I’m a recovering academic.
Some of my still-academic friends are offended by that term. But I mean it in the most endearing way. Just like a recovering anything struggles not to fall back into old habits, I do the same with research, numbers, and learning.
Let me be clear: I love research, numbers, and learning.
I was getting a Ph.D. so I could make a living out of learning. I am probably going to apply to another Ph.D. program within the next 10 years. I only quit–over 3 years into the program–because I was diagnosed with serious mental illnesses that forced me to reevaluate life, work, and, well, everything. I’ve been in therapy for 5 years. Being sick sucks.
But getting sick drove me to entrepreneurship, for which I am immensely grateful.
Unbeknownst to me, my academic background (ok, and academic personality), was going to be a serious problem as an entrepreneur.
Numbers don’t matter as much as I want them to in business.
As I succinctly explain to my scientific friends:
Business is stupid.
Business is an experiment, certainly, but you’re not going to get repeatable results or be able to control all your variables or otherwise actually be able to figure out what’s going on most of the time.
Barbara Corcoran, whom you may know from ABC’s show Shark Tank, said the following about academics in business:
“If you’re going to start a business, my own practical experience says [an MBA] gets in the way. It gets in the way because you study the theory of how to do a business. You understand all the language, the fancy talk, and in the end what you don’t get is street smarts because you’re busy in the classroom. Most of my very successful entrepreneurs, myself included, cannot read a financial statement. We don’t know a thing about numbers. But what we’re very good at is thinking on our feet and sizing up people. And what do you build a business on in the end? It’s people.”
My roommate in grad school (and eventual maid of honor) was in the MBA program while I worked on my science-y stuff. I never understood what she was talking about and generally couldn’t relate to her friends on the rare occasions I did something with them (I’m pretty sure the feeling was mutual when she hung out with my friends). But Jenny and I connected on another level, and I appreciated our slightly odd couple relationship.
Purdue had a decently ranked MBA program in its niche, but most people weren’t leaving with outstanding offers.
She worked hard, but she also worked differently. She was the girl in the back of the class reading a newspaper and arguing with the professors that what they were suggesting “doesn’t work in the real world.” While she was an intern at a large company you know, she regaled me with stories about chiming in at board meetings with the C-Suite that the company was losing money because, and I quote, “your stores look like shit.” She would call people out, loudly, at networking meetings if they said something that was ridiculous to her.
To me, at the time, this all sounded obnoxious. I’ve always been the goody-goody nerd. Surely she was shooting herself in the foot?
When she graduated, she left with the highest starting offer Purdue’s graduate business school had ever had.
She wasn’t your typical MBA student. And she’s doing very well for herself now in the business world, 5 years later.
Business is about personality, positioning, and people, more than anything else.
For those of us who, like yours truly, are introverted nerds, this feels really hard. And, if you’re also a rebellious, introverted nerd, it gets even harder.
I pushed back against this idea that numbers don’t matter, how people feel does. I knew that the numbers were valuable, and I wanted to prove myself right.
Well, the numbers do have value…but not as much value as talking to people. As showing your personality and your opinion.
On a road trip this weekend, I made Matt listen to a Gary Vee keynote. Matt always laughs when he overhears me listening to Gary Vee, because “he sounds like Jenny if she were a guy.”
In this keynote, because of the audience, Gary harps on the “quant people” who are “transactional over relational.” The ones who are more interested in short-term data over long-term brand building. The ones who are crunching numbers instead of thinking big picture.
Matt laughed again “oh man, you’re not going to like this one are you?”
I was slightly taken aback. “No…actually…I completely agree with him.”
I don’t know when, exactly, that switch from being a “numbers person” to a “people person” happened, but it certainly snuck up on me.
I’d always thought of myself as a people person, but I was relying too heavily on the numbers to tell me what the people wanted. I created products and services that the numbers told me people wanted, not that people told me they wanted.
And I over-researched everything. I was taking action, but only if the data backed me.
I worked with Halley Gray for over a year, in part because I knew she was also a “Jenny personality” and would act as a nice foil to my perspective. She spent most of that year hammering me over the head that I needed to stop researching. Stop running the (unnecessary) numbers. So I rebelled and researched more.
But as soon as I made that transition from numbers to people…my business took off. I wish I could pinpoint the day, the event, or the mindset shift happening, but it happened.
I’m still a recovering academic. I’m still researching, learning, and looking at numbers.
But my approach to business has completely changed. Business is stupid, and I can’t run my business like a science experiment.
Ultimately? People are uncontrollable variables.
And I’m ok with that.