Entrepreneurship is a journey filled with highs and lows, triumphs, and tribulations. Dr. Darren Burke, a seasoned entrepreneur, has experienced all these firsthand. From his transition as a university professor to the founder of Rivalus Sports Nutrition to his journey into business partnership with NHL forward TJ Galiardi at Outcast Foods, then starting over with a new venture, Dr. Burke’s career has been marked by transformation, challenges, and growth.
In this article, we will delve into his remarkable journey, highlighting the key lessons for navigating business transitions successfully, especially for people seeking a different direction from academia.
Transiting from Business Novice to Successful Entrepreneurship
To start with, not very often you see a tenured university professor leave academia to found a business. In fact, in terms of academic qualifications, people with PhDs (4%) are the least likely to found a business.
So, Dr. Burke’s decision was a bold choice indeed. His transition into the business world was fueled by a passion for sports nutrition and an unrelenting pursuit of excellence in the fitness industry. Thus, in 2008, he founded Rivalus, a company dedicated to producing high-quality nutritional supplements for athletes and fitness enthusiasts in drug-tested sports.
In what has been dubbed ‘the great resignation in higher education’, since the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, there has been a major uptick in the rate at which university faculty are exiting academia. Academia has always been known as a profession that provides some measure of stability and security, especially once you get tenure. But an increasing number of academics are getting disillusioned with the field and reevaluating their career goals. Many of these are charting new career paths as industry professionals, and some are certainly considering the entrepreneurship route.
Academia tends to have a slower, more methodical pace focused on research and analysis. On the other hand, entrepreneurship is high-risk and faster-paced, requiring quick pivots and decision-making. So, the adjustment can be jarring, especially when it comes to acquiring more business-focused skills such as marketing, product development, networking, finance, selling, and managing operations.
Dr Burke exited academia before it was cool to do so, but quickly achieved success in his business. Rivalus became a market leader in Canada and the United States and hit $20 million in revenue within five years, not bad for a business that started with a $50,000 loan.
He made a smooth exit afterwards. One advantage that being a university professor brings to this kind of transition is that academics are used to iterating based on experimentation. And this mindset allows faster adaptation to the business world. In the end, what matters in managing transitions is not where you are starting from; what matters is being able to develop a growth mindset that fosters boldness and adaptability.
Handling Transitions Between Business Ventures
After the Rivalus exit, Dr. Burke entered into a business partnership with his friend and former NHL forward TJ Galiardi. Together, they founded Outcast Foods, a company focused on reducing food waste and creating sustainable, plant-based food products. In a way, this was another major transition exercise. Dr Burke had had some experience managing a successful business; Galiardi hadn’t, but his experience as a pro athlete played no small role.
The most successful business partnerships occur when the partners bring complementary skills and experiences as well as unique skills to the table, even while sharing the same vision and values. And although mutual trust is necessary, you might probably be wary about doing business with a friend, as many people are, especially because of ambiguity in boundaries and responsibilities. Regardless what type of partnership it is, it is always advisable to clearly define responsibilities and expectations ahead of doing business together.
But even when you do everything right, your business might not live up to its great promise. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 25% of new businesses make it beyond 15 years, while 45% fold within the first five. Entrepreneurship is a highly uncertain field, and knowing how to manage disappointments is critical for handling transitions. Dr Burke and Galiardi didn’t achieve their dreams for Outcast Foods and after three years of passion and hard work, the company board of directors opted for a change in management and both were replaced. Sometimes, the financial needs of businesses often come with tradeoffs to scale the business quickly. The venture capital funding was necessary to keep the company operational; however, the founders admit to having made mistakes with the transition to having these new financial partners at Outcast. Errors in judgement, communication and of expectations from both sides resulted in Dr Burke and Galiardi leaving the business prematurely, which proved to be a significant and challenging transition for both of them.
Handling failures and disappointments is a lesson no entrepreneur can miss. And it can often be brutal, not just emotionally, but also to your professional standing. To a true entrepreneurial spirit, though, what matters most is being able to objectively analyze what went well and what wasn’t good enough. Documenting these lessons will help you focus on the future and shift your mindset to new goals and projects. Such disappointments come with critical experiences that are potential springboards for your next venture.
Business Failures and the Path Forward
Since the departure from Outcast Foods, Dr Burke has experimented with a couple of different business options. He’s still a professor at heart, after all. Experiments often don’t go as hypothesized, and the same mentality that helps entrepreneurs handle business failures is what researchers use to iterate and focus on achieving definite end results. When an experiment fails, most times, all you have to do is adjust the variables and try again.
Granted, not everyone coming into business will have that kind of research experience. But anyone can learn not to be deterred by business challenges. The ability to pivot is what has helped many leaders and businesses grow. More so, as an entrepreneur, you must be able to detach your ego from your business outcomes. Disappointing outcomes don’t necessarily mean you are inadequate. On the other hand, such failures enable prudent risk-taking and innovation through resilience.
In the world of business, transitions are inevitable, and they can be both personally and professionally demanding. However, Dr. Darren Burke’s story serves as a testament to the power of determination, learning from mistakes, and the unrelenting pursuit of excellence and progress. Aspiring entrepreneurs can take inspiration from his journey and apply these lessons to their entrepreneurial endeavors, knowing that with the right mindset, they too can navigate business transitions successfully.