From Immigrant to Entrepreneur: Lessons Learned about Building a Business on My Journey from Iran to America
By Sasan Amini, co-founder and CEO of Clear Labs
Provider of fully automated, next-generation sequencing (NGS) platforms for turnkey diagnostics
I am one of those entrepreneurs who stepped away from a fulfilling position in a large and established company to go out on my own and build something completely new. My decision to leave the Advanced Research department at Illumina, Inc. (Nasdaq: ILMN) to create a startup may look extreme from the outside, but the reality is that I am very familiar with the risks associated with starting over.
After receiving my B.Sc. in Biotechnology from the University of Tehran, I immigrated to the U.S. I moved away from my family and the only country I had ever known, because I had a passion to pursue scientific breakthroughs that I could not seek at home.
With so many parallels between my move to America and my move to founding Clear Labs, I am sharing some of the key lessons learned to help inspire the next generation of innovators—wherever they are in the world.
1. Be the person in the room who speaks up before they have fully earned the right to talk. Ask the questions out loud that you hear in your head
The first time I felt the pull of entrepreneurship, I was only 10 years old. My dad and my uncle had joined forces to start the very first modern coffee shop in Tehran with the innovation of serving lattes and cappuccinos to customers. However, like the traditional shops, our shop closed from midday until around four. It bothered me that we were saying no to three hours of business. Even though my arm could barely reach the espresso machine, my dad and uncle agreed to let me try to keep the store open in the afternoons. They put a stand underneath the counter to raise my height, and in the summer when I was out of school, we started showing some sales. Our coffee shop has been open those hours now for 25-plus years. As for me, I never lost the feeling that I got from that first success.
Many more of us on this planet are wired to be entrepreneurs and innovators than actually choose entrepreneurship as a career. It pays to start early. Drill into problems. Question everything. Challenge the status quo. I might not be an entrepreneur today if I had ignored that first tap on the shoulder, or if another entrepreneur (in my case, my dad) hadn’t given me a chance.
2. Run toward risk, but have a plan. In fact, have two or three because likely the first one won’t work.
When I decided to immigrate to the U.S. from Iran at age twenty-two to earn my Ph.D., technically I wasn’t an entrepreneur yet, but my decision to immigrate was an entrepreneur’s choice. I wanted to be part of translating science and technology into solutions for big problems to improve people’s lives and have an impact. To do that, I had to leave every person and everything I had ever known to start over in the U.S. It was a risk I was compelled to take.
I don’t rank the hard and risky decisions I have made as an entrepreneur. Was leaving my family harder than leaving my ambitious research work with the market leader in genomics to build a startup company? Some days, yes, some days no. I do know that entrepreneurship requires extreme mental toughness and that each well-thought-out, risky decision better prepares me (and every entrepreneur) for the next. In a large company, difficult tradeoffs are made for us. In startups, entrepreneurs are the leaders of each and every heavy lift. We cannot succeed without a strong appetite for risk—and the balance to sharpen our aim with life experience, competent execution, scenario planning, and great team-building inside our companies and with customers and business partners.
3. Ask other people to tell you what to do; then make up your own mind and act.
The world is full of people who want to help entrepreneurs succeed. Be open and coachable. Connect and put their willingness to work for you. My dad was my dad, so of course he was going to back my ideas for our coffee shop. However, in the years since, I have experienced similar support for my heavy lifts from so many people, some who I only just met. It is astounding how many people literally across the world with different jobs, goals, backgrounds, and experiences, show a spontaneous, generosity and affinity for innovators and entrepreneurs.
I have come to believe that the risks that entrepreneurs take attract goodwill. We entrepreneurs do not have to do it alone. Ask advice of other inventors and company founders; seek out mentors who know things we don’t. Entrepreneurship is a worldwide community that transcends boundaries. If that is true for me, it can also be true for any other entrepreneur.
4. Don’t be afraid to show everyone how ambitious and how simple you are. Breakthrough ideas are complicated. Be bold enough to outthink everyone else and brave enough to hire a team that can outthink you.
Today Clear Labs delivers a cost-effective genome sequencing tool that virtually anyone with a basic level of expertise can use. We expanded our entry into the clinical market, releasing a product in record time to aid in COVID-19 analytics. Before we could accomplish this, we had to learn how to tell our story.
I was raised as a scientist. I never had the experience of fundraising. I had to learn what to say and how to say it. As technical founders, we are married to our technical concepts, but this is just one of the aspects of creating a scalable business. Narrow up the world of possibilities into an executable business plan, and tell the startup’s unique story so influencers and investors can understand and get on board. Success is being able to establish a relationship with people, not just someone who listens, but someone who buys into your narrative and your business plan. This is true with investors and customers.
5. Squeeze out every ounce of learning from the COVID-19 pandemic. These times are a masters’ class in business management and survival. No skills are more important to an entrepreneur.
From business survival, to a mega-shift in work practices, to supply chain disruption, to inspirational medical discovery in record time, this pandemic is a once-in-a-life event for entrepreneurs to learn in weeks what might in more normal times take years.
Clear Labs began with the application of our next-generation sequencing technologies in the food industry. We focused on food safety, raised venture funding, and launched products into the market, all according to plan. Then the pandemic happened.
Facing a cryptic and super-contagious virus, the world shut down. Tracking the evolution of that virus as it spread and mutated became a large immediate need. Our team believed our technology could have an impact—but could our young business bear the risks of bringing a new product to market in the middle of a pandemic? We decided to try—unifying our team members, investors, and board in a new direction, and we were able to address the clinical market in just weeks.
As entrepreneurs, there isn’t a day that we don’t face the unforeseen. We take risks that would scare others away. That’s the journey, and that’s the fun. The question we must ask ourselves: Will I be living a happier life if I have an impact? If the answer is yes, then do what it takes to be happy.
One critical part to any entrepreneur’s experience is cultivating a team of passionate people who form a bond that leads to a healthy, thriving culture. Creating culture is one of the most rewarding aspects of an entrepreneur’s journey. You might be the most brilliant person on the planet, but without a team that can help you build and scale your vision, you will not be able to achieve it. It is actually more like building a family, not a company. And the more diversity in backgrounds and ideas you have, the more likely you are to be successful.
Every entrepreneur has a story of the journey that fostered their passion for building a business. From a kid in a coffee shop, to the academic rigors of earning a scientific degree in Iran, to starting over in a new country, and then founding a company, this is mine. My story is not uncommon. There are many people like me from different parts of the world whose journeys make them better business people and entrepreneurs. They inspire us all.
When unexpected opportunities arrive, stay grounded in your plans and experience, find an incredible, inspired team to back you…and then be bold enough to act.