Don't Sell Yourself Short

Manya Whitaker explains how she started her own business.

September 30, 2014
 

One of the joys of being a scholar in an applied field like psychology or education is the ability to work on the ground with “real people.” In other words, as an educational developmental psychologist, my work happens to easily skip out of the Ivory Tower. Though I am trained as a developmental psychologist, my research is situated firmly within education. Largely construed, I investigate the sociocontextual factors that affect low-income students’ academic achievement. More simply put, I work with teachers, admin, and families to improve academic outcomes for marginalized students. For many years, this took the form of teacher in-service workshops focused on parental involvement. Because schools serving underrepresented demographics struggle with facilitating meaningful parental participation in children’s schooling, I help them figure out how to access, communicate with, and engage “hard-to-reach” parents.

As an off shoot of that work, I was often asked to hold workshops at small conferences or to sometimes attend open houses and speak to parents. Once word got out that a young Black woman was working with families in urban schools, I received more requests to give keynote addresses, tutor, or come speak to first generation hopefuls at area high schools. I ended up spending so much of my free time doing such things, I had no choice but to cut way back. But, in cutting back I realized how much I missed engaging with people in ways that affect immediate change. There is something special about sitting in a family’s home, at their kitchen table, speaking with the very people who constitute the “subject” of your research. I enjoyed hearing their stories and brainstorming ways to help their children. I liked being an advocate for families who may not have the time, energy, or information to effectively advocate for themselves.

While talking to a good friend who has much more of an entrepreneurial mind than me, it dawned on me that I could start an educational consulting business. Like a good researcher, I did some investigation into what it meant to run a small business. I spoke with my father who has successfully run his own small business for over a decade. I spoke to friends with all kinds of businesses in varying stages of businessdom. While the initial work seemed intense, the service itself was no more work than I’d been doing for free. And as my father always says “don’t sell yourself short”…so I decided not to.

Before I got into the nitty gritty of starting my business, I paused to consider the implications for my full-time career as a tenure track professor. Was this even ethical? Was I violating some implicit agreement between myself and the Academy? Did my knowledge and skills belong solely to the institution and its concomitants? No, surely not. That’s absurd….right?

The fact that I paused to think about this quandary more than once speaks to the ways in which academics are inculcated into academia in a sometimes unhealthy manner. I’m not sure what it is about graduate school that makes one’s intellectual property feel like the property of others. It might be the fact your advisor or committee has so much control over what you actually produce, that it indeed feels as though your words aren’t your own. Or maybe it’s the publish or perish mantra that really means “it is your duty and obligation to publicly share your thoughts for the good of the public.” I find it odd that in other professions, people are paid well for the knowledge and skills they spend years acquiring and refining. But academics are expected to share their assets solely for the glory and grandeur of it? Yes, tenure is a huge benefit that is often directly correlated with the amount and quality of one’s scholarly contributions; however, other professions have this too. They call it a “promotion” or a “raise.”

Getting Started

I decided that I, too, deserved a promotion and a bonus for all the extra work I do to translate my research into practice. I therefore brainstormed company names (of course that was my first task—it was by far the most fun), chose colors, hired an artist to create a logo, and filed my business as an S-corporation with the federal and state government. Then the school year started.

Being realistic, I knew that starting a small business in August was not the best timeline. I knew once school started my efforts would be 100% devoted to a successful first year on the tenure-track. I made plans to reengage with my business in June of the following year, and I did just that. This past June, I conducted market research on types of services, prices, and timelines of most interest to my target demographic. I also asked them about the possibility of utilizing consulting services via social media and other popular forms of technology in lieu of face-to-face interactions. I was surprised to see that most participants in my pseudo-study were more concerned with the price of services than the mechanism through which they would be delivered.

After creating a list of services and running my pricing models by other entrepreneurs in similar fields, I created marketing materials. Besides business cards, I also ordered rack cards, folders with my logo on them, and printed a “menu” of services with accompanying fees. I considered creating a Facebook page, but that didn’t seem like it would be worth my time and effort. If I know anything about education, I know that information spreads through word of mouth, not written materials. To help spread the word about my business, I did two things: the first was becoming an affiliate member with the gym where I am a member. The second was offering a 20% referral bonus. The latter is how I secured clients 2 and 3. I considered advertising my services in the newspapers of the local colleges, but the cost would offset the potential financial gain, so I decided against it.

I’ve been in business a few short months, but so far it’s going well. The academic year started a few weeks ago and I admit that it’s tough coming home from a full-time job to do more work. But it is very much worth it. My clients are extremely appreciative and more than willing to refer me to their family and friends. That’s more than can be said of the outcomes of publishing in academia.

For the professors who think that maybe they too want to start a business, I have a few bits of advice:

  • Be clear in why you want to start a business. Writing a mission statement should be one of the first things you do. I referred to the Small Business Administration for help in creating a business plan, deciding my business structure, and learning about the legalities of owning a business.
  • Research your market. Ask them what services are of interest, how much they would be willing to pay, and any other information necessary to execute your idea.
  • Apply for grants to help fund your business. There are dozens of grants for women and people of color specifically for small business owners.
  • Similarly, make a budget. And make sure your budget includes the taxes you pay on your earnings. This will also help you decide appropriate price points for your services/products.
  • Be realistic in your timeline for development and growth. Starting a business takes a lot of time and thought. Decide if this is the appropriate time in your life to start such an important endeavor. Once you have clients, it is unlikely they will care as much about your tenure clock as you.
  • Start small. Offer your services/products for free or at a reduced cost for a while. Then, have those clients write reviews and help spread the word about your business.
  • Grow slowly. As you gain clients, it will be tempting to hire more people to help you meet the demand; however, remember that like being a professor, owning a business is a learning process. Consider the pros and cons of having employees and/or business partners. Always refer back to your mission statement as your guiding rule.
  • Continue to improve your product. It is not only articles that benefit from a good R&R (revise & resubmit).

To other professors for whom owning a business is not desirable, I encourage you to find other ways to utilize your talents. Perhaps you could write a blog, or better yet, children’s books! Perhaps you can volunteer in community organizations providing services to those who will not get to meet you within the economically discriminatory walls of academia. Or perhaps you can just talk to whomever you please about whatever you please, without the pressure of “perishing” after the conversation. The knowledge is yours to do with what you choose.

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