Quitting A PhD To Build Online Businesses

I love stories of people breaking away from an undesirable career to choose themselves and create their own businesses. I myself used to devour such stories and they played a huge part in giving me the push to go self employed. What follows then is John Accardi’s story of how he built two profitable businesses in a short space of time.

I left a Georgetown University PhD and started 2 online businesses

My name is John Accardi. I’m 25 years old and 6 months ago, I dropped out of the neuroscience PhD program at Georgetown University. Not only did Georgetown grant me a full scholarship, but they were paying me a generous stipend to attend. So why did I leave and how did I build 2 profitable online businesses with hardly any startup cash?

I left for one very simple reason: I didn’t enjoy it. In my PhD program, I was required to attend class but the majority of my time was spent doing research in the lab. I was working on a cutting-edge project that utilized the new technology of optogenetics to treat epilepsy. I would surgically implant fiber optic cables into the rat brain, attempting to alter epileptic neural networks. At times, It was exciting but most of the time it felt limiting. Like most jobs, I had to work long hours in the same room with the same people every day. I also disliked the fact that I needed permission to take time off for a doctor’s appointment or family vacation.

I became restless and soon began to think of other ways to earn a living. I searched for different options of how I could work for myself and set my own hours. I also wanted the potential to earn more money. After some searching, I became thrilled with the idea of building an online business. It was so intriguing because I knew that an online business could be operated from anywhere in the world. I pictured myself sitting on the beach in San Diego while managing business from my laptop or phone.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this concept of starting an online business, so I quickly began working to make it a reality. All day, every day I thought about what I could sell online. I wanted it to be a niche item, where the market isn’t too competitive. I also wanted it to be something that was primarily purchased online and difficult to find in brick and mortar retail stores. I wrote up an exhaustive list of all the possible products I could try to sell and in the end chose beer pong tables for 2 reasons. The first was that beer pong tables fit my criteria of being a niche product and they’re very difficult to find in brick and mortar retail stores. Most people who want to buy a beer pong table search Google and order from a website. The second reason was that in college, my friends and I owned a beer pong table. We would play almost every night but we’d fill the cups with water instead of beer and just play it like a sport. I got to know all the rules and tricks. I knew that being able to share this knowledge online could be valuable and help attract visitors to my store. I named the business PartyHouse Pong and the site is partyhousepong.com.

As I was building PartyHouse Pong, I thought of another product idea that I was really excited about: college care packages. I also had 2 reasons for wanting to try this product. The first was that I wouldn’t have to invest in manufacturing anything from scratch and yet, I could still create an original product. By simply taking pictures of a box and logo filled with different snack combinations, I would be able to sell my own unique product online. The second reason was that while I was a college student, my parents had bought me the care packages offered by the college. I remember thinking the quality was really poor and the style and snack brands were out-dated. I knew I could do a much better job.

This college care package business became known as CollegeBox and the website: collegebox.com. I was able to build both websites in a little over 1 month. They were fully functional but did not have any sales yet. No one knew about them!  Despite not having sales, I was so excited to start the marketing phase of these businesses and I was extremely confident in my ability to generate sales. I had a decent idea of how I would begin marketing the sites but it would take time and the demand of grad school was only growing.

I began thinking about leaving Georgetown to work on these businesses full-time. I took an honest look at my finances, making sure I had the savings to live for 1 year without income and weighing my chances of landing a job if the businesses were to fail.

One weekend, I was visiting my home in Stone Harbor, NJ and I went to Cape May to take a walk on the boardwalk. I remember looking up at the full moon over the ocean and just knew that I had to drop out of school. Up until this point it was unclear to me but in that moment, I knew it had to be done. I knew that this was my chance and that if I stayed in school, I would always wonder what could have happened. Once I got back to Washington, I met with the appropriate people at Georgetown to plan my withdrawal.

Today, both of these businesses are profitable and it’s only been 6 months! To make things better, I never had to invest a lot of startup capital. This was possible because partyhousepong.com uses what’s called a “drop ship” model. This is how it works: A customer buys a table from my website for the price listed on the site, then I buy that table for a discounted price from one of my drop ship suppliers. I tell that supplier to ship the table to my customer’s shipping address. The result is that my customer gets their table, and I keep a small profit. While the profit margin is small, this model reduces risk and capital requirements since you don’t need to stock inventory.

For marketing, partyhousepong.com is all about Google search. Like I mentioned earlier, when people want to buy a beer pong table, they search Google and order from a website. It is too much of a niche product to be successful in Facebook marketing, magazine ads, ect. So all of my marketing efforts go towards search engine optimization (SEO). I do not hire a firm to help me with this and I have been very successful on my own. The first thing I did, was create phenomenal content. I wrote all the beer pong rules, tips, tricks, ect. and put them on my site. I also wrote a unique and interesting product description for all 200+ beer pong tables, and created a PartyHouse Pong blog which I contribute to regularly. The second thing I do for SEO is write blog and news articles for websites in the hopes of having them include a link back to my site.

Collegebox.com also minimizes risk and the need for startup cash since I could create these care packages without having to invest in manufacturing a new product. I simply bought the various snacks that would fill the boxes, took pictures, and put them on the website. As orders come in, I buy inventory from a local distributor and fill the orders as their purchased. CollegeBox has been marketed in many ways. Everything from flyers on college campuses to Google Adwords and Facebook. It has been moderately successful but I am still learning how this industry works.

So here I am, 6 months out of grad school, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made. I get to pursue my dream, work hard, and have fun all at the same time.

There have been many obstacles along the way and I’ve dealt with them in 2 ways: persistence and learning. For example, with PartyHouse Pong, I began marketing with Facebook and magazine ads but found that it simply wasn’t working. I had to quickly change gears and learn everything I could about SEO. As an entrepreneur, you must be willing to learn whatever it takes to get the job done. Persistence is important every single day in any kind of business. When you’re starting out, for every time someone says “yes” to you, 20 people or maybe 100 people will have said “no” before that. You have to believe in your vision and keep going.

The Power Of Review

The power of review

I’ve been journaling on and off for several years. I find that when I take the time out to review things it helps me to improve quicker. I’m trying to incorporate more reviewing in to my life.

Reviewing, and reflecting is an important part of self improvement. When I sit and write in my journal, or write these posts it gives me the chance to review what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and how Ito improve.

Constant improvement is something that I strive for in my life.

Sometimes life gets in the way and it can be months, weeks or even years before certain aspects of our life are reviewed. This is why I have instigated a couple of review mechanisms in to my life.

Firstly there is the weekly personal review. I’ve condensed my life review in to 5 key ares which I try and look at on a weekly basis. I’ll write more about these areas soon, but to summarise they are:

  • health
  • wealth
  • relationships
  • happiness (for me this is mainly learning)
  • maintenance

Each week, I try and review how I’m doing in each of these areas. Things that are going well and what needs improving.

The second review mechanism I am trying to use more is what I call the ‘3 take aways’. Here, I am trying to write just 3 quick bullet points on all key things I take in or experience. For example, if read a book, I’ll note 3 takeaways or key learnings from that. Meet a new person? Experience a new thing? I try and think of 3 things from each interaction.

If I go to a new business situation, by taking those few moments to reflect I can try and improve on it next time.

If I don’t take that time to reflect and review then I give there is less chance I will improve next time.

It’s a simple technique that takes moments but could have a huge impact on your life.

What takeaways can you take from reading to the end of this?

Why 3? I’m sure I read somewhere (but could well be making it up) that three is a special number when it comes to how the brain stores and processes things. It’s not too much and it’s not too little.

Next time you experience something, make a note (and you get extra credit for physically writing this down because it helps you to remember) 3 things you learned, observed or experienced.

Obligations

Have you ever stopped to consider how many obligations you have in your life?

An obligation is anything that requires you to do something, give up some of your time, mental energy or some other resource.

You may immediately think that, yes you do have obligations to people. Your spouse, boss, parents and friends. That agreement you made to a local community project. The fact you said you’d help a friend’s friend with career advice. These are all things that we feel obligated to do.

Most people have these kinds obligations, and they can often cause us frustration.

I now realise that these “people obligations” are not the only, or even main cause of “obligation anxiety”. The more I think about it, the more I am noticing it is the obligations we create for ourself that get in the way of a peaceful mind.

I see so many obligations around me of my own creation, and I’m sorry but after reading this so will you.

Here are some obligations I realise I have:

  • My inbox(es)
  • My reading list
  • My desktop items (both physical and digital)
  • My desire for personal development
  • My weekly letter (this)
  • Starting too many projects
  • Saying ‘yes’ when I should say ‘no’
  • Offering advice when not asked for it.

There’s more… …the house, the garden, my dirty shoes, my bookshelf, a personal style image, and so much more.

I’m not saying that all these are bad things. I’m realising the more ‘things’ that I allow in to my life, whether physical, digital, relationships or anything else, then the more obligations I am taking on.

Mo’ Stuff = Mo’ Obligations

This isn’t a rant on minimalism, or a rejection of societal norms. It is an awakening of consciousness. I’m noticing that much of our stress, our never ending to do lists and not enjoying the present stems from self imposed obligations.

Many of these things are things that I love. But when self tracking in a binary way, I’m seeing that I just can’t meet all of my obligations on a daily basis. I see that a simpler, slower life is going to be a more fulfilling and peaceful one.

I am bringing forward in my consciousness the idea of considering whether to take on each obligation. Whether it be personal, material, professional or societal. Physical, digital or mental.

Another T-shirt purchased is another to wash, dry and fold. Another newsletter signed up to is another I feel I must read. Another project taken on dilutes my time for what I’m already working on.

Obligations won’t go away. I just need to choose the right ones.

How many obligations do you have? How many of these are self imposed? How many more will you take on this week?

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” ~ Bruce Lee

Triggering Focus

I’m busy in my consulting business at the moment. As I am the only person working this business I need to wear various hats at different times to keep it ticking over. This is my greatest challenge in my business since going self employed.

Treating it as a business, rather than a freelance position, is critical to me to scale the business.

During the week I need to wear many hats:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Operations (delivery)
  • Technical Support
  • Project Management
  • Strategic Direction

AccountsSlipping in one of the areas in the short term is fine. If one of these critical areas of my business does not get addressed for a while then the long term growth of the business begins to suffer.

There is a reason that in bigger business people have specific roles. While I’m all for being a generalist, I would love to have someone who can take on the role of Sales Director full time, allowing me to focus on other areas. When filling each of these roles by myself I have to switch gears to the mindset required to deliver on each function often.

To aid with this need to work on different things at different times I’ve needed to cultivate a focused mindset as much as a possible. This is especially important when it comes to getting uncomfortable or boring tasks completed.

Here’s what I’ve been using recently to get things done. This current strategy is born out of years of experimentation around all things productivity.

It’s a 5 stage process, aimed at putting me as quickly as possible in to a focused state, and mainly centred on having the right environment to get things done.

Of course this is what (currently) is working for me, your mileage may vary. The key here is to find out what triggers your focus state and cultivate that as much as possible.

CREATING THE ENVIRONMENT


Play focus music. 
I find some music without lyrics (Hans Zimmer soundtracks are great for this) are better to work to. Using the same track or playlist for your focused time will trigger a flow state in your mind each time you start it.

Light a candle. 
I got this idea from The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I’ve adapted it not for happiness, but rather as a further trigger for my focus state. I have a stimulating tangerine and ginger candle. I light this at the start of a focus period.

SET THE STAGE


Write the list. 
I write a list of microtasks I need to get done in that time period (as you’ll see I’m using pomodoros – so that’s 25 minutes). At the moment I’m using this for project delivery so it’s often writing prompts or design elements that need doing for my marketing consulting projects. The key here is to have a clear plan of what you need to get done in this period.

EXECUTE


Pomodoro timer. 
I suspect many people on my list will already know about the Pomodoro method. For those that don’t here’s what you need to know. I set a timer for 25 minutes (I use the Focus Time app on the iPhone as it keeps progress records) and then you work on that task, or set of micro tasks without interruption until the timer sounds.

Discipline. 
The hardest part. Sticking to a) creating that focus environment and b) doing the work for the time period. I’m finding that if I follow the plan outlined above with the triggers then it’s working better for me.

That’s how I’m finding focus at the moment. The next step is to ramp this up to have the mental capacity to do more of these when needed to delivery my projects at busy times. Also to apply the technique to my personal projects so that they don’t fall behind.

For me, focus is hard, and creating the environment and breaking projects down in to microsteps and then triggering a focused environment is helping me deliver.

Influencing tomorrow. Practice today.

In business we have daily practice (service) as well as working towards goals (sales and product). I’m considering how I can balance this business need with a personal mindfulness practice.

Last week I wrote about a binary approach to measuring life. The advantage of this system is that it starts fresh each day. Yes, yesterday you exercised and ate healthy food, but what about today?

Today is a new day, yesterday is gone.

The importance of yesterday is still with you. The things that you learnt and did yesterday make up who you are today. This means that the things that you learn and do today will influence what you are able to do tomorrow.

In studying mindfulness, there is the encouragement to be in the moment. We are not even to consider this day, but rather this moment.

Do not dwell on the past.
Do not worry about the future.

I find it much easier to let go of the past, than not worry about the future. The future, as it is in your mind in this moment, does not exist, it is just a construct. But for the last few years my mortgage has fallen due on the same day each month. I need to pay it.

We can’t change the past, but we can influence the future. And how do we do that? That’s through the actions that we take today.

Is all action taxing?

No, sometimes the action that we need to take is no action. Rest. Relax. Reduce. By resting today we will be stronger tomorrow. The impact of that decision we make to rest today, will enable us to be stronger tomorrow.

This is how I am looking to practice mindfulness. Yes live in the moment, but remembering that the actions I take today will impact what I am able to do tomorrow.

Even if tomorrow is yet to come. Past experience tells me that it will. It’s all I know. The sun will rise in the morning.

What are you going to do today?