Entrepreneurship for Academics: An Interview with Adeline Koh

Today’s post is an interview with Dr. Adeline Koh, Associate Professor of Literature, and Director of Digital Humanities, at Stockton University. One of my earliest clients, Adeline has gone on to enormous success as a scholar, teacher, digital humanist, and now… budding entrepreneur. Adeline and I have an ongoing dialogue about the pleasures and challenges of entrepreneurship, so I asked her to share her thoughts about running her new business, Sabbatical Beauty, and the potential appeal of starting your own business (either a side gig, or full time) for academics — a subject close to my heart!

Dr. Adeline Koh

Tell me about what you’re doing now, in ac and non-ac realms

I’m currently finishing up my year of sabbatical (sob), am currently teaching a summer class online. I’ve been doing all the usual academic things one generally does–working on my book and other research, giving talks in different places, attending conferences, peer reviewing articles and T&P dossiers… the usual.

In non-academic realms, I run my own web design company (Digital Academic Consulting by Adeline Koh), and have designed quite a few academic websites for different people, as well as run a few how-to-create-your-own-website webinars.

Most recently, I’ve started a new skincare company called Sabbatical Beauty, which focuses on effective Korean-beauty natural botanical ingredients that’s been really taking off quite well.

What is Sabbatical Beauty? Why did you decide to start Sabbatical Beauty?

Sabbatical Beauty is a skincare company that is on a mission to change the beauty industry. I started Sabbatical Beauty because I’m a skincare nerd who was frustrated by the available products out there. While many products are marketed based on their active ingredients (the ingredients that actually do the “work” on your skin), the majority of products have actives in extremely low concentrations. I wanted products that would actually showcase the active ingredient in a big way. There was no way around that other than to start making my own products.

So I did what every academic is good at doing: I started doing my own research on how to make skincare products, as well as reading about active ingredients in cosmetic science textbooks. Then I started practicing–first on myself. The moment my friends saw the effects of my products on my skin, though, they demanded I start making some for them. So I started selling the products to my friends in small batches in a little skincare co-op. Then my friends demanded that I start an online shop, so that they could share the love with their family and friends who weren’t in the co-op. The rest is history.

How is it going?

It’s going really well, actually. The big push came when we were featured in Slate in January. The demand was unlike anything I’d ever experienced and I had to get friends and family to pitch in. Since then we’ve been doing a good job of maintaining the demand, and we’ve also been featured in places like Cosmopolitan UK, Shape Magazine, and Women’s Wear Daily.

Sabbatical Beauty was really a hobby to start off with, I never expected it to turn into a business the way it is now. But I love so much of it. I love planning and creating the products–because I’m a huge skincare nerd. I love making the products as well, which can be very calming and relaxing.

What I’m enjoying the most now is learning about business development, planning product line life cycles, and maintaining a hyper-engaged community of users. Sabbatical Beauty really has the best customers–they are in general feminist academic women, who find this aspect of self-care very empowering, and really support one another. We have a really great Facebook group which many of my customers say is one of the best aspects of the company. Unlike big box skincare brands, your SB experience doesn’t end with you buying the product; when you join the Facebook group (open to anyone interested!) you get to tap into a community of likeminded people who love the same products you do, and can offer advice about how they hack products in their routine, as well as offer support in self-care rituals.

What do you see are the best parts of running your own business?

Far and away, what I appreciate the most is the autonomy I get. I was somehow under the illusion that tenure brings one autonomy, but it’s actually the opposite; you just get more enmeshed in the network of dependencies and loyalties and egos etc. I absolutely love that I get to decide what happens with SB, and if I want to do something, I can execute it immediately, and see what happens. That’s so different from so many areas of academe where you have to write a zillion grant proposals before you actually do something, and you may not ever wind up doing it; or present a proposal for curriculum development to a million committees before it finally gets implemented (if ever).

I also love that I get to see results so quickly. Unlike traditional academic publishing, where you have to wait a zillion years to get your peer-reviewed article in print (I just had one come out last week that was accepted in 2010!), I get to see almost immediately what works, and what doesn’t work, and make changes based on this.

Finally, in a lot of ways I have found that maintaining the SB relationship to customers is somehow more straightforward than most academic relationships. When my SB customer is unhappy, it is a fixable problem–they are unhappy with customer service, or the product, or the results of the product. When you have an issue with someone in academia (peer reviewer? colleague?), it’s often to do with the person being unhappy because of something you (or your work) represents to them, but it’s often buried under the guise of something else (academic rigor? collegiality? fit?) and is much more complex to resolve. Maintaining the SB to customer relationship is a lot easier to me, and simpler.

What are the challenges of running your own business?

Financial security–making sure that I will earn enough to pay any associates that work with me, making sure that I have reliable revenue etc. Since I’ve started implementing a marketing strategy and product life cycle, this has become a lot less challenging for me, and is a lot of fun.

Other challenges–self-employment tax (which your employer pays in a regular job)–can take a lot out of your take-home income, plus the issue of benefits, if you don’t have a spouse who has a good benefits package you can ride on.

Do you feel like your academic training and background has been helpful or unhelpful in this new venture? Or, both?  Explain!

I would say it’s only ever been helpful, really. I couldn’t do what I do without my research background. Although I don’t have a science background, I’m able to research the heck out of whatever I’m interested in (maybe due to my comparative literature training, which was really about being able to do a critical reading of any discipline), and I can do research really quickly. This helped me to get boned up on cosmetic science pretty quickly, as well as to learn a lot about business development and marketing.

My digital humanities background–in terms of web design and social media management–has been integral to my being able to style my own website and update it to my liking, as well as building a vibrant social media community. Finally, the English literature background means that I’m able to write effective copy on my own–and my own press releases, which resulted in the Shape and Women’s Wear Daily features.

Advice for other Ph.D.s considering starting their own business?

It’s a LOT of hard work, but very exhilarating. If you’re the kind of Ph.D. like I am, who is unhappy with the state of academia, and wants to create their own job/their own opportunities, you’re going to love it, because in this business I have learned WAY more than I have in the past five years as an academic, because I’ve gotten experience in so many different fields. It’s also scary, so if you’re the kind of person that needs security and a paycheck, it may be too intimidating for you.

What are the challenges and risks you see in doing entrepreneurship full time?

Well, there’s a lot. Obviously the first and most important thing is whether you can sustain enough sales to make this a full time gig. Secondly running your own business and growing it you’ve to deal with the question of scale in a way which has real life consequences you don’t need to deal with as a tenured professor, especially if you aren’t in administration. For example, if you hire someone to help you, you become responsible for their livelihood. What happens if you don’t make enough sales to break even? How do you pay them? And what do you do when you decide to grow, do you hire and train people to take over what you do, or do you outsource part of your work to someone else? Hiring and training others, especially in a product-based business like mine, requires space and a lease–all adding to potential risk for your operation. Failure in any of these aspects has very real consequences on your life and other people’s lives. As a tenured professor, you can fail, but you will still get paid. As an entrepreneur who has had a bad year, the consequences are a lot more dire. However, the rewards can also be a lot more outstanding. Not everyone has the stomach for this risk I think. I thought I didn’t, but now I’m realizing how much I’m enjoying the challenge. I’m sure part of this is because I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs.

What’s your plan for the next 5 years?

I’ve asked for–and just heard that my department has approved–a year of unpaid leave to grow Sabbatical Beauty. I’m really grateful that they worked together with me to allow this. It’s my hope that I can grow the business to a sustainable enough level to leave academia full time. Since I started working full time on SB I’m so much happier than I used to be as an academic.

I want to grow Sabbatical Beauty to a point where it becomes a well-known brand that you will be able to purchase at Sephora or Nordstroms–and even have our own brick and mortar shops. I would love to be able to have Sabbatical Beauty achieve this in five years, but I’m still mapping out the plans for that.

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Entrepreneurship for Academics: An Interview with Adeline Koh — 1 Comment

  1. Adeline, how cool! You’re an inspiration to us all but also proof of how the world of work is changing toward a more entrepreneurial and COMBINATORIAL logic of multifaceted configurations rather than “a” single and steady career.

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