I love all of the excitement that’s been generated by this series on Academic Entrepreneurship. I think so much of the enthusiasm comes from the fact that campus efforts on entrepreneurial activity tend to focus almost exclusively on STEM fields. Most other faculty get the same reception I did when presenting my big idea in these spaces: a blank stare and a polite version of, “Thanks for stopping by the office, but this isn’t for you, dear.” Four years and 55,000 members of my business later, it’s clear to me that my former campus missed the boat not taking social entrepreneurship seriously. So my purpose in offering this series is to both encourage any academic who has a big idea for change to move forward AND to encourage college and university incubators to rethink who belongs there and which ideas are worthy of support.
We started this series by asking you to answer three important questions: What do you want to create? What’s the problem you want to solve? and What’s your unique solution? Then we described the difference between the academic and entrepreneurial mindset so you can shift easily and nimbly between them. This week, I want to help you clarify how you plan to deliver your solution. In other words, I approach bringing any idea into reality as an experiment. If I know the problem and solution, the next step is to imagine the most effective way to deliver that solution. Once that is clear, try it out, see what happens, assess and adjust (a process I will cover in the last installment of this series).
5 Ways To Deliver a Solution
There are five common ways I’ve seen academic entrepreneurs put their solutions into practice (and make money).To make it concrete, I’ll describe each of the delivery systems and give you a concrete example of an actual professor (or former professor) who has started a new venture based on it. They range from full-blown businesses (with employees) to passion projects that come to life once a year. I’m intentionally choosing to keep all of my examples confined to faculty outside of the STEM fields to demystify the idea of academic entrepreneurship and show how projects come to life.
1. Workshops/Online Courses/Webinars
The easiest way for most academic entrepreneurs to deliver their solution is through what they know best: teaching. For example, Badia Ahad recognized that there’s a perennial problem whenever new faculty are trying to write their first books: nobody ever explains how to write a book proposal, most people don’t understand the process of getting a book published, and even fewer have contacts at university presses. The solution was clear to her: teach people explicitly how to draft and submit a winning proposal. So she set up her business (Savant) and created a three-week online course where participants can write one section of the book proposal each week, have questions answered by actual acquisitions editors, and map the process for submission. By the end of the course, participants have a book proposal and clarity about where and how to submit their work. As of today, over 300 book proposals have been written through this simple and scalable process.
2. Individual Work
Another way to deliver your solution is by working directly with individuals (paid mentoring, coaching, consulting, etc.). For example, Karen Kelsky identified a widespread problem for graduate students: “an adviser who’s never in, a grad program that doesn’t care, funding that’s never enough, a job market that’s in the tank... And no one to give you an honest answer?” She left her tenured faculty position and set up her business -- The Professor Is In -- to help graduate students navigate the academic job market by working one-on-one (via email and Skype) with those who need her assistance from preparing application materials through negotiating a job offer.
3. Group Programs
Some solutions benefit from group interaction. For example, I care about faculty winning tenure. The problem is that new faculty members tend to disproportionately invest their time on teaching and service at the expense of their research activity. So I designed a solution to teach people empirically documented strategies for increasing productivity in small, successive steps. But that solution requires community, support and accountability to move new faculty from knowing the skills to experimenting with new behaviors. Because this solution requires weekly training, small group support, and daily behavior tracking overseen by a faculty coach, we deliver it in a 15-week virtual boot camp called the Faculty Success Program. We’ve had over 600 participants in the program and maintain a 90 percent success rate in helping faculty become more productive in their research and writing.
At times, it’s most effective to gather people face-to-face to organize, learn, and engage in activities you’ve designed to solve a problem. For example, Maurice Stevens and Michelle Rivera-Clonch identified isolation, exhaustion, and the overwhelming busyness of academic life as pervasive problems among academic writers at every rank. They decided the solution was to bring people together each summer to do nothing but write (all the cooking and cleaning are done for you). So they host an annual retreat called “Writing in Depth” to provide an immersive environment for busy faculty to take a break from their hectic home environment, write in a natural setting, and experience holistic care. This is a great example of a passion project that brings them great joy and the participants an amazing experience.
5. Creating Software
Not every solution has to be delivered directly from person to person. Some solutions are more effectively delivered by creating software. For example, Muhammad Khalifa’s research on educational inequalities led him to offer “equity audits” for schools on a consulting basis. He realized that the audits could be done more effectively and efficiently by designing software that enables data collection and assessment (The Equity Project).
I’m describing each of these five delivery systems as a way to pose the question: How will you deliver your solution? This list is neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. In fact, many of the businesses described here have more than one delivery mechanism. Hopefully just learning about them has your brain firing in some new ways as you imagine launching your idea for positive change.
The Week’s Challenge
This week I challenge you to:
1) Revisit (and revise) your answer to the core question: The problem I want to solve is ______________; my unique solution is __________________.
2) Spend 15 minutes brainstorming on the following question: What is the most effective delivery system for my unique solution?
3) At the end of your brainstorming, list three concrete steps you could take to step forward with your new venture?
I hope this week brings you the realization that the gap between your big idea and actually executing it is quite small and that you feel increasingly inspired to experiment!
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
President and CEO, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity