Are Academic Businesses Low-hanging Fruit? Horton #postac Post

I’m excited about this #postac post by Margy Horton, the genius behind the business, ScholarShape.  Entrepreneurship is a topic very close to my heart; I even have a chapter on it in my forthcoming book.  I want to see more academics pursue entrepreneurial opportunities and get over their fear of going into business for themselves.

by Margy Horton

Margy Thomas Horton

Every Q & A needs one audacious question, so I was grateful recently when, after I’d given a starry-eyed talk to some humanities PhDs about entrepreneurship as a partial solution to the academic jobs crisis, one audience member put her hand up and said (I’m paraphrasing), “No offense, but I see what you and The Professor Is In and some other academic entrepreneurs are doing, and I think, how many businesses like that can there be–businesses that academics create to support other academics? Didn’t you guys already pick all the low-hanging fruit?”

In other words, hadn’t we taken all the easy business ideas?

Some background: Two years ago, I launched a business, ScholarShape, that offers editorial support, coaching, and consultation to academics across the disciplines. I’m not an entrepreneur in a seismic-shift kind of way, but I am entrepreneurial in the sense that I like solving problems by inventing new solutions rather than by looking for prefabricated ones. While my business model might seem obvious now, when I was first launching, most of my academic colleagues and friends were like, “What? Academics aren’t going to pay you for those services.”

But back to that skeptical audience member. Her point is an important one: For an academic starting a business, the most comfortable clientele is other academics. That market is not limitless, though, and if all the PhD. entrepreneurs simply stake their tents on the grounds of academia, we have not solved the jobs crisis at all. Rather than opening the floodgates, we will have merely carved out another inlet, where endless academic entrepreneurs toil in vain to sell their services back and forth to one another.

What if the academic entrepreneurship trend isn’t creating a clogged inlet, but instead building the first settlement on an uninhabited planet like Mars? As I see it, a few academics have now survived the perilous journey through the vacuum of outer space, set up a makeshift station on their adopted planet, and written home to Earth that the space colony thing is pretty doable. Now the next wave of settlers will come, and they may not all fit in the original station, but we’ll work together to build an annex to accommodate them. Next year, when the third wave of settlers comes, we’ll expand our little station into a village. Eventually another village will spring up, and another, until the whole planet is populated with academic entrepreneurs launching all manner of brand consultancies, community development initiatives, marketing firms, policy consultation practices, and writing consultation businesses. Some will even write historical novels, or sexy historical novels. (Yes, writing and selling novels counts as entrepreneurship!)  And the more businesses these academic entrepreneurs create, the more new jobs and opportunities there will be for the settlers who come later.

And none of them have to become Republicans unless they want to.

The entire point of entrepreneurship is that it opens up infinite possibilities. The entrepreneurial mindset is promising precisely because we don’t know what direction it will take us next. Of course entrepreneurship isn’t the whole solution to joblessness, in academia or anywhere else. Of course not everyone is cut out for the lifestyle, which can be unpredictable and grueling. And of course I fully recognize that in plenty of academic circles, entrepreneurship is still conflated with philistinism and greed. But I’ve seen for myself that when frustrated academics try on an entrepreneurial way of thinking–by which I mean, looking around for ways to solve problems through the provision of goods and services for pay–the result can be profoundly freeing. Suddenly, no one but you has to give you permission to do meaningful work for a living.

So I’m glad to see that people are starting to see academic businesses as “low hanging fruit.” This means that entrepreneurship is beginning to seem like a viable option, like a thing that people do. Two years ago, launching an academic support businesses marked a person as a freakish aberration, or worse, a moral failure. Today, it’s zeitgeisty–an intriguing if dubious possibility. By next year, the Mars settlement will be thriving. And when it gets crowded, the boldest among us will pack up and give Jupiter a try.

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Are Academic Businesses Low-hanging Fruit? Horton #postac Post — 10 Comments

  1. Entrepreneurship and private/public/nonprofit sector employment are the wave of the future. I learned this when I was temping. It didn’t take long after years in higher education to realise that I was much more competent and organized than most of the people around me. This was/is not hubris; it’s just the tools I’ve picked up in academia. organizations pay a premium for people like you. They just haven’t (yet) seen the value proposition. If it’s a choice between a choice between a recent college grad and a college post-grad, make the case about how much of a better deal you are.

    Alternately, do the dollars and cents calculation. How much are you making as an adjunct for how many hours of work? If you could do other work at the same salary, would you? If that job took less time and stress, could you take that money to do what you want to do (write a book?).

    When the world outside the Ivory Tower begins to take note of the large, well-educated and highly skilled labor force that are underemployed PhDs in academia and begins hiring them en masse, academia will lose their surplus labor and that’s when they will truly be hit by a crisis. Our task is to evangelise and spread the word about the hireability of PhDs.

    • Hi John, thanks for this, and may I say, you are *exactly* what I’m talking about in this post! I took the liberty of clicking through to your LinkedIn profile and was so inspired to read about your career as a consulting scholar in the field of internet/technology policy. Your work seems to me a perfect illustration of the transferability of PhD skills to other domains–where, as you point out, our skills are very much needed!

  2. Margy!

    What a fantastic post. I am right there with you on the space colony. (Ha!) I left academia to venture in the the great unknown land of entrepreneurialism (first editing, soon publishing), and I see nothing but more room for expanse. I hope to encourage academics to actually go out there and make real change with their work, and, yes, that means occasionally getting off the rigid tracks of the academic world.

    I’ll definitely be following you. Thanks for your inspiration!


    • Thanks, Morgan! Clicking on your name took me to the website of your business, which looks amazing! It seems that we have similar visions of the writing process: that with a certain kind of support, the hard work of writing can go from being tedious and anxiety-producing, to being exhilarating and even fun. But beyond that, it always makes me happy to “meet” other people who have found the work that works for them! Hope you and your business continue to thrive.

  3. I am currently 2 years out of my IR PhD, working for a think tank while trying to stay relevant in academia through publications, conferences, etc. I just got a Fulbright and I am trying to figure out what will come next. I am not sure I want to die on the way to getting tenure, but I still love academia. How do you manage to be “entrepreneurial” and staying relevant and respected in academia? How do I start my “own thing” and still get invited to participate on conference panels and to be on journal review boards? Is it possible?

    • Hi Yolande, I expect and hope that, as the entrepreneurial mindset becomes increasingly normalized in academia (through people like you embracing and talking frankly about it!), this question will eventually seem less vexing. It helps to think of entrepreneurship as a spectrum–as a trait or way of thinking that manifests in varying ways and degrees in different people–rather than thinking of as an absolute all-or-nothing career path. In other words, entrepreneurialism is as much a state of mind as a specific activity.

      It seems to me that in your particular case, with the substantial academic reputation you’ve built and your ability to support yourself through a job off the tenure track, you’re in the ideal position to spearhead this shift in academic culture: making it tolerable, and then acceptable, and then *desirable* for a person to inhabit multiple intersecting professional roles of which “academic” is only one. I for one cheer the increasing permeability of the membrane between academia and the rest of the world.

      Incidentally, this recent piece in the CHE talks about the mirror image of your situation–an tenured professor who is entrepreneurial on the side:

      Good luck!! And if you figure out an answer, I’d love an update!

  4. I’m tired. I’m tired of chasing after my so-called dream job.
    Chasing after funding, publications, post-doc abroad (a mandatory stage for TT in my country).
    But it wasn’t the endless race toward a so-far fetched goal that finally broke me.
    Not even the constant feeling that I can’t get it all.
    In fact, I’m losing it all. Not good enough mother (hardly spend time with my two children), not good enough researcher (too few papers), not good enough wife, etc. I already gave up socializing outside the lab, and I have a vague recollection of a luxury called hobbies.
    Those things cracked me but didn’t brake me, I kept on going up.
    This last semester I broke down.

    The last straw was My advisor when he told me that he doesn’t think I deserve a salary for my research work (this applies to all his grad students, btw).
    In his view, I get his guidance and I get papers, so what else could I possibly want. He does give us stipend (not paying a salary, but handing us some money out of his own good will).
    Finally, I had enough.
    Yes, I still want to be a researcher and I still give myself one (or two) last try (with the experienced and kind help of Karen).
    But I’m slowly beginning to glance outside the academia.
    I no longer see it as the best thing that could possibly happen to someone, and no longer as the only option out there for me.
    I’m starting to materialize my backup plans.
    Thinking how I can conduct interesting and meaningful research-related work in the private sector as an independent statistical consultant or as a researcher in the public sector.

    I guess it would be nice to get paid actual salary (with pension!), leave work behind when I come home, take vacation or sick days without feeling guilty and mostly- not feel like I’m in an endless impossible race toward…. where?
    I’m almost there. 🙂

    PS. thank you Karen and Margy for inspiring me to think outside the academia.

  5. Thank you Margy, for pointing PhDs toward Jupiter. An indy scholar since twelve years, I must say it’s been quite lonely over here. So welcome you all to the wonderful universe of entrepreneurship! I did some pioneering and the locals have grown to appreciate what academics can bring them.

    In January this year, I started a blog about my life and work as an indy scholar. You find an overview plus links here: The ‘Staying in touch with academia’ blog particularly zooms into the issue that Yolande Bouka raised. I also wrote about lessons learnt, which you find here:

    I’d be happy to share more of the stuff I did and learnt in the past years, so if you have any suggestions for an upcoming blog, please let me know.

  6. Pingback: So You Have an Idea for an App? (#Postac Guest Post) | The Professor Is In

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