What researchers can learn from start-ups

Five years ago, my husband started a start-up. A media tech company. This meant that we listened to a lot of podcasts about startups, and read a lot of books about startups. Over time, I started to realize that there are a lot of similarities between research and entrepreneurship, and a lot we could learn a lot from the start-up world.

So here are 5 steps to running your research project like a start-up. Much of this is drawn from design thinking, or the Lean Start-up methodology- which calls itself a "scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers' hands faster", so it makes sense that it can also be applied to science, but there are a few key lessons that we can learn from this approach.

This works best for the sort of research where you are developing a product, whether it is virtual or physical. In my research we generally develop psychological or educational programs that we spend around 5 years evaluating in pilot and Randomised Controlled Trials [RCT's], and then try to disseminate to end users. This model flips that process on its head but still allows for high quality research to take place. Have a look, comment, and see if this might work for you!

1. Engage

As researchers, we often wait way too long to talk to people about our research. Maybe it's because we are so used to being bound by our Human Ethics Committee processes and Institutional Review Boards? But there is nothing stopping us talking to people about our idea, as long as we don't record their responses for our research. If we are making assumptions about what a certain cohort of people want or need, and we are creating a product or program to meet that need, it makes a lot of sense to talk to them first. I think this is actually best done in informal conversations- be prepared to buy a lot of coffees! But other people's opinions could be critical to shaping your research. Bonus points if you get the ethics approval and you can publish your needs assessment. Think this sounds hard? Use this resource from Customer Development Labs.

2. Fail Fast

The Lean Start up guys encourage you to develop a Minimum Viable Product - the quickest possible version, or proxy version of what you want to end up creating- so that you can use this and test it with consumers. In the research world, we are pretty good at this, usually creating a pilot version of a program, and testing it with a few people before we launch into a full trial. But could there be an even faster way to figure out if what you have developed might work? What about getting some feedback on feasibility and format from potential end users? If they don't think it's going to work, you want to know sooner rather than later. This page does a great job of explaining MVP's in business.

3. Pivot

We don't often use words like 'fail' in research, but if something really 'doesn't go to plan', or if it 'isn't quite working', it's time to pivot. This is a fun new word that basically means changing direction or changing your plans. We don't do this a lot in research. You get your research approved, you do the research- despite the obstacles, and even if it doesn't do what you want it to at the end, and then you defend it in vivas or publications. But maybe our research would have greater application, relevance, and translation to the 'real world' if we listened to the world more when it is telling us that something isn't working. If the feedback you are getting on your MVP is sending some signals that you need to take a different approach, a quick pivot can get you back on track. See more information about pivoting here.

4. Iteration

Start-ups and designers love to iterate. Once you have an MVP or a prototype, each time you talk to potential end-users about it, and then adapt the product to more closely meet their needs is a cycle of iteration that gets you one step closer to a product that they might actually need, want, and use. The closest thing in the research world would be action research methodology, quite common in education research, but iterative design works on a much shorter timeframe and tighter cycles of iteration. This is a key step in the design thinking process, and one that we need to write into our ethics applications more in order to get our products closer to what people want to use. Another process that can inform iteration involves mapping out the customer journey that leads them to, and engages them in your product or service.

5. Learn

Research is a process of constant learning. However we tend to position ourselves as experts, and learn mostly by reading the work of other researchers, and listening to them speak at conferences. If we are to be truely relevant in the 'real world', then we have to learn more from the real world- from the people that have the problem that we are trying to solve, or the people that we want to use the resources that we are developing- see points 1 and 4 if you ned more convincing of this! We should also be more aware of the competing resources, not just in the research space, but those developed outside of academia. For example, in the body image space, there are resources, programs, and movements started by people with marketing, PR, and photography backgrounds that have had more reach than programs developed by researchers- what can we learn from these people and their approach?


Dr Zali Yager is an Associate Professor in Health and Physical Education in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Australia. She has started Well Researched to empower researchers to have greater research engagement and impact by adopting some of the frameworks used in the design and business world.

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