5 Lessons Learned from 5 Years of Being The Pocket PhD

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On May 15th, The Pocket PhD turns five! It’s hard to believe it has been five years since I set up my baby business and hired my first business coach. Although I still have a lot to learn, it’s a good time to pause and really take in this milestone.

When I think about how my business has evolved, I see a patchwork of small shifts that have had outsized results and big swatches where I took a hacksaw to things before weaving the tattered pieces back together. Throughout this process, I’ve learned so much about writing, about my clients, and most of all, about myself.

My business is no doubt wiser because of everything I’ve learned. I hope this reflection on the five biggest lessons I’ve learned will inspire you to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made or to nod your head approvingly. So let’s get to it!

Lesson 1: Price is Contextual

When I started my business, pricing felt like a huge challenge. In fact, one big reason I hired a business coach in the beginning was that I had no idea how to price my services (or, honestly, even what services to offer). 

My evolution on pricing has gone through three stages:

  • Hourly rate pricing 
  • Value-based pricing
  • Contextual pricing

Purely on practical grounds, it made sense to charge an hourly rate at first. But there was a problem: I had no idea how long it would take me to write a blog post or any other piece of content. I also didn’t know how my writing speed compared to other writers. I had a hunch I was a decent writer. Otherwise, I felt totally in the dark.

I read a book called The Well-Fed Writer and it said new writers could charge $25 per hour. So that’s where I started. Still, I held my breath every time I had to say my price out loud.

Once I got to know more writers through my subcontracting gigs, I increased my prices, gained the confidence that comes with experience, and got better at estimating the time it would take to complete different types of writing projects. 

Around this time, I learned about value-based pricing. With value-based pricing, you set the price of a product or service based on how much your customer can expect to profit from your work. Thinking about pricing in these terms freed me up to stop trading dollars for hours and I moved to exclusively charging project fees, rather than quoting an hourly rate. My prices went up, but not significantly. The change was more about my mindset than anything else.

Still, there’s nothing simple about value-based pricing around content creation. How much is a blog article or book worth? The only accurate answer to this question is “it depends.” It’s especially difficult to estimate the value of a book or a blog for clients before I know much at all about their businesses. And there’s no guarantee that the client is making the same calculation I am. So I was still in the dark and I still held my breath a lot.

Fast-forward to today and my philosophy is that pricing is contextual. Every prospect I encounter has their own idea of the value of ghostwriting and that value fluctuates based on a number of factors. My own idea of the value of the work I provide also fluctuates based on a number of factors. If my idea aligns with the prospect’s idea and we collide at the right time, then we move forward.

I’m transparent about pricing now. I let prospects know what the price will be before we even schedule our first call. Thinking of pricing as contextual makes it less personal for me. I no longer hold my breath when I state my price.

Lesson 2: Networking is never a waste of time

There’s no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. I built The Pocket PhD through networking. This is the Number One piece of advice I give to new business owners: fall in love with networking.

When you first start a business, you’ll spend a lot of time flailing your arms around. You’ll also sometimes feel as if there’s not really enough to do and that might cause you to freak out. My recommendation is to fill that time with networking. 

I have been continually impressed with the generosity of the business people I’ve met since starting my business. Whenever I attend a networking event, I learn something new (often about myself), gain a referral partner, or pick up a new prospect.

And shifting my networking to the online space in the past year has not changed much.

I stand by my claim that networking is never a waste of time. But if you’re not in the right headspace to attend that networking event or you’ve already had six “get-to-know you” chats with new connections over Zoom this week, you might feel like networking is a waste of your time.

Managing your energy around networking is important. As an introvert, I know this as well as anyone. I limit myself to three one-on-one networking sessions per week. And when in-person events resume, I’ll keep those to twice a month. I also won’t go back to an event where the same people show up week after week or month after month. 

And if the conversation turns into a sales chat, great. If it doesn’t, I don’t try to force it. I’m truly networking to get to know people and stay open to the opportunities that arise from those relationships.

What truly makes networking worth your time and energy, though, is having a solid strategy. Here are my top five tips:

1. Have an elevator pitch or quick spiel ready to go; 

2. Have some open-ended questions ready like, “what are you most excited about?;” 

3. Be open to learning something new in every conversation; 

4. Stay present in the conversation whether online or IRL; and 

5. Focus more on what you can give than on what you can get from the experience.

Lesson 3: Knowing when to listen to your gut (and when not to listen to your gut) is priceless

Whenever someone has given me the advice to listen to my gut, I’ve usually thought, “okay, but my gut isn’t really talking to me about this.” See, I have a pretty good handle on when to listen to my gut and when my gut is not the best advisor.

Yes, after I’ve done all the research and gotten all of the advice pulling me in 20 different directions, that’s when it’s time to listen to my gut. But before I’ve spoken to at least a few experts or done my homework, my gut stays pretty quiet.

Recently, I’ve been kicking around a few ideas for a new service offering. I put a tentative offer out there to some trusted people to gauge their reactions. Their reactions were lukewarm at best. My gut said, “abandon this idea; it’s no good.” But I hesitated because I also knew I hadn’t really given the idea a fair chance. I needed more information to make a decision.

By contrast, I spoke with a potential book ghostwriting prospect who really didn’t have a business case for his book. My gut said, “he’s not a good fit.” Because I know, through experience, that clients with a business case for their books are more motivated to get their books done and this makes my job easier. 

Business owners often hear, “listen to your gut!” And while it makes sense when you’re trying to figure out what services you want to offer, what values your business stands for, what your ideal client looks like, and even what support you need as you scale your business, your gut is not the best judge in other situations. 

For example, when fairness matters — as in hiring or promotion decisions — your gut can be a minefield full of personal biases. It’s best to get a gut check from an objective source in these cases. 

Wisdom comes with knowing when to listen to your gut and when to ignore it.

Lesson 4: Positivity is not synonymous with Pollyanna-ish

Another piece of advice I give to new business owners is: never come across as desperate. Prospects can smell desperation from a mile away. So when having a sales conversation — even if your business is in the red and you aren’t sure how you’re going to pay your team next week — you have to dig deep and find the confidence of someone who doesn’t need this sale.

Tapping into that kind of cockeyed positivity, however, is not to be confused with playing Pollyanna. I’m not suggesting that you ignore what’s right in front of you to stay optimistic at all times. 

It’s okay to have a down day. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s okay to share when you’re having a down day. Vulnerability makes you human. 

What this lesson really taught me, however, is that when positivity or vulnerability are divorced from strategy, that’s when I can get into trouble. How positive or vulnerable should you be in your social media? That depends on what your audience expects from you. 

If your brand image is the “tough guy or gal,” then showing too much vulnerability might be counterproductive. Then again, showing vulnerability and rising from the ashes stronger than before may be just the inspiration your audience needs.

I tend to create content for my own brand by playing with whatever ideas happen to be rolling around in my head at the moment. This makes what I post very authentic, but there is a risk involved. If I’m in a low place mentally, much of my content can be too negative. That’s when I need to come back to my strategy and recalibrate.

Lesson 5: Actions teach better than thought

In business, there is a lot of leaping without feeling ready. It always pays to ask yourself, “what is the smallest action I can take to move me toward my goal?” And then, it pays to take that action as quickly as possible. 

When I first started The Pocket PhD, I wanted to make sure I had thought of every little thing. I wanted someone to give me a checklist (or the syllabus) for building a successful business.

I eventually figured out that that’s not how this works. I took a lot of big and little actions I wasn’t sure about. But those actions paid off in what I’ve learned along the way. In the beginning, you don’t feel sure of much, so you have to dive in. It will feel almost random because it is in some sense. This is what it feels like to take action in the midst of uncertainty. 

But I can report that every time I’ve hesitated to make a move or to take an action, I’ve later thought, “I should have moved sooner.” Whatever it was that I thought I needed to figure out before taking action always turned out to be insignificant in the end. And I’ve learned so much more from the actions I’ve taken than from the thinking I’ve done from my armchair that no hesitation seems worth the extra time. 

Another good point to remember is that: no action is permanent. You can always rework the offer. You can always part ways with the client. You can always adjust the terms so that they make better sense for you.

What’s next? 

What’s immediately next is building out my new offer and finding a great suite of clients to work with. In case you’re curious, I’m expanding my ghostwriting service to include content marketing strategy, LinkedIn posts, and email content in addition to two blog articles per month. If you’re chomping at the bit to hear more of the details, send me an email (emily@thepocketphd.com).

What’s coming in the next five years? You can look forward to more great content here, via email, and on LinkedIn. As my clientele expands, I’ll also be expanding my team of writers. Building a business means building up a support system that allows me to grow along with my business. So it will be a brand new adventure. 

I envision the next phase of The Pocket PhD looking more sleek and streamlined with more systems in place to become the ghostwriting empire it is destined to be. I’m excited to watch it unfold!

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