What is it like to be an entrepreneur?

An interview with Rudy Bellani, the CEO and Co-Founder of Oystir (https://www.oystir.com)


Rudy BellaniWhile having my Friday afternoon coffee, I had the pleasure to speak with Rudy Bellani, the CEO and Co-founder of Oystir. I took this opportunity to ask him all kinds of questions and learn about what it is like to be an entrepreneur.

Oystir is a platform that does not only provide resources, such as workshops or webinars for every stage of your career, but also helps PhD students and postdocs to find the perfect job by identifying and matching their skills in a very easy and intuitive way.

Rudy obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Rockefeller University. Before founding Oystir, he worked as a Junior Engagement Manager at McKinsey for 2.5 years.


BA: Rudy, can you tell me how you went from doing research to management consulting and eventually to founding your own company?

Rudy: Actually, I was a very ambitious grad student thinking that I am going to do great research, win a Nobel Prize and just be amazing. And then, real life happened. After realizing how poor grad students were and that the amazing stuff wasn’t going to happen for me, I took my chances and was lucky to get an offer from McKinsey. When I started at McKinsey I thought that my PhD had provided me with all the hard skills, like data analysis and project management, and that it would teach me how to use my soft skills, for example how to talk to a CEO. It turned out that the technical things were easy to teach. What was harder to teach were skills that take years to develop, e.g. how do you communicate with people, how do you empathize from a point of view that you disagree with, how do you convince people and how do you work together in a team. These skills turned out to be much more important and were the reason I got hired, I just didn’t realize it. And after starting my own company, I thought that all the things that McKinsey taught me would be applicable in my new company. I thought I knew about business, I knew how to structure teams, and again I was wrong. Some things carry over, but not all and at each transition you basically start from scratch. In my experience, PhDs excel in a few areas: we are clever human beings who can pursue things for a very, very long time and this is exactly what will be helpful whenever you switch fields. Whenever you start something new, you are going to spend a lot of time learning and you are going to persevere after a lot of failure. That is what PhDs are really good at – we are resilient.


BA: So in your opinion, what skills should a successful entrepreneur have?

Rudy: For sure, you have to have a lot of resilience. You will have to build everything from scratch and you will have to figure out things like payroll. People keep saying that it’s so easy to build a start-up nowadays, but actually it’s pretty damn hard. And the second thing is that a lot of people don’t really like what you are doing, and without resilience you won’t get anywhere.


BA: Can you tell me how you came up with the idea to build Oystir? Who was involved in the initial process and how did you choose the people you are working with?

Rudy: Actually, I found the first person before the idea. I recruited Zach; he liked me and said yes. Both of us quit our jobs and we had no plan. Our main idea was based on an idea that the future of labor would be all about skills. And that initial push got us going and eventually landed at Oystir. In retrospect, it feels obvious. Every PhD around me was freaking out about jobs. There isn’t enough support in schools and there is a lot of anxiety. Over a few months, we spent a lot of time talking to people. And since we were based out of the Rockefeller library, we were lucky to get immediate feedback from PhDs whenever we had a concept or an initial diagram of what we wanted to build. This helped us to move pretty quickly. And then we brought in two guys that I had met at Cornell Tech while I was working for McKinsey to help us with coding. We launched in May 2015.


 BA: What is your every day life like since the launch?

Rudy: The coolest day was the day when we hit launch. We were tracking traffic through Google and we were looking at the spikes on our site. From that moment, we started building more and more functionality and better tools. And you always feel like you kind of suck and the things that you want to build are always so much better in your head than in reality. So you keep doing it and it takes time. The team is amazing; we have been growing really quickly and have been received very well. We are essentially doubling every month. Right now, it’s five of us and we are actively looking for four more people.


BA: What are your hiring criteria?

Rudy: Well, you should ask me if these are good criteria. There is definitely a bias towards hiring PhDs and right now we are a team of five friends. It’s really important for us that we like our employees. And we probably will take somebody who is less smart, less capable but whom we like a lot. Currently, we are trying to push for hiring more diverse team members. So to sum up, we love PhDs, we love nice and friendly people and we like people that are interested in building something.


BA: What are your future plans?

Rudy: If we talk about just PhDs, there are at least four things we would like to build for them. The first is being able to show international jobs. Right now, Oystir is very US centered and we would like to go out of the US. The second is sponsorship: a lot of us need visa support. For every job, we would like to provide a score, which is basically the likelihood of being sponsored. The third is variety. Right now, the way the site works is: If you tell me what you have done I can show you jobs that look for that. And we need to capture many more skills to be able to show a much greater variety of jobs. Right now, if you are an engineer and you come to the site, your options are very limited versus if you were a neuroscientist. We need to broaden our skill capture. And the fourth thing that we would like to offer is a repository of free resources. The feedback has been very positive and we realized that we needed to build this out. The result of this would be a curriculum where you can say: “This is what I do today, but what kind of jobs can I get in a year?” Let’s say if your statistics skills were at this level, these are the jobs you could get. We could help you to map your journey to a particular career in a more tactical way.


BA: How much interaction with companies do you currently have?

Rudy: Right now Oystir is targeting PhDs and master students only, but there is another side of Oystir, which is that companies recruit off of our site. So, there are a lot of companies on our site that are trying to recruit PhDs. The whole concept of Oystir is that it’s not only a tool to help you to get a job, but it could also be used as a platform from which you could be poached off. And we have already had people who got jobs this way.


BA: What is your motivation? What do you feel is the most rewarding thing about your work?

Rudy: Honestly, it’s my team. The idea of “you are working for me and I am working for you” and the comradeship in the team push you to work really hard. I definitely feed off of that. In terms of what’s really satisfying about it, this is what I can tell you. In retrospect, I didn’t like a lot of things about science. But I was overwhelmingly happy to be independent and free. I controlled my schedule, my direction, and my vacations. That control gave me a lot of natural investment in what I was doing. And when I left to work for McKinsey, I was basically told what to do. And even though I had intellectual freedom and was problem solving, I was still doing it for somebody else. I personally didn’t find the work very rewarding. But as soon as I started doing my own thing, it immediately felt so much more comfortable. As scientists, we constantly create things even if it doesn’t feel like that. We are constantly pushing things forward that people don’t care about. And this is not that different in a start-up. I feel, that the most rewarding thing is controlling my own destiny. When you are working for yourself, things don’t feel like tasks any more: everything is aligned to a mission.


BA: What is the other side of the coin, something that is frustrating and annoying in your daily work life?

Rudy: I don’t think we felt any big lows, but I would say that one thing hangs with me. I constantly think about building a company that, hopefully, in two years will have 100 people and after that we will have 200 people. But do I know what the hell I am doing? I feel constantly outside my comfort zone. We are constantly pushing ourselves to the next thing, and as soon as we transition, we are failing. So effectively, you feel like you are bad at everything you are doing and as soon as you become good at something you start doing the next thing. It just leads to the general feeling of ‘Am I good enough for this?’.


BA: What is your advice to people who are thinking about starting their own business?

Rudy: The first thing we all need to do is to shed the idea that there is a genius for everything. This is very inherent to us PhDs. We tend to think that we are not geniuses and cannot become that good. A similar idea floating around in the start-up space is that every two decades there is another Steve Jobs, but other than that everybody is stupid. I strongly feel that this is bullshit. So ask yourself: Am I a genius? Yes or no? If you are not, then you are free of having to compare yourself. The next question is: Should I do it or not? And for that, I think if you want to become a great soccer player, you should play soccer. And if you are not sure if you want to play soccer then don’t! Because it’s really hard!


BA: Thank you Rudy, it was great talking to you and all the best for you and Oystir.

Interviewed by Maria Mueller (Beyond Academia 2016 team)