July 20, 2016
From: Reddit AMA
Did you have some doubt about leaving academia and going to businesses to pursue your entrepreneur ideas?
Different people are different of course. But for me what’s important is being able to have ideas, and turn them into reality. And it didn’t take me long to realize that I could do that much more effectively in an entrepreneurial business setting than in academia.
I have to say that successful academics typically operate a bit like entrepreneurs anyway—but usually with a bunch of constraints imposed by the big institutional structures they’ve embedded in.
If you’re interested in something that there’s no conceivable business model around, then academia is a good place, so long as what you want to do is popular enough there. But in the modern world, there’s a great diversity of business models to be had (crowdfunding, web monetization, etc. etc.), and an awful lot of intellectual interests probably can be done as entrepreneurial businesses.
Of course, to be an entrepreneur you have to have a certain amount of practical business sense. I’ve always thought it was all just common sense, but watching what actually happens in lots of companies, I realize it’s not as common as I might have thought…
There’s sometimes an idea that if you’re good as an academic, you’ll be bad as an entrepreneur. I think they don’t need to be correlated. Now, of course, if you’ve spent years as an academic, and believe the most important thing in life is publishing papers, that’s not going to fly in the entrepreneurial world. But entrepreneurism is—like everything else—amenable to intellectual thinking. People sometimes have a nasty habit of not (as I tend to put it) “keeping the thinking apparatus engaged” when they’re trying to think about things other than their academic specialty.
For me personally, the path from academia to entrepreneurism was a bit complicated. I started my first company while I was still firmly an academic, and in fact I considered business my “hobby” for quite a few years. At my first company (which I started when I was 21), I didn’t have enough confidence in my business abilities (I had absolutely no real business experience) to be the CEO, so I brought in a CEO. After a few years I’d realized I wasn’t as clueless about business as I thought, and by the time I started Wolfram Research, I thought I pretty much knew what I was doing. I was still a professor for a little while, though, doing the company “on the side”. But I guess by the time Mathematica was launched in 1988, I’d transitioned to being a completely full time CEO. And it’s been great. Still, in the last few years, it’s been great to do a little “extreme professoring” every year at our summer school (https://education.wolfram.com/summer)… and I’m still (at least in principle) an adjunct professor…