Researchers – It is Time to Think of Yourselves as Small Business Owners

You may not think it, but being a researcher – particularly one that is the leader of a research group – is actually a lot like being an owner of a small business. Here’s why:

  • Funding process: depending on the type of small business you own, funding (or income) can be the sale of lots of little things (e.g. clothes), a few bigger things (TVs, furniture) or very large things (cars and houses, projects). The larger the item, the fewer you need to sell to make a living. Regardless, you are constantly having to ask people to buy what you are selling. Essentially, you are applying for funding in a competitive process where the chances are (mostly) anywhere from 1:100 (or worse) to perhaps as good as 1:10. For researchers, it is very similar, with competitive funding processes that have success rates that range from 1:10 to 1:2.
  • Duration of funding (and re-funding): Small businesses would love to have funding cycles like researchers – application rounds once, twice or even three times (or always open) throughout the year; funding for 2 – 5 years. Small business has many opportunities for funding, but success rates (as mentioned above) are lower, and duration is shorter. A long project in small business might be 12 months, with most funding much shorter, and sales might need to be as high as several hundred per day in order to be successful (financially).
  • Financial management: There is a saying in small business that Cash Flow is King. That means, you (essentially) always need money in the bank to spend (in order to do the work and make more money). Research is (essentially) the same. Although a university will underwrite the performance of a researcher, the reality is, having a positive cash flow – i.e. money in your research account – is essential for timely research progress. Although university finance might provide support, financial management is essentially the domain of the researcher.
  • People management: Any business – of any size – is only as good as its people. This is true for research. Good people are essential for research success – and this includes research students. You need to be able to identify good people, then support their growth and development. As best as you can, you have to try to minimise staff turnover. These factors are as true for research as they are for small business. Even staff recruitment is similar. Although universities might have HR departments, drafting position descriptions is the domain of the research group leader, as is CV review, interviewing and final staff selection. Again, this is all identical to small business – where the owner/manager participates in and oversees the entire recruitment process.
  • Web: Small businesses have to develop and manage their own websites. Most universities expect researchers to manage their public staff profile page. At some organisations researchers are allowed to have research group pages and/or even stand-alone websites. In both cases they are expected to manage site content, updates, development etc. they may not be the web developer, but they are expected to write and update content as necessary.
  • Social media: Both researchers and small businesses have to determine what (if any) social media they are part of and then commit their own resources (time and effort) to implementing a strategy (or posting content as they see fit). Both have the option of engaging a social media service, but neither tend to take that up because there is a desire to be authentic on social media.
  • Managing and engaging collaborators: for some small businesses, collaborators might be suppliers. For others, they might be co-developers of a product or service. In research, you will more likely be conducting a project together. Regardless, in both cases you will need to be able to identify, assess and then engage collaborators. Once engaged, both small business and research need to keep their collaborators up-to-date about current work and informed about future work – so they don’t feel left out.
  • Managing and engaging competitors: just like collaborators, competitors need to be managed (and perhaps) engaged. Particularly in the Australian system, every researcher could consider every other researcher a competitor – you’re all after the same grant funding, or research publication opportunities. In small business, you’ll have other retailers, agents or consultants that you are competing against. However, there are times when you need to work with your competitors for success. In research, sometimes you’ll be told to work with others in your field (e.g. major grant funding). In small business, sometimes the only way to survive is to work with competitors.

But what does all of this mean? I think there are two things to be done as a result:

1. Undertake small business training: Researchers need to recognise that their skill as a researcher and their academic record are only a small part of their overall success. Furthermore, poor financial, HR, collaborator or competitor management could bring their project to a halt. Therefore, investing in courses focused on people, financial and/or collaborator management are as useful as courses on writing or research skills. You could argue they are even more useful as they are transferable across industries – not just specific to research.

2. Work with small business: Be aware that small business is the economic and employment engine room of the (Australian) economy (more 99.7% of businesses and 70% of the workforce). As such, the volatility, ambiguity, chaos and uncertainty you feel as a researcher is felt by many others in the workforce. Thus, working with small business (perhaps as industry partners, but also in a mentoring relationship) will provide unique (but relevant) insight to the operation of your research team or group.

Raven Consulting Group specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research and government sectors. Richard is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart. His strategic approach to collaboration and research translation has been making the impossible possible for more than seven years. His clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality. To find out more, call 0412 606 178, email ( or subscribe to our newsletter.