What MDs Can Learn From Successful Entrepreneurs

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What do Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have in common? My first guess was that they were not MDs — I got that one correct. My second guess was that they were all successful founders of world-changing companies — I was two for two. But the real trait they had in common was that the growth rates of their businesses as reflected in market capitalization peaked when the founders were middle-aged. Well, two out of three will get me in the White Sox’s lineup.

In the July issue of the Harvard Business Review, Pierre Ayouley, PhD, Benjamin Jones, PhD (from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management), J. Daniel Kim and Javier Mirande, PhD, wrote an article called “Research: The Average Age of a Successful Startup Founder is 45.” It has a message for all of us, not just those of us in medicine trying to marry medicine and business in an early career, but also those of us with a longer history in clinical medicine who have seen a persistent problem and have a well thought-out solution.

The authors focused on a specific set of criteria: whether firms had intellectual property, venture capital investment, worked in an industry with a high number of STEM majors and location in/near an entrepreneurial hub. The main conclusion: the average age of successful high-tech founders falls in the early forties when following the above criteria.

The dominance of middle-aged founders reflects the fact that more middle-aged people start ventures. Also, older entrepreneurs have a substantially higher success rate. The research in this article substantiates the fact that entrepreneurial performance rises sharply with age before cresting in the late fifties. The authors found that work experience plays a critical role in the success of these ventures. In fact, with at least three years of work experience in a narrow industry, entrepreneurs were 85 percent more likely to found a successful startup.

While the investigators are continuing to explore the advantage that middle-aged founders have in common, be it greater access to financial resources, deeper social networks or work experience, I think this article has several lessons for physicians just finishing their training and for those of us who have spent 15 years or more in the “trenches.”

First, and primarily, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur. To be successful, entrepreneurs need to embrace failure and challenge their comfort zone. In medicine, clinicians need to make a successful relationship with patients their priority. Failure to diagnose disease processes and the inability to refer patients to a specialist when we don’t know the answer are not the tickets to a successful medical career.

So I propose a couple of different routes for those interested in a combined career in medicine and innovation/entrepreneurship. Everyone’s primary aim should be to be a well-trained physician wherever that takes you. But my advice to younger MDs: After your training, while searching for a group of physicians to work with, discuss your interests in medicine but assess their receptivity to post-MD education and post-MD involvement in governmental affairs and hospital administration. Going forward, with five to seven years of clinical experience behind you, then decide if you even need an MBA. The opportunities for a part-time MBA or executive MBA are everywhere, but you need experience so that you can see the problems and possible solutions in clinical medicine. (I waited until 2007 to complete my MBA from Kellogg.) I’m sure that further research by the Harvard Business Review authors will show that work experience has the major effect on why entrepreneurial success comes with middle age.

And to the seasoned clinicians who have identified a problem in their specialty and come up with a great solution: Talk to other MDs who have identified this problem and bring your idea to us at Feinberg or to a healthcare technology incubator like MATTER in Chicago (you can even contact me directly at jkelly1946@gmail.com or Marcelo Malakooti, MD, at m-malakooti@northwestern.edu). We can help you get oriented to the available resources.

We would love to hear your stories on how you solved a clinical problem in medicine with an innovative idea. Please share by contacting us at medcommunications@northwestern.edu.