The Good Side of Having No Career Plan to Follow

By Lynne Kielhorn WG’94, co-founder of NovaKera and NanoDrop Technologies

Most people probably will tell you that high achievers must set an aggressive goal, develop a smart plan and work hard putting that plan into action.  And indeed that is how many entrepreneurs find success.  However, there are others, like me, who are quite content to be drawn toward one challenge after another without a specific career plan or path in mind.  For us, life thrills do not come from meeting big career milestones, but rather from the excitement of learning something new and never knowing what will come next.  My new hypothesis is that having this outlook attracts a disproportionate share of opportunities.  And when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure there is anything more valuable in the entrepreneurial world than great opportunities.  This is my career story, still without a plan.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI guess I’ve never been really good at the plan thing.  When I applied to undergraduate school, I went for biomedical engineering, primarily because that would keep lots of options open.  When I started a real-world job with a corporate giant, I did it through a rotational program that would expose me to lots of options.  Then I decided I needed to focus on helping people and should get an MBA majoring in Public Policy and Education Policy.  But since I was pregnant when I graduated, I deferred launching a new career and went back with the corporate giant.  I had great fun in an intrapreneurial program, getting to wear lots of different hats.  But after child number three, I needed something a little more low-key so I started a consulting business doing local education projects.  That’s when the first big opportunity came along out of the blue.

A former colleague wanted my advice on what to do with technology he had developed (and which the corporate giant did not want to commercialize).  After discussing the technology over a summer BBQ, my husband and I, along with my colleague and his wife, decided to start a business together.  Thus NanoDrop Technologies was born!  This wasn’t actually as crazy as it sounds since we were going to do this “on the side” rather than abandon our existing jobs.  (Although with three kids under five years old, the timing of launching a business was indeed a little crazy!)  Our business plan/outline quickly morphed from market-validation-then-license to boot strap full operations.  Obviously, we got sucked in full time and that’s how we became accidental entrepreneurs.  (All along I maintained this was a temporary diversion from my efforts in education reform!)

NanoDrop was an incredible ride.  Our novel spectrophotometer was pursued by distributors from around the world.  Our customers asked us to supply additional product types.  And our employees loved to come to work.  After growing to $30M in revenue with 50% EBIT, my colleague and his wife were ready to retire and we sold the business to Thermo Fisher Scientific.

After helping with the transition, I committed to spending two years catching up on life.  I coached my kid’s sports and volunteered at school and in the community.  Meanwhile, I got pulled into doing case studies and guest lectures for several business schools and joined Boards of a couple of instrument companies.  I really wasn’t feeling the need to immerse myself in one thing.  I enjoyed advising friends with their new businesses (including a former NanoDrop intern who successfully launched Vow to be Chic – check it out!).  Along the way I formed a company to contract a friend of mine to write a novel (coming soon!).  Then the next big opportunity presented itself.

It felt like déjà vous.  A former colleague approached me with questions about what to do with her inventions.  She had an entire patent portfolio, but had not put any of it to real use.  We focused on her newest patent and arranged for additional focused lab studies.  It seemed like we had found the Holy Grail!  We formed NovaKera with the intent to revolutionize the sunscreen industry by offering an oral product that would provide weeks of sun protection!  After early human testing showed an SPF of only 3-5, our big dreams deflated and we ended up going to market with a topical cream for severely dry/cracked skin.  NovaKera is not experiencing the hockey stick growth that NanoDrop did, but it’s been great fun learning about the retail space.

I have no idea what will come next and I’m very comfortable with that.  I do find my ears perking up more and more when I hear about the plight of our inner city youth.  I’ve already seen opportunities for engagement, but none that sparked a fire.  However, if I had to guess, I’d say there’s about to be a very exciting opportunity in that area.

Although most personality types would not thrive in an environment without a long-term plan, some of us are truly enjoying an unplanned journey!

PhotoBio: Lynne’s biggest claim to fame is as co-owner and co-founder of NanoDrop Technologies, which created the market in small-volume spectrophotometry and was acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2007. She recently launched NovaKera, a science-based skin health product company. Kielhorn was a founding member of Qualicon, a pioneering DuPont venture in microbial analysis systems, and she was a member of the DuPont team that commercialized one of the earliest DNA sequencers.  Kielhorn is a guest lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Georgetown Medical School and other business schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Bucknell University and an MBA from Wharton.