Every Business Has A Story

Over the past two years, my primary business of Academic Smartcuts has grown to the point where it now takes up the majority of my time. This is good news when you’re self-employed! 

Although this means fewer MissElaineous blog posts, I am still writing A LOT. You can take a peek at what I get up to over on LinkedIn, and I thought I would share a recent series I published to tell the background regarding why I choose to run a business.

PART ONE:

Every business has a story. And mine starts back in the mists of time when photo quality was rubbish and I was introduced to two things that have continued to shape my life ever since.

The first was entrepreneurship, or at least entrepreneurship lite. Several years as a Girl Scout meant I got used to selling things, no small feat for someone under the age of 10. Although Girl Scout cookies were a popular purchase in the US, it was by no means guaranteed that someone would buy. I had to get used to rejection and moving on. What better way to teach a child resilience?

This encouraged me to try selling other things:

  • I ran a craft stall with a friend in front of the supermarket her mother worked at, a lesson in the importance of networks.
  • My father did stained glass as a hobby, and I turned his small offcuts into jewellery that I sold for $1.00 each on the school bus. Lesson: business ideas—and potential customers—are all around you.
  • I set up a citronella stand one summer during a visit to my grandmother’s house. The citronella plant is a natural insect repellent and easy to propagate, so selling it in Florida sort of made sense. My business plan fell down, however, considering there wasn’t much traffic on my grandmother’s street, and she had a very long driveway, so it was unlikely many drivers saw me (and wanted to impulse buy citronella plants). This was a big lesson in the importance of location and knowing your audience.

While all of this was going on, I was introduced to the joys of science thanks to a lovely teacher who took the time to nurture my interests (shoutout to Mr. Martin!). In turn, this brought me into world of science fairs and, more importantly, the scientific method. The logical progression from problem to hypothesis, materials and methods to results and conclusion, has stayed with me ever since.

The takeaway from this experience? Not only was science fun, but that you couldn’t do it alone. Beyond teachers encouraging me at school, my parents were willing to let me store flatworms in the refrigerator and my father built me a display stand (actually, two; the photo shows version 1.0).

A love of science and an interest in selling things aren’t bad as a foundation to a business. Check in tomorrow for part 2!

PART TWO:

Every business has a story, and somewhere between the time period of the last post and going off to university, I became interested in archaeology. I still loved science, but I decided that history was where I wanted to be.

I went to Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, where I learned how to identify different styles of architecture, memorise timelines from past civilisations, and analyse the meaning within ancient art. But there was one thing not included on any of the classes I took: how to excavate.

Because I found it a bit silly that I could get a degree in archaeology without ever actually digging anything up, I booked myself on the University of Reading’s training excavation at the Roman site of Silchester (hence this pre-flight departure photo).

My time at Silchester involved a lot of trowelling, cleaning pottery, drawing the stratigraphy of the site … and living in a tent in the middle of a muddy field for over a month. Did I mention I had never been camping before? This experience helped me realise I wasn’t really cut out for the life of a field archaeologist. Instead, what I really enjoyed was when we had visitors to the site. I could take them around, show them the latest finds, and explain what was going on. It was fantastic to be able to show people ruins and rebuild the site for them in their imaginations using the power of storytelling.

From then on, I was hooked on archaeological interpretation: taking the facts, figures, and evidence we have about the past and turning it into a narrative that could be easily understood by others.

This interest led me to the University of Bristol’s Archaeology for Screen Media Master’s programme, where I was introduced to location-based media. This is basically using GPS to trigger images, audio, or text based on the user’s location; I loved the idea of a story-telling platform that was based on the user’s location in the environment rather than a linear narrative.

I am sort of giving an indication of how old I am here, but this was just before the iPhone launched and a lot of companies were interested in this technology. However, they were basically trying to run before they could walk. So I chose to pursue a PhD investigating how best to use location-based media by doing a bit of hands-on programming and user experience studies.

While doing so, I paid my bills by working as a copy editor and proofreader for an academic journal. This experience helped me realise that all of writing was really about interpretation: taking what was in the author’s head and converting it to something that was understood by the reader.

It’s harder than it sounds! Come back tomorrow for part 3.

PART THREE:

Every business has a story, and this is one I’ve told before. However, it logically follows what I’ve been sharing the past few days.

When I was a child, my grandfather somehow managed to finagle a defunct robot of sorts for me as a Christmas present circa 1985. It was gigantic (or at least seemed that way to 4-year-old Elaine), had a camera in its eyes, and a television in its stomach to display a video feed. In my memory, it looks a bit like R2-D2 on steroids and went by the name of Mr. Robot. I have no idea what it was used for in its past life, nor do I know how my parents managed to get rid of it once they realised it was intended as a permanent gift rather than a brief visitor to the house.

Thirty years later, I took over the Robotics portfolio at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and travelled up and down the country to meet researchers whose work was far more cutting edge than my childhood friend. As someone with a background in archaeological interpretation, my initial conversations usually went something like this:

Me: “Please tell me about your research and pretend I don’t anything about robotics because it’s not far from the truth.”

Researcher: “Of course!” [proceeds to give an extremely technical description about their research]

Putting my experiences together underscored there was a need to help researchers and academics interpret their work for others. After all, it is always necessary to put the audience and purpose of communication front and centre, regardless of who you’re communicating to: a colleague in one’s own department (or in a completely different research area), a member of the general public (or an industrial partner), a journalist (or a confused portfolio manager).

This has led to my belief that the ability to adapt one’s language to the given audience is a real superpower in academia: rare but capable of breaking down barriers and accelerating careers. This idea sits at the heart of the programmes Dan Allwood and I deliver to help those in academia perform at their very best.

However, there was one more step before I got to this point. Come back tomorrow to read Part 4, how I made the shift from employee to running a business.

PART FOUR:

Every business has a story, and if you have been following along with mine this week, you’ll have seen the seeds planted throughout my childhood developed into my business, Academic Smartcuts.

But how did I take the leap from 9-to-5 employee to self-employed? The answer to that question is a bit longer than can be shared in a LinkedIn post, and it can be read over on Careershifters.

TL;DR: To borrow a line from Free Range Human guru Marianne Cantwell, weaknesses are strengths in the wrong environment. The environment I was in was a poor fit for my interests. I wanted to use my skills and experience to bring about a genuine change in the lives of those I worked with. I discovered that helping people interpret and communicate their research so it can be easily understood by others allows me to do just this.

A few lessons emerged from this:

First, a negative environment can still teach you a lot. In particular, it can help you understand what you value in a career. Knowing what you DON’T want to do is just as valuable as knowing what you DO want to focus on.

Second, you can always make a shift to something better. It takes some time, it takes some planning, but it can be done.

And finally, it’s important to stay open to possibilities and new opportunities. That Careershifters profile I linked above? It was as a result of this that I met Dan Allwood. And working with Dan has taken my business in an unexpected direction. Come back tomorrow for Part 5 to learn more.

PART FIVE:

Every business has a story, and the last thing I want to share about mine is the name. Why Academic Smartcuts?

First of all, this isn’t the original name. I initially called my business Blue Eagle Academic Services. This name came about because I originally planned to offer proofreading and editing services, and you have to be eagle-eyed to be an editor. I also like the colour blue, so job done.

However, as the business developed, I began to offer training courses and other services. The name no longer felt right.

I love to travel, and if anything can be compared to a journey, then the progression through academia fits the bill perfectly. From undergrad to MA/MSc to PhD to post-doc to lecturer to senior lecturer to professor … the path is long, there are obstacles along the way to watch out for, and it can be helpful to have a guide.

But cutting corners just doesn’t cut it in academia. Learning how to communicate with others—experts, non-experts, and everyone in between—requires time and practice to get right. It’s the same idea whether writing a PhD thesis, a journal paper, or a competitive grant proposal. However, there ARE smartcuts that can be used to build a solid foundation: spending the time to master them now will lead to greater confidence throughout your career.

Which brings me to this great comic by Liz Fosslien. I absolutely love it because it perfectly encapsulates why the compass is part of my logo and in the imagery I use on the Academic Smartcuts website. It’s about helping people head in the right direction … or identifying when they need to course correct and make changes. It’s not about having everything planned from the start. Even the goal-setting and community-building Mastermind and Accountability Programme (a.k.a. MAP) is about recognising that there are many ways to get from A to B: what’s important is that we find the route that works for us.

BONUS:

Every business has a story, and over the past week I’ve shared my journey from childhood robotic companions to school science fairs to archaeological interpretation and beyond. After all, origin stories aren’t just for superheroes. We have all built our present day based on the seeds that were planted at different points in our lives.

So, what’s your story? What topic grabbed your attention as a child and hasn’t let go? Or what shift did you make later in life to something that resonated with you more? Who helped you along the way?

Take a moment to see how far you’ve come … and where you want to go next.

Many thanks to MomElaineous for digging out and scanning these embarrassing photos. And credit to Etienne Giradet for sharing the photo above via Unsplash.

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