Starting Your Own Business: What's Your Why?

If you're an academic and you're thinking about starting your own business or side hustle, start by asking yourself why. When you answer this question, it will help you stay focused and move forward with your goals.

In 1982, on the exact same day, my parents came home from work, stood in the kitchen, and told each other they just lost their jobs. I remember they both put a pink piece of paper on the kitchen table and said something about being “laid off.” I was only six years old, so I didn’t really understand. But, I remember how things changed from my perspective.

My dad started working 3rd shift and he wasn’t home at night anymore. My mom started working at the local dry cleaners where I’d hang out after school, do homework, and talk to customers at the drive-thru window when they picked up their clothes.

A few months later, on Saturday mornings while I was still asleep, my parents carefully started studying the yard sale section in the local newspaper (the internet didn’t exist). They mapped their route (GPS devices didn’t exist) and headed out to find the best deals. They’d return with our truck and trailer loaded with antiques, toys, furniture, and other items they knew they could “flip” and try to sell at a local auction (eBay didn’t exist either).

They enjoyed going to yard sales, finding deals, and re-selling items for a profit. Before long, they built a nice side business. The work was demanding, unpredictable, and inconsistent, but they kept going. Within a few years, they settled into more permanent jobs, but they never stopped their weekend hustle. Their auction game was strong!

One year, my mom told me they had earned the same income from their weekend auctions as they did from their full-time jobs (go mom and dad!). I wonder now if they kept going because they enjoyed it or because there was always that fear in the back of their minds that the “pink slips” would come again.

Maybe it was a little of both.

Starting a Business: What’s Your Why?

My parents didn’t set out to build a multi-million dollar business or to become famous. They were just looking for extra income to support their family. I also think they wanted more control over how they spent their time and earned their money. And that’s why I wanted to share their story with you.

Before you start developing your business idea, step back and think about why you want to create a business or side hustle in the first place. It’s important to identify your “why” early in the process because it will help you move forward when the day-to-day business “stuff” gets frustrating or overwhelming.

Are you looking for more opportunities to serve people beyond the walls of your campus? Are you getting overwhelmed with the administrative responsibilities creeping into your teaching and research? Do you have a new supervisor who is making your work life unbearable?

Are you looking for extra income to pay off a few bills or take an extra vacation? Are you burned out with your current position? Do you want more flexibility within your working hours so you can spend more time with your family? Do you want to be your own boss and have control over the projects you take on?

When you identify your why, write it down and keep it close by. Refer to it when you need to make a change or re-focus. It will help you make decisions and pursue the right opportunities that will come your way once you start building your business. It’ll also help you move away from the things that don’t matter and towards the things that will get you where you want to be.

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Try It: The Airport Test

One of my favorite exercises to help me stay focused and make the right decisions is something called The Airport Test. I first heard about The Airport Test when I read the book Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn, creator of the Smart Passive Income podcast and blog.  

Set aside 15 minutes and try it:

1.  Imagine yourself in an airport five years from today. You run into a friend or colleague who you haven’t seen for the past five years. This person asks you how things are going. You reply, “Things are absolutely amazing! They couldn’t be better!” And you really mean it. Life is going great and you feel amazing about where you are, what you’ve done, and the decisions you’ve made.

2. Now get a blank sheet of paper. Divide it into four quadrants.

3. Write down the four most important areas of your life. Write each one of these on a quadrant. Examples: health, family, finances, career, marriage, volunteering etc.

4. Then, in each quadrant, write down what is happening in each area of your life in order for you to feel like things are “absolutely amazing!” and “couldn’t be better!”

Example: In the “health” quadrant, you are working out three days a week. You achieved your goal of running a marathon. You are eating healthy and have maintained a healthy weight for the past several years.

Another example: In the “career” column, you are feeling challenged and creative in your work. You look forward to your workday. You are excited about the projects you are working on. You are making enough money to pay your bills, save for retirement, and take four week-long vacations a year.

When you finish The Airport Test, you will have one sheet of paper with a “big picture” view of your goals and priorities. You can be as specific as you want to be when writing these goals and envisioning your life in five years.

The purpose is to align your future goals with your present activities. 

Of course, you should still be open to new ideas, dreams, and possibilities. But, when you revisit your “why,” you move forward and make decisions with intention and direction rather than just chasing the next shiny object.

Academics as Entrepreneurs

As an academic who is considering starting a business, answering your "why" may be a challenge. You may find that the answers are similar to or in conflict with the reasons you started a career in higher education.

The things you look for in an academic job are the things you will have to figure out how to create outside of the institution if your business idea is related to your scholarly work.

But, the good news is that you CAN do it.

As a scholar, you bring a unique perspective to the entrepreneur space. Your expertise and experience in research, writing, teaching, speaking, advising, and mentoring gives you a combination of skills and talents many others who start businesses don’t have.
Think about how you can leverage your skills, connect with an audience, and start making a difference in people’s lives beyond the "ivory tower." It’s never been easier to start a business than it is right now.

And you don't need a committee's approval to get started! : )  Start now!

Answer your "why" question and think about how building a business fits within your goals and aligns with your priorities in life.

Throughout this blog series, I'll share more strategies, resources, and inspiration you can use to start figuring out who you want to serve, what problem you want to solve with your business idea, and how your scholarly background fits into this journey.

(If the pop-up box doesn't work for you, contact me to be added to the list.)

Additional Reading & Resources:

Flynn, P. (2016). Will It Fly? How to Test Your Next Business Idea So You Don’t Waste Your Time and Money. Flynndustries, Inc.:  San Deigo, CA. Pellet, S. (2016).

How to Use the Airport Test to Make Better Decisions. Life in Limbo blog. Available online:

Porterfield, A. (2016). How to Test Your Next Business Idea. Podcast interview with Pat Flynn. Available online:

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