#FoundersFriday with Mark Hahnel from Figshare
We are very excited to be running a new recurring series on our blog, #FoundersFriday, in which we interview the founders of different scholarly communication businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.
What made you decide to leave academia and launch your own idea?
I never actually decided to leave academia, I always thought I’d continue in academia, and then my side-project which was Figshare, which was a way to make all my academic outputs available online, started getting some traction. Then I started talking to people about the idea that it could become a full-time job and that it could have legs. I handed my PhD in on the Friday and started at Digital Science working on Figshare on the Monday. But I never intended to leave academia, I was applying for postdoc jobs before Figshare took off.
If you could go back in time and give your pre-startup self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
I think there’s two things. Firstly, be confident in your intuition and your translatable skills you’ve picked up in academia, because you have been doing project management, you have been doing self-guided study and things like this. A lot of my friends in academia think that if you’re an academic you can only be an academic and that a lot of the skills aren’t as translatable as they are. Whereas the majority of the training you do in during a PhD and a postdoc is massively translatable to a wide variety of areas.
Secondly, at the beginning if somebody told me they were an expert in something I trusted that they were an expert in something, and if I didn’t have that expertise I took what they said as gospel. But while that helped moved things on a lot faster it’s sometimes turned out to be not true. You have to have a lot of trust in other people and you have to be able to delegate responsibilities. But that doesn’t mean, particularly at the beginning of a startup, that you shouldn’t try to have your eyes on everything that you’re doing, which is difficult.
Suppose I have an idea for a tool, or a solution for a problem, within the research landscape and I want to develop my idea into a business. What would your advice to me be?
My big advice here is to build something, build a ‘proof of concept’. Ideas are cheap, execution is expensive but if you can have something to demonstrate to other people, that serves a purpose, it’s a minimum viable product, other people can use it. It’s very easy to visually explain your idea once people can see something that exists. It’s a lot easier if you’re looking for investment when you can show that some people are using this. You don’t have to be good at coding, I’m a super hacky coder. I’m not allowed anywhere near the Figshare codebase at all anymore, and yet essentially the first Figshare was built on my code, using simple tools that were hacked together in order to be able to show people “this is what it does”. That’s my advice.
As the founder of a business, what are you most proud of?
I’m proud to have been able to grow a company environment where people enjoy coming to work and to keep pushing to do that and to have made lots of new friends in our team. And then specifically to Figshare, I’m proud that we have been able to build a sustainable business model whilst sticking to our core mission, which is the exact same thing we set out to do in the beginning. Using Figshare any academic can make any digital research output openly available online for free and we still allow that and our sustainable model that’s been built around that hasn’t actually hindered that in anyway.
In the scholarly communication & publishing space, it’s often said that people have the same conversations again and again. Can you think of an issue that, in your view, people aren’t talking about enough?
Specifically in the Figshare world people don’t talk about education and training and this gap between white papers that are written by funders, government bodies and societies and the actual researchers themselves, who don’t know what is coming. Particularly when it comes to data, the idea that they’re going to be forced to make all of their research outputs available online, where ethically and commercially OK to do so. The majority of researchers today in England and the US have no idea that this is going to be a requirement of them, they sometimes don’t know if this is a requirement of them already! The education around this changing landscape is something that is massively under-served.
Another thing in this echo chamber of “academia is broken, here are the things that are broken about it” is peer review. People do talk about it, but it’s only recently with things like pre-print servers for the life sciences, that you actually see people doing something about it. So there’s a lot of talk with no action, and I think that’s what is great about Digital Science, they will play with ideas with the understanding that not all of them are going to work, which is exactly what the Catalyst Grant is. For everything that’s talked about there needs to be an equal amount of people acting and building cool stuff.
What does the future have in store for figshare?
Having been first to market in this space, we’ve been able to develop a lot of functionality while keeping the platform intuitive for users. We’re going to spend this year developing fast, building lots of functionality, whilst maintaining an intuitive site, not getting sucked into feature creep and continuing to consistently do what we do well, without feeling that we need to do everything in this space.