From Academic to Entrepreneur
By Sofia Fortunato
Seven years ago, not so long after I started a postdoctoral position, I began to realize that academia wasn’t the best fit for me. I knew it was time to move on. However, I didn't know how to get out.
"What else can I do with my life if this is the only path I know?"
Looking back now, when I started my path in academia, I can say I was a successful postdoc researcher with an impressive track record at my early career stage. I published one paper in Nature and six more in other prestigious journals during my PhD. Everyone believed that I had a great start and that I would be a successful academic. Although I tried hard to follow that academic route, deep inside me, there was another call. What that call was, I didn’t know. I just knew I wanted to take another road. I never thought back then that that road would one day turn me into an entrepreneur and see me run a science children’s book publishing company, Little Red House Publishing.
So, how did I get there?
In this post I will tell you how I became an entrepreneur after my PhD and share some tips with you on how to use your academic skillset to create your own path.
What road to take and how?
This is one of the hardest parts of the process because many times, the road isn’t clear to us; at least it wasn’t for me. Unfortunately, there is no magic trick. There is no easy way in. You just need to try and take that road trip and use your skills as a roadmap to guide you and to explore what’s out there. Look for the signs and open your eyes for small opportunities. And more importantly, find out whether your little blossoming idea is already out there.
During my postdoc, I knew that I wanted a career path that would lead me into science communication and arts. I have been an artist for most of my life but didn't know how to combine both art and science. I researched what was out there and Google told me about SciArt. Because I am a very nerdy person, I needed to know everything about SciArt. In my research, I found the SciArt Magazine and started following them on social media. One day, on Twitter I saw a post from the editor advertising for a writer position. So, I sent an email to the editor of the magazine and told her I was interested in writing for them. And just like that, I became a contributing writer for the magazine. I wrote interview stories for each edition for about two years. With that experience, a new path began to unravel. I learned from other people in the SciArt space and gained creative writing skills, which then sparked an interest to write science stories for a different audience, children.
Don’t take any financial risks
Once your idea becomes clear, what’s the next step? How do you make it happen? The first thing to think of is how to make it financially sustainable. Now you enter the business mindset.
According to the dictionary, an entrepreneur is "a person who sets a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit." Although this is the official meaning of the word entrepreneur, I don’t fully agree with this. The reason is that you don't need to, and probably shouldn't, take any financial risk, at least not when you are starting.
Do you remember when you had funding with a limited amount of money to spend for a field trip or for an experiment? Use that thinking for this part of the process and make a budget! That is what I did.
I carefully thought through each move before spending any money. Overall, I have been conscious of every single bill I pay. I calculated the minimum amount of funds I would need to start my business without taking on unnecessary risks or debt that could compromise my family. My solution was to find a casual, part time job and use part of that income to buy supplies to create my books. I also applied for and was granted funds from Centrelink, an Australian social welfare agency, to support my kids and family while I started my own business. I have also been very lucky that my husband has supported me during the process both financially and emotionally.
But, If you don’t have someone to support you financially while you create a new business, then your best bet is to work a part time job that takes up no more than 80% of your work week, then, during the other 20% of your time, start building your business. Even once your business is established, working part time is a good option.
Save your money too! Throughout this process, check your bills and see if you can reduce your expenses. Maybe you can cut out a few of those coffee shop trips? Maybe cut back on going out to eat? This could even be a good challenge for you to try to consume less with everything non-essential. I try to cut spending by purchasing things second hand. Try cutting back and putting that money aside to cover some costs for the business. Saving in general is a good habit, but you will stay accountable when you are putting into something you are passionate about.
Find the right people to guide you
In some cases, you may need to gain new skills. How do you do that? Do you have to pursue another degree? The good news is NO! You don’t necessarily need to take on another degree. There are many other ways you can upgrade your skills. You might find a friend with experience in business, a mentorship program, or a course. There are now tons of online courses that you can do on your own schedule. Check places like LinkedIn or Udemy. The options are limitless!
With a combination of support from my business-savvy husband, a mentorship program in the arts, and a lot of fun illustration and design courses online, I have slowly upgraded my skills. I didn’t need another degree. I just built my skills as I went. Make a list of skills you need and find the right course or person to guide you. You could set aside a budget for this as part of your business plan as well.
Make an achievable business plan
When you started your PhD, you needed a plan for your project to achieve your degree. Well, you do the same for your business plan. Create a plan for the next five years maximum, because things evolve as they grow. Make a list of the things you want to achieve during that time frame. It’s important not to overload your plan. Carefully think about how many hours you will spend on the business per week and build your plan accordingly.
Once you have made your plan, take action and always revise the plan as you move forward. As with your PhD, be flexible and kind to yourself, because sometimes things don't go the way we want. In those cases, be prepared to have a plan B. For example, when I knew that I wanted to write more, I created a blog called OutdoorHobbits where I wrote about nature and places to go hiking with children around Queensland. I thought this blog would be a great way to start building an audience to sell children’s books to later. However, after two years with the project, I realized that my audience wasn’t exactly the same audience I wanted to target for children’s books, so, I changed the project and turned into something new. The new project became Little Red House Publishing. I didn’t feel that my first project was a failure, on the contrary, with OutdoorHobbits I learned a lot about blog writing, website design, and communicating with the public. In the end, it was a learning experience. You could try a pilot project to practice while the larger project idea becomes clearer.
Finding the right collaborators is another skill you likely have acquired from your PhD. We can’t do it all, it’s just not possible. It is super hard to do everything yourself when you have a family or other obligations. So, I strongly recommend you find your team and build good relationships and networks.
Once you find that person or people, it is appropriate to offer something in return, even if it is not in the form of money. For example, in exchange for writing for ECOS, Melissa helps me with illustrations. We set up a collaboration that consists of interchangeable skills, working in symbiosis with each other.
It is important to make agreements with your collaborators. Writing the “terms and conditions” in a concrete email is very useful and clears up any confusion throughout your relationship. If the collaboration doesn’t work, that is okay, don’t take it personally. Remember that everyone, as well as yourself, has their own agenda and life, and each person's priorities are different.
Learn about marketing
I didn’t have any training on marketing, I learned how to do it all by trial and error. Looking back now, I would have taken a marketing course when it was accessible to me as a master's student. I guess it never occurred to me back then that one day I was going to need this skill. So, if you are doing your PhD or masters, find out what kinds of courses your university offers on marketing and other transferrable skills.
After making tons of mistakes in marketing, I decided to apply for a mentorship program for guidance. After the program, I was more confident steering my business’s marketing. In that program, I learned many things, and realize that marketing is not just social media management, there are many layers to it.
When building a business, your digital presence is very important. I recommend learning digital marketing, because in the end, it is a tool that will allow you to communicate with your target audience. Don't feel pressured to be present on all of the social media platforms though, find the right one for you and your project. For Little Red House Publishing, I only use Instagram and Facebook because those platforms are where my target audience engages most. LinkedIn and Twitter also have their purposes, and you can find ways to take advantage of those as well.
You may also find that the old-fashioned newspaper reaches your target audience the best. Networking on any communication platform is important. Find out who the editor of your local paper is and contact them. Build a good business relationship with them. I used this strategy with our local newspaper and it worked well in the promotion of Little Red House Publishing. It is also a great way to communicate how we are engaging with the community. Community engagement is a very important part of our business plan because we care about our community and they provide supporting evidence essential for strong grant and funding applications.
Find suitable funding sources
Once I had a solid project, I started to tick the boxes outlined in our business plan, and then we published books. We created a marketing plan and had evidence that our project was engaging with the community, and at that stage, we started to look into grants. Honestly, this part of the process wasn’t that obvious to me at the beginning because I had no idea where to secure funding for the arts. I made a list of the grants we were eligible for and found a mentor that helped me apply. The relationship with my mentor was very enlightening. One of his best pieces of advice was to start with small funding grants that support regional projects. Don’t go big at the beginning. Build a track record first, similar to what you were doing in academia with research papers. You can also find money through sponsorships or funding from the private donors, it all depends on the type of project and your business model.
There is no easy way
I wish I could tell you there is an easy way into business ownership. Success does not happen overnight. It is important to keep yourself grounded; build patience and be persistent, but not stubborn, because the road will have lots of bumps and those bumps may actually be new opportunities. Stick to your plan and activate it. Be positive and open-minded and let your path evolve.
An advantage of having to go through the academic process is that we build an armor that makes us resilient when facing challenges. You definitely need this armor again when building your own business. The bright side is that this time you are building the path you are choosing for yourself, the one that was calling you a long time ago.