7 Lessons Learned from 7 Years as the Pocket PhD

Positive african american woman smiling under confetti. Studio shot of good-humoured black girl expressing happiness.

The Pocket PhD just passed the seven-year mark. I’ve now been running this business for as long as I was a philosophy professor. I can’t believe that’s true, but sands through the hourglass tell no lies.

A lot has changed since I started out as a scrappy freelance content creator who liked to tell people in cold emails, “I’m the sweetest little bad*ss you’ll ever meet.”

  • I stopped calling myself a content marketer and owned my expertise as a ghostwriter
  • I shifted from ghostblogging to ghostwriting business books
  • I added LinkedIn services to the mix
  • I waded into the hiring waters by bringing on a writing apprentice and later a senior writer
  • I went from writing in coffee shops most of the time to writing in my home office most of the time

I’m proud of this little business I’ve built and as hard as it is sometimes to own my business—instead of letting it own me—I can’t imagine being as happy doing anything else. 

As I’ve been in a more reflective mode lately, I’ve also been attuned to the reflections of others. One of my favorite podcasts right now is Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s podcast “Wiser Than Me.” In the first episode, Jane Fonda shares a quote from T.S. Eliot that captures entrepreneurship (and much of life) perfectly:  

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.” –T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets

In the spirit of exploring and circling back around to where I started with a new perspective, here’s a look back on seven lessons I learned over the last seven years (though, perhaps a more accurate representation of what it’s like to be the PPhD would be to share seven lessons I learned—or, more likely, relearned—this morning).

1. Know the rules so you can break them intentionally.

This is a lesson I follow not only in my business, but also in my writing. It always annoyed me in school when my English teacher would teach a grammar rule, like you should never start a sentence with a conjunction (i.e., “and” or “but”), and then I would see an author in an assigned reading breaking that very rule.

Whenever I pointed out this affront to my rule-following mind, the response was that I could also break the rules but only after I had proven that I could follow them. I didn’t appreciate that response back then, but I understand it better today.

For one thing, I’ve discovered (as all business owners do) that opinions are like armpits… everyone from fellow business owners to coaches to consultants to the cashier checking you out at the grocery store… has at least one and they’re perfectly happy to share. We shouldn’t mistake this oversupply of opinions for rules, but it’s easy to do if you don’t know the rules.

Are there any rules in business? Of course, but they aren’t the kind of rules you’ll find in a textbook. You have to figure them out as you go and the best way to figure out the rules is to be consistent about whatever you’re doing (e.g., posting on LinkedIn). Track your metrics, focus on results, and then you’ll know when the rules (or algorithms) change. 

When you’re consistent, you’ll also be able to see clearly what works for you and when it’s time to intentionally throw out the rules because they aren’t serving you.

2. There are so many more ways to skin a cat than you could even name (but please don’t go around skinning cats).

Going along with the first lesson, there are many paths to the results you want. So if your goal is to cultivate your thought leadership ecosystem, for example, you can start with audience building or writing your book or figuring out the best way to market your big ideas. When it comes to building your thing your way, there isn’t just ONE way.

In other words, don’t buy into what so many people (who are trying to sell you something) say is the “ONE right way” to achieve the result you’re after. Also, if one approach doesn’t work for you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve failed to execute. It means you’ve learned something important about that approach, which you can apply to your next attempt. There are fewer rules and more ways to skin a cat than you think, so create your own guardrails. 

And while we’re at it, you are free to build whatever business you want. You don’t have to accept whatever the hustle culture or the tech bros or any other in-group is trying to shove down your throat (with apologies for all of the violent metaphors in this one). 

3. Ask for help, but trust yourself. No one is coming to rescue you.

This lesson falls under the category of lessons I relearn every time I get myself in a jam. What do I do when business has gone “soft” and my list of leads has run dry? I immediately start looking around for someone or some program to help me jumpstart sales. I get scared and grasp at anything that looks like a life vest, even if it’s clearly a sinking stone.

What should I do instead? Instead of hoping to be rescued, I am always better off when I trust myself, stay grounded, and revisit what has worked for me in the past. This is where my power lives. When I allow the scarcity mindset to take over, I invite in a lot of noise and give away my power. 

It’s smart to ask for help, but leaning on others is not the same as abdicating responsibility and hoping to be rescued. If someone wants to sell you something promising to take away your biggest pain point, consider what evidence you have that they really understand you and your business. Bet on yourself before betting on anyone else.

4. Trust your people and show them that you trust them.

Scaling a business is no joke. Two or three years ago, I was pretty happy as a solopreneur. I was meeting my revenue targets and running my business was fairly simple. But I realized that my earnings were capped by the number of hours I worked and I wanted the business to make money while I wasn’t writing. So I decided hiring was the way to scale.

Now I work with two amazing writers and I trust them to deliver for our clients. When other business owners ask me for advice about finding good people and retaining them, I tell them I do two things: I pay them well and I leave them alone.

Of course, what I said in the previous section applies here as well: leaning on others is not the same as abdicating responsibility. I don’t expect my writers to save me from having tough conversations with clients. And I do my best to support my writers and their personal development, even as I train myself not to micromanage them.

I am surprised at how easy the shift from solopreneur to manager has been for me. I was not at all sure I would enjoy heading up a team, but bringing on other writers has been one of the best decisions I’ve made for my business. 

Trust your people, show them that you trust them, and if you don’t, find new people.

5. Relationships are the key to EVERYTHING.

I couldn’t have come this far as The Pocket PhD without the relationships I’ve built. Not only have I developed relationships with the writers who work with me as contractors, as well as with my clients, I’ve developed relationships with networking and referral partners.

When I reached the five-year mark, I talked about how networking is never a waste of time. I stand by that claim. Networking and referrals have been the foundation of my business and now as I try to build out my pipeline, I am being even more intentional about the kinds of relationships I’m building.

Relationships are also a big part of my thought leadership ecosystem. The community of people I attract is full of idea people. Whenever I have an idea or need to brainstorm, I know I can reach out to someone in my support system who will help me talk it through or give me a gut check. 

Surround yourself with the types of people who lift you up and make you a better business owner and a better person.

6. Personal development is as important as business development.

I often say that building a business is the best lesson in personal development you could ever ask for. There’s no hiding from your strengths or weaknesses as an entrepreneur. There’s only learning how to manage them to meet your goals. For this reason, I tend to think of personal development as part of business development.

When I’m burned out, I don’t make the best decisions for my business, but when I’m taking good care of myself (e.g., eating well, practicing yoga, getting enough high quality sleep, giving myself muse time), I can weather almost any storm. When I take care of myself, my mind feels free to be innovative and I trust myself. So taking care of myself is a top priority. 

Tasha Eurich taught me that self-awareness is one of the most important leadership traits. I am constantly working to build self-awareness and to be present in my business. What do you need for your personal development?

7. Strong communication is a (or perhaps THE most) critical time management tool.

Finally, strong communication is a critical, but often overlooked time management tool. Take a moment to consider how much time you lost to poor communication last week. Perhaps you had a long email exchange that could have been a 5-minute conversation. Perhaps you had a meeting without a solid agenda, which went off the rails and accomplished little. Or perhaps you weren’t present during a conversation and needed someone to repeat something critical later.

Communication is a two-way street. In order for it to work well, everyone has to be on board with listening and expressing themselves effectively. I set expectations about how I prefer to communicate and I invite others in my circle to share their own communication preferences, so we can all get on the same page. This has been a huge revelation for me.

Wherever you are in your business journey, I hope these seven lessons spark some ideas for you. I don’t know it all, but I’m pretty sure I’m doing a few things right because I’m still here and I’m still the sweetest little bad*ss you’ll ever meet. 

Here’s to the next seven years and beyond!

Image by: lookstudio