For Historians, Entrepreneurship Can Be Empowering

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Entrepreneurship was the last thing I expected to do after earning my degree. As a graduate student, I associated entrepreneurship with tech startups and bro culture and thought that entrepreneurs either had to invent breakthrough products or open a retail store; they either had to be brilliantly creative or a damn good salesperson. I didn’t believe that I was either of those things. On a practical level, I had no business training, and my only exposure to economics, aside from having read Das Kapital, was the C+ I earned in an introductory college course. I had no sales experience, little skill with quantitative analysis, and no knowledge of marketing, sales, supply chains, or management. So it’s little wonder that I did not envision a future as a business owner.

PhDs, however, are well suited for entrepreneurship. To succeed in academia requires self-direction, independence, creative problem solving, and the ability to sustain long periods of delayed gratification. Our training prepares us for the project management, continuous learning, networking and persuasion (“marketing”) required of a start-up.

I would encourage more PhD students to explore entrepreneurship, consulting, and self-employment. Despite the “above all that” ethos of graduate school and academia’s general disdain for capitalism, doctoral training actually provides PhDs with the skills needed to start and run a successful small business. And fear not: I’m here to tell you that you can be an entrepreneur without compromising your values, politics, or identity.

I chose to start a business—I provide communications assistance, writing support, and editing to a range of clients that include researchers, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations—because I was desperate to continue doing self-directed work on a flexible schedule. After years of apprenticeship, I wanted control over the value of my labor, particularly the ability to say no to work if I felt that the compensation being offered was too low or the work too tedious. And, finally, I wanted to take on projects that allowed me to experiment, continue learning, and help solve problems.

I have also come to recognize another factor that should motivate PhDs to become entrepreneurs: the desire to push back against a growth-at-all-costs mindset. Feminist business scholar Hannah Dean argues that “the entrepreneurial experience has been equated to its impact on economic growth and has been reduced to mere numbers and figures,”[1] whereby “business performance is equated with and evaluated in terms of economic growth variables, notably sales turnover, number of employees and profitability.”[2]

However, as Dean argues, this narrow focus on economic growth “is a highly flawed representation of the richness and complexity of the entrepreneurial experience.”[3] I have come to see my choice to pursue entrepreneurship as an anti-patriarchal act. By the criteria Dean (critically) outlines, women-identifying entrepreneurs have been found to underperform. In reality, they are being held to a standard of success set by (male) business owners who value year-over-year growth above any other measure. By choosing to open a smaller business, serve a niche clientele, and prioritize work/life balance I am following and modeling a feminist vision for success.

Here is my advice for PhDs interested in pursuing an entrepreneurial venture:

  1. Be creative.

Initially, I began by building my business around what I perceived to be my skillset. I quickly realized that our perceptions of our skills are limited by the work experience and challenges we have tackled in the past. My past experience told me that I was successful at helping individuals work through issues with argumentation and structure in their writing. What it did not show me was that my sharp eye for scaffolding would be very useful in writing press releases. Another example: I had years of strong teaching evaluations, but myopically viewed teaching to be irrelevant to entrepreneurship.

Yet teaching people how to solve a problem is a great premise for a business. Indeed, almost all businesses help solve problems, whether by providing a tool, a training, or a service. That’s why I like the simplicity and inclusiveness of management consultant and researcher John Hagel’s definition of an entrepreneur as “someone who sees an opportunity to create value and is willing to take a risk to capitalize on that opportunity.”[4]

Soon after starting my business, I spotted a problem that I reckoned I could solve. Adults miss college and the engaging, thoughtful conversations they had with fellow students. So I experimented with bringing the college classroom to clients’ living rooms. It turned out that although people loved the idea of Living Room Learning, most were too busy to prioritize and commit to this sort of event. And it turned out that I did not enjoy event planning as much as I enjoyed facilitating conversations. It was my first entrepreneurial failure, but an informative one. I learned a lot about marketing, soliciting feedback, and scaling from a minimum viable product to a more robust product.

I parlayed that experience into the next product I developed in collaboration with Dr. Ada Barlatt, who is an engineer and systems expert. DEVONthink for Historians is an online guide, in two parts, that demonstrates how to use DEVONthink Pro Office software to organize archival materials into a database. We took on this project after observing that historians were under-utilizing technologies that would make their work more efficient. I had blogged extensively about using DEVONthink to write my dissertation, and by examining the analytics on my website I knew that historians were searching for information about how to use this software.

So Ada and I recorded fun, informal videos and made helpful PDF screenshot guides that make it easy to learn DEVONthink Pro Office and set up a database. This project was only possible because I saw a problem and found an excellent problem-solver to collaborate with; together we exercise creativity in our approach to designing, marketing, and continuously improving the guides.

  1. Have a strong network before starting, and don’t be afraid to tap it.

My first client was my undergraduate thesis advisor, who now runs a program at her university that encourages minority undergraduate students to pursue graduate work in the humanities. I included her—and many other former professors with whom I maintained a semi-regular correspondence—on the email I sent to my personal and professional network announcing my new business. A week later she called and hired me to be a remote writing consultant for her students.

A business needs customers, and when starting out it’s much easier to convert a member of your existing network into a customer than to organically attract one from outside the pool of people you already know. I was incredibly reluctant to dip into this pool, perceiving it to be an imposition on colleagues and friends, but was shocked to find that most people were excited to support me. One colleague referred me to multiple scholars who needed an editor. A drinking buddy hired me to copyedit brochures for her non-profit. I reformatted the messy footnotes of my friend’s dissertation.

It turned out that, long before I started my business, my network developed confidence in my competence; they had just been waiting for the opportunity to ask me to solve their problems. It was also this network and these early clients who helped to shape my service offerings. They had different experiences and challenges than I had faced in the past, and were able to point to new ways I could put my skills to good (profitable) use.

  1. Have at least 6 months of runway, including income and investment in the business.

I confess that I did not write a business plan before leaping into entrepreneurship. The upside to this was that, without a plan, I was flexible and open to opportunities. The downside was that I had no sense for how or when I would begin to turn a profit. I just set an amount of money that I was willing to burn through, and set off to make it work.

I do have the privilege of a partner who makes an income that is enough to prevent us from being evicted. I was unable to completely forego income during this period, however, and did need to come up with some money to support us in the months before the business became profitable. Part of this came out of savings, and part from side-hustles I picked up (mostly teaching and babysitting).

However you approach your own entrepreneurial endeavor, be conservative about how long it may take before you see revenue and profit. Set a firm line for the amount of time and money you are willing to spend, and beyond which point you will not continue. But until that point, be willing to spend some money to make money. And remember to reward yourself in small ways in recognition of your hard labor.

  1. The cliché to “under-promise and over-deliver” is, actually, the recipe for success.

Recently I edited a book manuscript for a client who I sensed was really fatigued by revision. It was a well-researched and beautifully written account of a particular historical moment, but it needed a bit of restructuring. Though I had not included it in the contract we agreed to, I decided to create a revision checklist: I literally formatted a document with boxes for the client to follow and check off as they made changes. As a writer myself, I have felt that overwhelming dread that arises when yet again I have to tackle a piece that I am tired of rewriting. So I lowered the barrier to entry. Just check off one box at a time. The client appreciated the structure it lent to their revision, and after just a few short weeks they were ready to submit the manuscript for peer review.

I will not retread tired, tired ground—I cannot top anything the Harvard Business Review blog has already published on this topic. But it is always worth taking a little extra time to help your client meet their goals. Happy and successful clients will refer you to your next clients.

  1. Be omnivorous in your consumption of business advice and information.

My former yoga teacher is also a seamstress and a small-business owner. A few months ago we were having coffee and talking about our work, and in passing she mentioned how she had recently been inspired to change her marketing tactics after listening to an episode of “The Successful Fashion Designer Podcast” that featured a designer who ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for her indie fashion brand. I do not work in fashion nor do I foresee running a Kickstarter campaign, but I listened to the episode and discovered that the best business advice is translatable between fields.

Since then, I have been consistently amazed by where and from whom I have learned tips and tricks to make my business better. One of my closest entrepreneurial confidantes runs a non-profit. Another is a change-management consultant.

Seek out local small-business resources, like an SBA Small Business Development Center, particularly if you identify as a woman or are a person of color. At my local Woman’s Business Center I have taken advantage of business counseling, a consultation with an accountant, lectures on business finance issues like insurance, and networking events (all free). And online, I highly recommend joining Jennifer Polk’s Self-Employed PhD community (part of Beyond the Professoriate).

And if you have not already read Body of Work by Pamela Slim, I would move that to the top of your to-do list.

Starting a business was the right decision for me, and I have never been happier. I work a lot, even more than I did as a graduate student, but I feel valued by my clients and know that the work I do supports their success. Ultimately, I have agency and autonomy over my decision-making, which I would not necessarily have if I pursued the long path towards a tenure-track professorship. I do not have to move at the whims of the job market. I do not have committee work—just a lot of tax-related accounting—and I do not have to wait for my chair and the dean to sign off on a sabbatical if I feel compelled to work on a research project. My work is certainly evaluated by my clients, and my job is to meet their needs, but I do not have to wait four to seven years to find out if I get to keep my business. There’s space for experimentation and creativity because I decide what projects to take on, and when. And that’s what is most valuable to me.

Avigail S. Oren earned her Ph.D. in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University, specializing in Twentieth Century U.S. urban history. Her interests range from ethnic and race relations to Jewish studies to the history of how the public health and social welfare infrastructure of American cities was built over the past 100 years. She is revising her dissertation into a book manuscript and serving as co-editor of The Metropole, the blog of the Urban History Association.  Check out her Brisket Newsletter here.

[1] Hannah Dean, “(Re) Visiting Female Entrepreneurs: An Emancipatory Impulse,” 2013, 3.

[2] Hannah Dean, Gretchen Larsen, Jackie Ford, and Muhammad Akram, “Female Entrepreneurship and the Metanarrative of Economic Growth: A Critical Review of Underlying Assumptions,” October 2017.

[3] Dean, “(Re) Visiting Female Entrepreneurs,” 3.

[4] John Hagel III, “We Need to Expand Our Definition of Entrepreneurship,” September 28, 2016.