The 4 Terrors of the Academic Entrepreneur

by Margy Horton

Margy Thomas Horton

Margy Thomas Horton

Academic entrepreneurship has long been an obvious choice for patent-holding scientists, and according to the Huffington Post, the career option has also become popular among academics seeking supplemental income. In July, Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder of an academic support service, published a series describing how established academics can think like entrepreneurs to solve problems on campus and grow side projects into new businesses, as Rockquemore herself has done. On this very blog, Jessica Langer and I have cheerfully urged academics to launch entrepreneurial enterprises, and Dr. Karen offers a how-to webinar on the subject. Recently a reader even created a hashtag in honor of our favorite academic entrepreneur.

The truth is, academic entrepreneurs celebrate their chosen career path not only because it is feasible and rewarding, but also because entrepreneurs cannot help but tend toward optimism. As the saying goes, an entrepreneur is a person who leaps off a cliff and builds an airplane on the way down. I would add that, while falling, the entrepreneur enjoys shouting up to the people still perched on the cliff, “This plummeting-to-earth thing is a blast!! Try it!!!”

The optimism of the entrepreneur–part joy, part faith, part nervous energy–makes possible that leap off the cliff. The entrepreneur’s grandiose desire to build an enterprise larger than herself distinguishes her from the freelancer who simply trades hours for money.

But Oscar Wilde said it best: “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” The boldness of the entrepreneur both causes and is caused by living in a sort of free-fall, working constantly and frantically to improvise the contraption that might or might not save your life. In my own free-falling journey of academic entrepreneurship, I’ve encountered four distinct terrors. I share them here to prepare you for what you, too, might encounter if you take on an entrepreneurial venture.

First is the terror of differentiation, alluded to in my first post: the feeling of departing from your tribe of kindred spirits. When you first decide to start a business, the reactions from your academic friends and colleagues may range from apathetic (“Hmm”) to skeptical (“Well, I guess you can try”) to confused (“Why aren’t you going for the tenure track?). Eventually, though, you grow comfortable with your new entrepreneurial self. You realize that, as irrevocable as that leap off the cliff was, it was you doing the leaping. And now, as you cultivate your entrepreneur self, you will continue to be you–learning, reading, thinking, discovering, and living the life of the mind. In Rockquemore’s description of the difference in mindset between academics and entrepreneurs, she rightly points out that people can switch at will between the two mindsets. In fact, academics ought to relish shifting perspective now and then.

Once past the terror of differentiation, another terror awaits you: the terror of money. You’ll initially fear not making any, of course, but at a deeper level, you’ll also fear the money itself–having to be right up close to it. You’ll feel uncomfortable having to deal directly with every dollar you earn from a client, rather than having money magically appear in your bank account like it had when you were someone else’s employee. Moreover, you’ll feel afraid while working long unpaid hours to get your business off the ground. Your time is what your life is made of, so by spending time on building your business, you invest your very life in a cause that isn’t guaranteed to succeed, notwithstanding your moments of irrational certainty that it will. Eventually, once clients or customers are coming steadily, the money terror mellows into a gentle discomfort, which flares up only while dealing with billing, collecting, and taxes. You realize that money-work is scary to you for the same practical and ideological reasons that it is for most academics, and that the only way you can expel the terror is to swallow and digest it first.

Once your terror of money dissipates, another terror sets in: the terror of over-work. You discover that having a new business, like having a new baby, is an exercise in over-extending yourself in order to meet others’ needs. Just as it takes awhile before you can wean your baby, it takes awhile before you can begin to extricate your self from your business and set limits: no working through the dinner hour, no working after midnight, no smartphone while playing with your child. The terror of overwork begins to diminish the moment you recognize it for what it is and decide where to set the boundaries in your life. (I type this at 12:03 am, in clear violation of rule #2 above.)

The fourth terror, which to be honest I’m still learning to manage, is the terror of unraveling. As your business grows and the stakes get higher, you’ll worry about miscalculating your taxes, losing your best employee, or leaving inadvertent loopholes in your contracts. You’ll consult experts for help, but still, the sheer volume of details and the professional and personal consequences of messing up will weigh on you sometimes. You might worry about being hauled off for tax evasion, Al Capone-style, or winding up paralyzed in a hospital bed like Ted Beneke. Even though you don’t believe in the concept of rivalry, you might worry that someone else will find a way to copy what you do and offer your product faster, cheaper, and with more sparkles than you can. But naming your fears helps you to keep them at bay. You allow yourself to list them out, then you get back to work.

What terror comes next in the journey of entrepreneurship? I suspect that the fifth terror will, in the words of Wilson Harrell, have something to do with “the same thing that leads us to start companies in the first place–some basic, semiconscious need to make our mark in the world, to leave our footprints in the sands of time.” According to Harrell, the elemental terror of the entrepreneur is “that we might become another member of the herd and pass into oblivion.” Come to think of it, this is not so different from the existential terror of the traditional academic who fears that her research will not outlive her.

Amidst such terror, whether in entrepreneurship, academia, or life in general, optimism is a choice–one that’s made in the midst of uncertainty, scarcity, danger. Choosing optimism isn’t always easy, but it is what enables us to paint visions of the future, and it makes forward movement possible.

To speak again as my academic self, I’ll quote Shakespeare’s As you Like It: “The threads of our lives are of mingled yarn, the good and ill together.” The academic entrepreneur is one who weaves together mingled yarn, and then looks to Shakespeare for the words to explain what she’s doing.

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.

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