Words of advice to student innovators, by Dr Richard Smith

Dr Richard Smith as a judge at our 2018/19 Students Challenges Competition final
Dr Richard Smith as a judge at our 2018/19 Students Challenges Competition final (Photo by Owen Billcliffe)

This week we’re opening applications for IGHI’s annual Student Challenges Competition. We’re inviting aspiring global health innovators to submit their project in a bid to win £10,000.

To help budding student innovators get started, IGHI Visiting Professor and former BMJ editor Dr Richard Smith reveals his most essential pieces of advice.

Your offering is less important than your capacity to stay the course

You will, I hope, have a great product or new service. It will, you hope, bring great benefits to customers and the world. It may make you rich, giving you the means to develop more great products and new services. You will have spent lots of intelligence and energy developing your offering, and you will believe in it. But ultimately, whether you succeed will depend less on the quality of your offering but more on your capacity to stay the course. Indeed, it will probably be easier to succeed with something that is slightly better or cheaper than an offering already available rather than something revolutionary, which will demand a new market and way of thinking.

Prepare for a rocky but fascinating journey

The course of start-ups, like that of love, is never smooth. There will be many ups and downs and twists and turns. Many of them will capture you unaware. You will have moments of triumph and disaster, and, as Rudyard Kipling writes, “treat those two imposters both the same”. It will be easiest if you can learn to love the tumult.

Try for pathological optimism

Successful entrepreneurs are often “pathological optimists”. They see a bright future when all those around them see catastrophe. I’m not sure that you can manufacture optimism to such a degree, but if you are by nature a pessimist, you might consider a career other than entrepreneurship.

Build a team that is mission-driven

If you are to succeed you will need others around you. Your team will be much stronger if your employees work with you because they believe in the mission and are not just in it for a job or the money. A leader creates a vision and then motivates people to want to achieve that vision.

Surround yourself with people who are better than you and will be critical friends

When I was the editor of The BMJ my screensaver said: “Any journal that can’t be better than its editor is doomed.” It’s true for all enterprises. You need strong people around you; some of them, perhaps all of them, better than you. And you must create a culture where those people can be critical, tell you when you are going wrong.

“No margin, no mission”

You will have to think money. The nuns who run a hospital in America have a saying: “No margin, no mission.” You may be (and perhaps should be) more interested in the mission than the money, but the money will kill your idea if you don’t get it right.

Get a good finance person

The importance of money and cash flow means that the most important member of your team will be a finance person. You need to find somebody you trust who will give you accurate – and sometimes terrifying – financial data. You will not be able to succeed without such a person.

Think cash, but beware of investors

Cash flow kills start-ups. You have a great offering, huge potential, and even eager customers but suddenly you can’t pay your staff. You will need money to keep you going for what is likely to be several years before you become profitable. It may not be that much, and you might be able to raise it from family and friends. But you will probably need investment. Investors can be your friends. But ultimately most are driven by money rather than mission and would prefer a rapid return than a slow one. They may become impatient and if they control the company, oust the “scruffy founder” and install a “company person”.

“Murder your darlings”

Artists have a saying, “Murder your darlings.” They mean that the part of the painting that you most cherish, or if you’re a novelist, the passage you treasure, may have to go for the benefit of the whole. That may well be true with part of your offering or strategy.

Be prepared to change course

You may set out with a clear idea of how you think you will succeed but then discover it’s not working: the product, the strategy, the marketing, or the team may need changing. You may need to cut your team right down or change your offering. The changes may feel uncomfortable and will not guarantee success, but continuing in the same way will bring disaster. You have to be willing to change course, and, as I said at the beginning, you need to learn to enjoy the changes.

IGHI’s Student Challenges Competition is now open for entries. Applications will close on 7 February. Apply now for your chance to win £10,000 towards your idea. The competition is open to all UK university students. Find out more here.

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