12 Entrepreneurial Lessons from Thomas H. Zurbuchen

By Manish Parikh, University of Michigan Alumnus

As a young boy living in a remote Swiss mountain village, Thomas Zurbuchen began life with a strict religious upbringing; lacking scientific and intellectual stimulation. His journey is the story of a young, inquisitive boy rising from material and intellectual poverty, rebelling against the status quo, and chomping at the bit, to create the life of his dreams! Fed up with living in sequestered ignorance, he made it his priority to educate himself and leave home; migrating to the United States to find the opportunities he knew awaited him in life.

Over the years, that amazing intellectual drive continued to motivate and move him forward.  He made it his priority to find mentors, educators and entrepreneurs who enabled and supported him to transform himself from that young immigrant into a leader and innovator; striving to discover all that was possible for him as a daring entrepreneur seeking to impact the world.

To this day, his legendary contributions at the University of Michigan (U-M) have directly impacted an estimated hundred thousand lives and countless more indirectly; both as an entrepreneurial guru and a renowned space scientist. As he always knew he would, he made his dreams a reality.

Along with having contributed to several NASA missions and being a recipient of the coveted Presidential Early Career Award For Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), he is also the author of 200+ articles and the founder of the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship, M-Cubed (a pioneering investment mechanism for breakthrough research),M-Connex (an innovative  program to keep U-M engaged involved with the University) and most recently Innovate Blue (an integrated campus-wide innovation program to promote truly interdisciplinary entrepreneurship). Because of the award winning, disruptive, visionary and innovative nature of his programs, they are now being replicated across the nation.  Fun fact: Zurbuchen was an integral part of the recently concluded Mercury Messenger mission to scope out this planet in our solar system.

This post is a tribute to a driven innovator, educator and man on a mission.  Here are 12 Entrepreneurial Lessons from an entrepreneur who has trained and inspired many.

1) Live A Life Of Learning:  Never let a lack of intellectual stimulation at home get in the way of your success.  Find a way to educate yourself; your future is in your hands!

2) Create A Vision: Known at U-M for wildly ambitious visions and for building A+ teams driven to go the extra mile, Zurbuchen says, “Having large visions allows you to build teams and makes tough times easier because you always know where you are going and why this is worthwhile.”

3) Work 60+ Hours a Week: “Not a single innovator I have met in my life is lazy… every one of them works insanely hard.”  Known to consistently work 60-80 hour weeks his entire career, he says,  “Innovation is not thinking in the abstract… it’s about relentless hard work and persistence.”

As a youngster Zurbuchen served in the Swiss army 

As a youngster Zurbuchen served in the Swiss army 

4)  Be Resilient:  He says resilience, hard work and being driven are three of his most important entrepreneurial traits and his greatest strengths are a lack of patience and a sense of urgency. Interestingly enough, he adds that “a lack of patience is also my biggest weakness.”

5) Split Idea Time and Execution Time: It’s all too easy to be so action oriented that you may execute the wrong goals. Frequent pauses are needed to strategize, think about and re-assess goals.

6) Try Ideas on Strangers: He advises to “Try your ideas on complete strangers; it leads to honest, and genuine advice.” He maintains that friends, family and acquaintances may often “share biased feedback.” This principle has, among other things, enabled him to raise money from strangers on airplanes.

7) Focus on Others and Delegate: Take your attention off yourself and be interested in what other people care about.  Also, “Hire the right people, teach them what they need to do to succeed and then move out of their way.” He says that combining both these principles has never let him down.


Current and former University Presidents, celebrated entrepreneurs, pioneering faculty and students reflect on Thomas as a unique and pioneering entrepreneur.

8) Calm You Mind: “Running keeps the mind fresh and enables creative thinking.” He says that it enables him to work hard over a sustained period of time without burning out. The first thing he does upon visiting a new city is to go for an early morning run.

9) Mind Your Sanity Threshold: Sleep when you need it; do not fight it. “Your sanity threshold” is the point at which decision-making becomes flawed.  Know your threshold and always work within your “sane range” because you will waste a lot of your productive time otherwise.

10) Avoid Poisoning the Well: It’s critical to avoid spreading negative and irrational doubts and fears among your team.  When you experience a low “avoid poisoning the well,” and do not let other team members do so either.

11) Adversity Shapes You: He believes that the adversity and challenges he’s faced have shaped the strong and decisive leader he is today. “Many disruptive innovators are born out of struggle and adversity,” and he says he would not have had it any other way. “We do not get to choose the degree of adversity in our life, but we do control whether that adversity will impact us positively or negatively.”

12) Remain Authentic: Trying to change yourself in too many ways can lead to an internal struggle and ineffectiveness.  Be your best self, focus on your positive qualities, remain mindful of your negative qualities and remain authentic. “Your ‘version 1’ is your most powerful you,” he quips.

Zurbuchen on vacation with wife and kids

Zurbuchen on vacation with wife and kids

Zurbuchen lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife (an extremely accomplished string bass player and a professional music instructor) and two affectionate children. He simply loves Mediterranean food and his biggest prediction for the future is that “There will probably be less people inhabiting Earth in 2050 than people expect.” After a decorated career at U-M, Zurbuchen is taking time off to decide how to disrupt the world at large. To understand the scale and scope of his contribution to U-M and the world, here’s a look at what current and former University Presidents, celebrated entrepreneurs, pioneering faculty and former students have to say about this unique and pioneering entrepreneur.

This is the first in a series on lessons from pioneering entrepreneurs by Manish Parikh. All lessons are extracted from detailed interviews.  See more at: http://www.humanityfwd.org/humanity-forward/zurbuchen#sthash.Bu0nYewk.dpuf

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