Founding a tech startup is a tough, winding journey full of ups and downs. And when you start this journey with no experience in the world of business, things can seem pretty overwhelming. One great example of this is making the transition from the world of academia to the launch of your startup. One founder we have worked with, who knows what it takes to go from the controlled realm of academia into the unpredictable but, ultimately, highly rewarding world of entrepreneurship, is Tom McNamara.
Tom founded FreeUP, a tech company that builds devices combining software, hardware and communication tech to enable better decision making. FreeUP’s devices make the collection of ‘on-the-ground’ data easy to allow companies to adopt better, more automated processes. I thought it would be useful to share some valuable lessons on his founder’s journey, from ‘academia to enterprise’.
You can listen to the full conversation by tuning in to episode 19 of tsf.tech’s weekly podcast “From the Factory Floor”. It all starts by asking questions One thing that pretty much all tech startup founders have in common is that they have identified a problem and created an innovative solution for it. Our conversation started by me asking Tom for his take on how to think about problem-solving:
Tom: “When you think about a problem, it takes almost no effort, no time and no cost to sit down with a beer, browse the internet and think about how you can make something better. If you can, you will find that you can triage a lot of problems, regardless of how challenging they are, and then you can start to look into how you can make a change. These days, you can make a lot of that journey without literally leaving your front room – most of humanity’s knowledge is accessible through a phone!”
So, it all starts by just asking the question, “What if?”
You don’t need to be a specialist in a subject, you can have an idea and then go and find out how to put it together; but it all starts by asking questions – that is the key part of the startup. And that is what Tom does brilliantly – he’s constantly curious. A startup is an experiment! I met Tom at one of the mentoring programmes I ran at the University of Manchester. I used to run a training programme for a cohort of c15 PhD students, four times a year, teaching the principles of entrepreneurship and how to start a startup. Tom was one of those students, and we hit it off.
After that, he came into our tsf.tech incubator, and we started to build the first version of his product idea. I asked him if he had any advice for new founders about these very early stages:
Tom: “In many ways, a startup is like an experiment. You start off with a hypothesis, ask the ‘What if?’ and the ‘Why?’ first. Then, you start your iteration and learning and answer the ‘How?’ From my experience, the journey from academia to entrepreneurship is about having that mindset and curiosity of a scientist or researcher, but you don’t need to be a PhD student to have that. You just need to follow the scientific method and focus on the bigger picture but have some narrow goals to get you through each step.”
FreeUP – A startup’s first few steps
Tom: “The original idea for FreeUP came about after I realised that many people in many different careers spend a lot of time and effort becoming specialists to only then squander that time by being bogged down by really inefficient workflows. Wouldn’t it be useful if there was a company that provided solution to help people automate these problems away? So we started off with having a solution to reading analogue dials. I thought it would be useful if we had a little box with a camera in it that could look at a dial gauge and then automate the output and translate the analogue reading into digital data. This FreeUP sensor allows anyone to automate their equipment without knowing how any of it worked! It just seemed like a very simple offering, but since then, we’ve expanded into other sectors and are making other products.” Sometimes in the world of tech, the simpler the idea, the better. It allows you to start getting something out there that, if done well, can almost have limitless applications – like the FreeUP sensor.”
However, even to get to this stage, where you have moved from proof of concept and got your first prototype, can be hard. For first time founders, there are always barriers in the way… I asked Tom to give us a few examples of some of the barriers and challenges he face
Self-belief and business acumen
Tom: “As a founder, one of the main barriers is having the self-belief that if you read enough, and you teach yourself enough, you are as qualified as someone else. One of the hardest things is thinking you have found a solution and not discrediting the fact that you have actually found a new and improved way of doing it.
Also, building a tech company is quite an undertaking. You need to create a technology that enables a product to works independently of the company, and both have to work for the company to operate. So, you’ve kind of almost doubled the problem in a sense. Another challenge I have faced in the past is dealing with other people in other businesses. If you’re in academia, you’re used to working with teams of people that have a solid commitment to doing something.
In this world, if people say yes, it really means yes. But when you start to engage with external businesses, the other person may genuinely mean yes, but their boss, whom you’ve never met, decides to drop out at the last minute. There is often reticence to work with an innovative startup due to lack of track record. So I’d say, with a tech startup, you have to make sure the technology delivers, but dealing with people is one of the hardest thing in getting stuff done in the timescales you want.”
Having been on this journey, and come out the other side, I asked Tom if he had some final advice specifically for any academics who are looking at founding their first startup:
When to be precise and when to let go
Tom: “Academics spend years and years becoming incredibly precise with everything they do, which can be a great approach, but you need to learn to wield it correctly. As an academic, this can help you when it comes down to contracts or corrections, but you also need to be able to have the self-control to turn it off and not obsess over things that are wrong. And that means not being scared to push things through when they are 80% complete.
Finally, don’t be scared of getting started. There will never be a perfect time, but if you don’t just start, you’ll end up spending a lot of time thinking and never doing. Your first product doesn’t have to be some glossy, finished shiny thing with loads of tech and snazzy data charts. My first ‘product’ was a camera strapped to a tin of beans! I think the misconception that it all has to be perfect puts a lot of people off from ever incrementally improving anything, which I think is possibly the worst outcome when it comes to innovation.”
I hope you found this useful!
To learn more about Tom and the awesome work he is doing, head over to his website at FreeUP.world or email him at email@example.com.
If you have any questions or would like to hear more about launching a tech startup, check out episode 19 of our podcast “From the Factory Floor”. Alternatively, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.