sites are nothing but amazing, Hats up!!! – Pathum Mudannayake 13 years ago


Plans and life don't often stay too close together!

In your question and background, the one thing you don't address at all is your business idea. In fact it's not clear to me if you have one. Wanting to start a business is great - but to do so you need to have a viable idea and some idea of how to execute it. Then enough flexibility to admit 9 of your 10 guesses were wrong and keep adjusting until you end up with something that works!

You should also ask yourself why you want to start a business. There's many types of businesses too - some more risky than others.

Who can say if you're ready, or which is right? Not sure anyone can but you - but I will say no amount of reading and preparation can replace just doing. Though having said that you should probably go read "Founders at Work"

answered Apr 20 '11 at 04:09
2,552 points


I don't have an answer for you on what to do with your life. I will tell you a story or two:

I met with two business partners this afternoon. One had a business development background, the other a unique specialty in a very specific medical field. They have raised an invested over 10 million dollars in a medical device company. The presence of a terminal degree in his field made one of the founders extraordinarily valuable to the partnership and the company.

One of my favorite start-up clients was a brilliant entrepreneur who started his life as an engineer, then became a ordained minister and then finally a marriage counselor. His unique approach resulted in books, workshops a devoted following and a start-up with legs. Those three advanced degrees were not a detraction from his entrepreneurial spirit at all.

Next month I will be working with a professor (PdD) from a major University that has pulled together a team of investors and supporters to launch a start-up to bring a new model of water purification to rural areas. After years of studies and research, his model has the potential of bringing potable water to millions. His entrepreneurial approach to solving a significant global health issue has not been hampered by his years of academia. They provided him an R&D incubator.

Diverse Experiences Matter In today's economy we don't all have one profession. And entrepreneurship need not be the first, nor the last. Different life experiences provide different strengths to a new company. Sometimes maturity will make all the difference. Sometime youthful arrogance will be the essential ingredient.

In some markets you can blog your way to credibility. In other's peer-reviewed papers are the appropriate degree are essential. In highly specialized fields -- like medicine, or therapy, biology, chemistry, physics -- and yes, even computer science -- the training and discipline which comes with a PhD can be the differentiators which will make the start-up work.

A Solid Link Between PhD's and Entrepreneurship There are many entrepreneurs with PhD's. It is more or less prevalent by industry. Also some culture -- like Germany, or China -- put a higher value in the business community on education. I did notice that a significant percentage of the "entrepreneurs from around the world which were award winners in Ernst & Youngs Entrepreneur of the Year had advanced degrees in their fields. (I know many of you wont consider him an entrepreneur of a start-up, but of note: Eric Schmidt @ Google had a PhD in Computer Science.)

I was recently checking out Third Rock Venture's website doing some research for a client and noticed that ever single one of their "Entrepreneurs in Residence " had a PhD.

And there are many Universities actually offering PhD programs in Entrepreneurship. St. Louis Univiersity.

Emerging Markets -- like BioTech -- Need PhDs This is from a press release in 2009:

Biotech is the industry that is
attracting the most venture capital
dollars, according to the latest stats
from the National Venture Capital
Association. So wouldn’t it make sense
that science PhDs could be poised to
become the 21st century version of the
Google Guys? Meaning, pursuing a
science PhD or an MD in 2009 could be
the right training for an inventive
entrepreneur, parallel to studying
computer science in 1999.

At least that’s the thinking behind
new fellowships being granted by the
Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The
organization announced today that it’s
awarding 13 postdoctoral researchers
the financial and mentorship support
to commercialize their scientific

I met recently in New York with Lesa
Mitchell, the Kauffman Foundation’s
vice president of Advancing
Innovation. “The economic recovery
will happen through entrepreneurship,
which can help fuel growth,” she said.
“We want to help build a pipeline
between PhDs and MDs and VCs.”

Last year Biotect was the number one VC invested area for new start-ups. I am willing to bet every nearly single one of them has PhD's in leadership positions.

Universities Support Entrepreneurial Activity Among their PhD's Most major universities have entire departments which work with their professors across the disciplines on how to commercialize the research developed with their support. Perhaps it would be worth your time to ask the University that has offered you the PhD position what type of support, licensing requirements and track record they have. Perhaps you will find that the two paths are not as mutually exclusive as you thought.

Final Note And to close things out -- here is a great little blog post from a PhD with the top 5 reasons why he believe PhD's make great entrepreneurs.

answered Apr 20 '11 at 16:53
Joseph Barisonzi
12,141 points
  • Hi Joseph, you really spirited me up with what I always wanted to do: Right type of knowledge to maintain the sustainability and the growth of anything I am going to start up. Your hint on support for entrepreneurship in Universities greatly attracted me. I will definitely go through the availabilities. I will need more time to read your post over and over again to get the most out of it. Sorry that I can't vote you up simply because I am in short of points. – Pathum Mudannayake 13 years ago
  • By the way do you think starting up a business while I do my studies would hurt? – Pathum Mudannayake 13 years ago

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