Small Business Ownership II: Take What You Love, Leave What You Don’t –Horton #2

In this post Margy Horton continues with Part II of her series on launching your own small business.

By Margy Horton

Margy Horton

Let’s say that you’re contemplating the wacky plan of launching an entrepreneurial career. Before you embark, consider this checklist of qualities that characterize many a successful business owner: optimism, organizational skills, a tolerance of risk and uncertainty, a willingness to advocate for oneself and one’s talents, an insane work ethic, and an ability to envision the future and get other people excited about that vision. If you’ve gotten through (or are getting through) a doctoral program, I’m guessing you have most or all of these qualities. Which means that you, yes you, can become the proprietor of a thriving small business.

Once you’ve made your peace with capitalism (as I discussed in my last post) and decided to leave academia for entrepreneurship, your next step will be to start developing your business model. Basically, this means identifying the need you’re going to fill in the marketplace, figuring out how you’re going to fill it, and determining how much money you should charge to the people whose needs you are meeting. If you’re still feeling a little glum about leaving academia behind, don’t worry. The materials you’re going to use to build your new business are the very scraps you carried with you out of academia–your favorite fragments of the life of the mind, salvaged from your flameout of an academic career like scrap metal from a house fire. (Just kidding; that’s a little joke from one entrepreneur to another.) Here’s what’s next.

  1. Banish the notion that academics are superior to other people. If you’ve been spending all your time with academics, you may have absorbed the idea that academics are the only truly cultured, rational, and enlightened people on earth, and beyond that, you might assume that these qualities are the only ones that matter. If you hold onto these distorted views, they can keep you from seeing the value in people from other backgrounds–and from making yourself useful in the world at large.
  2. Figure out what you loved and loathed about academia. My list of “pros” included the intellectual challenges, the centrality of written and spoken language, the significance of the university’s mission, the opportunities to help other people grow and develop, and the schedule flexibility. Cons included boring meetings, geographical limitations, and the lack (as I saw it) of a clear causal link between effort and reward. Once I’d made this pro-con list, I found it easier to conceptualize what I was looking for in my new career.
  3. Learn about the world–and think about where you’re needed. Read up on current events, technology, the economy, politics, marketing, building construction, pastry arts, or whatever it is that you’re interested in. Study the New York Times, skim the job postings on, browse the magazine section at your local bookstore. Your goal is to get a sense of the world outside your tiny discipline or university. Find connections between your academic work and the problems in the world. What unmet needs do you discover? Whom can you help? What problems can you solve? Ask schools, businesses, nonprofits, and private citizens what tough problems they’re facing. I can hardly begin to imagine hypothetical scenarios to illustrate to you what you might encounter once you start looking for problems to solve. And the solution isn’t always entrepreneurship: Maybe you’ll realize that your town needs you to run for mayor or that the local radio station needs a sharp commentator. Stephanie Day’s recent post for Dr. Karen shows how you can create opportunities for yourself simply by situating yourself such that the people around you discover how very indispensable you are.
  4. Take inventory of your strengths, knowledge, and skills, thinking in terms of what people might pay you to do. Ask people who know you well, “What am I good at?” Read books that inspire self-reflection, whether self-help books like Now Discover Your Strengths, academia-specific books like So What Are You Going to Do With That?, or more literary texts, like Walden. (Or if you’re like me, read all three.) Make notes as you go along–specific steps to take, ideas to investigate, people to contact, websites to watch. As a start, run through the following list of marketable skills and mentally circle the ones you possess: presentation/public speaking, writing/content development, data collection and analysis, coaching/teaching, editing, course design/project management, storytelling, organizing information, synthesizing multiple viewpoints, identifying and solving problems. Find a sensible person who is a good listener to help you define your marketable skills, clarify how your offerings are distinct from everyone else’s, and develop a specific plan of action for how to making a living from your knowledge and skills.
  5. Realize that there are no shortcuts. In transitioning from academia to a post-ac career, you’re undertaking one of the most significant projects of your life. Writing your dissertation wasn’t easy, and this won’t be either. Think of this project as the opposite of Tic Tac Toe: It’s worthwhile and exciting precisely because your course isn’t mapped out for you and because the possibilities at this moment are boundless. Who wants to spend a lifetime putting Xs and Os into a prescribed grid, when you can choose instead to have all the letters of the alphabet and a grid that’s as expansive as the universe?

By the way, for all the parallels that delight me between academic work and small business ownership, I have found some differences that delight me just as much. I get to live in the place of my choice, the Research Triangle of North Carolina. I only work with people who are deeply invested in their projects—meaning that I never again have to convince a skeptical student that writing matters. I can measure my effectiveness in the actual dollars that I’m paid and the actual number of clients who work with me repeatedly and refer their friends. I represent an institution that, because I designed it, reflects my own most cherished vision of what the world can be: a place where academic writing is not a tedious, inefficient, demoralizing task but rather a satisfying process of discovery that is integral to the academic’s overall work life. Basically, establishing ScholarShape has meant creating my own dream job. And it hasn’t taken me too far from academia, after all. My hope for you is that you’ll figure out how to build your own dream job, too.

In my next post, I’ll talk more specifically about the editing and writing consultation work that I do at ScholarShape. The purpose of the post will be to help readers who are contemplating their own move into editing or consulting to think through various approaches to this kind of work.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Small Business Ownership II: Take What You Love, Leave What You Don’t –Horton #2 — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: How to Create Your Own Post-ac Job – Horton #3 | The Professor Is In

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