Lessons from My Accidental Journey into Entrepreneurship

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Have you ever found yourself in a job where you’re required to do things you don’t care to do, paid less than you’re worth and less than others in similar positions, underappreciated by your supervisor, and with no path forward? That’s exactly how I felt at my last academic position. Despite many attempts over several years to change things without leaving, or to find a position at a different institution, I couldn’t seem to get unstuck from this frustrating situation. After 16 years with a mostly stagnant salary, fear was stopping me from making the sort of radical change that was my only hope. This was not a situation unique to me, and my journey from that low holds some important lessons about entrepreneurship and starting your own private practice.

The End of My First Career

It was clear from my earliest recollections that I’d be a physicist. My concentration in math and physics through high school and undergrad, my MSc and PhD in high-energy physics, and my postdoc in particle detector R&D were all geared toward an academic career as a researcher and professor. Raised by a career military officer who later went into HR management and an administrative worker, becoming an entrepreneur of any sort was not only far from my mind, it was something I’d have dismissed out of hand as a possible path for me. I had no knowledge, experience, or even interest in finances or business. I would freely admit these were all important areas, and I was glad many people worked on them, but I was far more interested in research to advance our knowledge of the universe, from the tiniest particles to the far reaches of the cosmos.

Then my academic ambitions hit a roadblock. By the time I finished my postdoc, the few physics assistant professor openings at research universities each had over 100 applicants. My field, experimental high-energy physics, had just been dealt a major blow with the cancellation of the Super-Conducting Super-Collider project, sending thousands of experienced and highly qualified PhD physicists looking for new positions, while making physics departments loath to hire in what appeared to be a declining field. Lacking better options, I took another postdoc-level position in a related field, high-energy cosmic rays. My new supervisor, about my age, was ambitious, and had a good track record in obtaining research grants. My hopes for an academic partnership that would benefit us both did not pan out, and 11 years later I was in the situation I describe above. Clearly, the only way out was to reinvent myself.

An Accidental Entrepreneur

As the above events unfolded, my first marriage ended in (an amicable) divorce, and I met and married Risa, a Marriage and Family Therapist. Despite working in an agency job at that time, Risa was raised in a very different environment than mine. Her parents had open and run several successful small businesses. For her, self-employment was a natural goal, not something to shy away from. She helped me gather the courage to throw my hat over the figurative wall and leave academia. We considered if I should open a consulting practice right away, but decided I needed more contacts and non-academic experience first, so I took an industry job (more than doubling my salary overnight). When that ended less than two years later with a layoff, we were understandably scared. Without my salary we’d be unable to continue paying our mortgage, car loan, super-expensive COBRA health insurance, and put food on the table.

We had to decide if I should look for another job, or open my own consulting practice. With this fresh evidence that job security has become an oxymoron, we decided on the latter. The following two months were a study in fear and frustration as my efforts to find a client seemed to result in cricket sounds. Then, while driving to visit out of state friends for Thanksgiving, I got a call that someone at NASA wanted to interview me to see if I could help one of their projects. It took another couple of months before that work started. Even then, it was part-time and lasted only a few weeks. However, the dam had broken, and despite fits and starts, my first year in business brought more revenue than the salary I had lost. The path since then has been mostly upward, though I did hit another rough patch, with the 2013 federal sequester and slowdown at NASA causing an 80% reduction in business for almost a year. Drawing on our cushion and with some family support, we made it through that time, which I used to expand my skillset and types of clients I help.

It’s now seven years since I opened my practice and I work on inspiring projects, supporting NASA’s efforts at developing the technologies that will be needed for the Hubble successors that will launch in the 2030s and beyond. I work with people I like and admire, and who appreciate my contributions. Almost as important, I’m well compensated. As part of this journey, I learned about finances and running small businesses. Beside my consulting practice, I established another small business to purchase an office suite and rent space out to therapists (including Risa’s practice). More recently, I started a new venture to help therapists in private practice learn how to run their business well. As I’ve said on many occasions, if you’re in private practice you don’t have the option of not running a business. Your only options are to run it well or poorly, and the latter serves neither you nor your clients.

What I Learned from my Accidental Journey into Entrepreneurship

You aren’t born an entrepreneur and you don’t have to be raised into it (though that certainly helps). You just need a willingness to take calculated risks, to try something different if your current effort fails, and repeat as needed until you succeed. Considering that job security is mostly a myth in today’s economy, this isn’t much riskier than remaining an employee.

The financial math makes self-employment a compelling proposition. If someone is willing to pay your salary and benefits, it’s not out of the goodness of their heart. It’s because you’re creating much more value than it costs to employ you. If you’re self-employed, that extra value turns into money in your wallet.

Although you can go out on your own at any age, it’s easier to do it early on, when you have fewer obligations (think mortgage and kids). Since entrepreneurship entails risk, and you will almost certainly have setbacks and slowdowns, make sure you have a cushion to see you through rough patches. This could be savings, a spouse’s income, parental support, or as a last resort, a business loan or credit.

Related to starting early, don’t wait for the stars to align and everything to be perfect. That’s a recipe for never getting started. It was only when I said I’ll leave the safety (and frustration) of my academic position at the end of the year, even if I had nothing to jump to, that opportunity showed up. My greatest business regret is that I didn’t do it several years earlier. You have to be willing to fail, but avoid stupid avoidable failures, and don’t repeat the same mistakes.

Developing and expanding your skills is almost always worthwhile. My current businesses leverage all of my experiences and skillsets. Being a PhD physicist didn’t just teach me to research particles and the cosmos. I learned how to write concisely and clearly. I learned how to edit technical and scientific documents. I learned how to pull together scientists, engineers, and managers and help them understand each other. I learned how to relate to people at all levels, from senior scientists to technicians and machinists, making them all want our team to succeed. Most importantly, I learned how to learn new areas and how to develop new skills. These are all valuable skills that I use in my work today.

When networking as part of creating your practice, don’t look for who can help you and how they can help. Look for who you can help, and how you can help them. People will appreciate your efforts, recognize your expertise, and look to reciprocate and help you in return. When I was still working at the university, I met a NASA contractor who was doing things I wanted to do. I talked with him and tried to figure out how I could help him help his customers. He’s the one who got me started as a consultant, and who over the years brought me into jobs that paid me hundreds of thousands of dollars. In most cases he made a nice chunk of change from that too, which made me happy.

Finally, marketing is not about selling. If you try to convince people they should want to pay for your services, you’ve already lost. Instead, figure out who you can help (your ideal clients), what you can help with (their pain points and struggles where they want help), share the difference you’re committed to make for them, and give away valuable information that will start making that difference. The idea is to let people know enough that they understand that with your help their lives will be easier and better than without it. Then, the ones who really are your ideal clients will come to you of their own volition.

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