When you first read this month's title (combined with the fact that my previous two-part series dealt with entrepreneurs), you may believe that I am about to launch a discourse on how to take your graduate thesis and polish it up for the venture capital marketplace.
You would be incorrect. The current column is not about how to start a biotech company. Instead, it discusses how to develop the right frame of reference for a successful career in someone else's biotech company. If at some future point in your career, you decide to go the solo route, then your decision will have all the more chance of succeeding because you took the time to learn how to be a good employee first.
Today's World of Work
Not that long ago, scientists who wanted an industrial career went into the employment market with the intent of working for one company until retirement. Job searching was a skill that was used on only a few occasions during a lifetime.
My father's view of my first job change was probably typical. He was a lifetime employee of a Fortune 10 corporation. The job changes I made in my early career moves seemed to him to be the equivalent of career self-destruction. In his time, employers took care of their people, so moving up in the organization was a thing that came easily to those who could show up on time and work hard.
Over time, things started to change. And now the move to a high-tech, entrepreneurial society built on "dot.coms" and other start-up companies has driven a final nail into the coffin of the old rules of employment.
Looking at the CVs received in our recruiting office, the average stay in a biotechnology firm seems to be approximately 4 years long. With this relatively short term of employment for the typical scientist, both employers and employees have shifted their priorities. Gone are valuable perks like my Dad's pension (representing decades of earnings accumulation), replaced by stock option grants that vest in 3 or 4 years. And equally as dead are corporate career plans that promise you training and a promotion in exchange for your loyalty. Today's industrial scientist owns his or her career plan; it no longer resides in the HR department as it might have a couple of decades ago.
Because of these changes, I urge you to think about what you offer the prospective employer and to package and promote it as any entrepreneur would in building his or her own company. Sit down, take out a legal pad, and begin to sketch out a business plan for a firm called "ME Inc." This business plan will give you a competitive edge not only to move ahead of your job-market competition, but to maximize your impact in the firm where you will eventually work.
The Components of "ME Inc."
If you were truly writing a business plan, your key components would include research and development, marketing, sales, and customer service, among others. (We'll leave "financing" out of the picture at this time, because despite how badly you need it, it will be useful only when you use your business plan to get a good job and move up the ladder.)
Research and Development
Because your product at ME Inc. represents your own unique skills and abilities, the research and development that you conduct for your business plan should be geared toward the need for these services in industry:
What "value" can an employer get out of your training and experience? Your current skills may be interesting and educational, but are they of interest to industry? If not, is there some way that you can further develop your core areas of expertise to improve their usefulness? If you are currently in the process of choosing additional coursework or the direction of a future postdoctoral appointment, have you considered which available options fit best into the requirements of companies for which you may eventually want to work?
Biotechnology organizations are in the continual process of hiring from a number of hot niches. Conduct some research. Which of these niches are expected to be hot when you are available and ready for employment? Which of these niches can you tap into at this time?
Marketing and Sales
The two words, marketing and sales, are constantly thrown together as if they are one. In reality, they are as different as cooking and eating. Marketing is the strategy and preparation behind getting your product or service out into the marketplace. Sales is the name that we give to that process in which ownership of the product is transferred.
How will you market yourself into the biotechnology companies that you have targeted? Will you set up a direct mail campaign that will get your CV in front of as many HR departments as possible? (This is not very effective.) Or will you try and identify some prospective "sponsors" inside those companies whom you might impress enough to help you make it through their corporate barriers?
Marketing professionals believe that one of their most important tasks is to approach the "thought leaders" in their area of interest. These few leaders are very influential in the further development of the company's product or service. Think about your goal to gain entrance into the world of the industrial life sciences. Who are the movers and shakers, the thought leaders of your particular field? Do they know you? Will your networking process extend to these few luminaries? Although you may not end up making personal contact with each individual who is a center of influence in your field, you'll find that it can be extraordinarily productive when you do.
Scientists are never comfortable with the word "sales." And yet conducting a successful personal marketing campaign really hinges upon this ability. Don't think about it as "used car selling." When I analyze the sales process, I have always found that selling is simply transferring enthusiasm from one person to another. Are you enthusiastic about your strengths and abilities? That's all that ME Inc. will require for the sales section of your business plan. No special training and no sales classes necessary. Just enthusiasm and an inherent belief that you have something of value to offer.
Although doing good R&D will fine-tune ME Inc.'s product and a proper sales/marketing effort will get it in front of the right people, the ultimate success of your "company" will depend upon the customer service effort you expend.
Who's the customer? It may currently be the principal investigator in your lab or your graduate adviser. In the near future, it will most likely be a manager in a company who is expecting you to perform a certain task. As a part of a team effort, or as an independent scientist working at the bench, your success in this industrial environment will depend upon how well you provide service to this person.
When you change your mode of thinking and analyze your relationship with your employer in this way, you will gain a much clearer understanding of the factors that can influence your career success. People who provide services to their "customers" are at the core of all successful biotech companies.
It's clear that companies will no longer provide you with all the "extras" that you might need to be happy and successful--instead, you'll have to find happiness and success through the constant improvement of the services offered by ME Inc. to your employer.