By: Shelley Sandiford
Edited by: Russell Silver
Q: What is the career you transferred out of?
A: I was a scientist for many years with a background in kinesiology and I did post doctoral work in cell and molecular biology. So I was in academia as a student for about 15 years (1999-2013) before I left. From there I went into a situation where I decided I wanted to use animation to explain science to targeted audiences, and there’s where we’re at today: still in active pursuit of the goal I left the formal world of science to pursue.
Q: Why did you finally decide to switch?
A: Even though I didn’t have a crystal clear vision of exactly what it would look like, I knew I wanted to do something that connected science and art for at least a few years before I left academia. It just never seemed like the right time. I was my family’s bread winner so it made leaving a very difficult thing to do, so it wasn’t something I really considered. That put things on hold for a while.
One evening, my husband and I discussed the possibility of selling the house and leaving the city. The discussion continued deep into the night, and this is undoubtedly the catalyst that changed our lives forever. The house was up for sale within a couple months, and it sold within 24 hours. It was like a sign that it really was time for a change.
We had no idea where we were going to live—not even what city! We really didn’t expect the house to sell that quickly. When it did, it was almost an “oh no” moment; we thought all of the changes we discussed on that big night were probably about a year or two away—not right then and there. We ended up choosing Ottawa because we had both been before and liked the city, and thought it was a great place to raise our daughter.
So we moved. Neither of us had jobs in our new city, and we knew we only had so long to live off of the money from the house. We both knew we wanted career changes, so this was a great opportunity to throw ourselves into it. It really got the ball rolling on everything. I immediately began working on Sciconic full time. Took quite a while to get the website up, as I was still learning different tools and software, but it was up and running in about 6 months.
It had been pressing on my mind for about a year, so I knew that’s what I was going to pursue right when I moved.
Q: What was the biggest change after leaving the lifestyle you had been living for so long?
A: Contrary to popular belief, my life in academia was not settled at all! I worked for 8 years as a post doc and my career had completely stalled. There was absolutely no career trajectory. Taking a post doc is a great way to see your career aspirations die.
We were barely getting by, but I stayed because we needed the money. It wasn’t hard to walk away from when push came to shove. I spent a lot of time investing in a career that tanked, so walking away was the easiest thing to do. The only thing I miss is the people I worked alongside—they were great.
It’s funny—you might think of the post doc career as being more stable, but my salary was paid out of my advisor’s grant money. So there’s never really any long-term stability associated with that because when the grant money runs out, people get fired. Entrepreneurship is more mentally unstable, but I didn’t walk into it blindly. I feel I walked into it with my eyes open.
Q: What do you think achieving you goal of open access to education for everyone could do for the world?
A: I absolutely love the concept of open access. I love the idea of being able to reach anyone, anywhere—particularly for people who may have not had the money or means to progress through the traditional education system in place today. Companies like Khan academy are fantastic! I think it’s going to be big trouble for traditional academia as we know it when these big sites grow to new heights. It’s about time for traditional academia as we know it, needs to be shaken up!
I have seen this kind of shift coming for a while though. I took an online course a few years ago and it blew my expectations. I was impressed with the quality, smoothness, transparent grading system, and the idea that thousands of students could seamlessly be taking this course simultaneously. There were thousands of students online at the same time. That’s the time up disruption that can really change an industry.
I am especially concerned with increasing global science literacy, which would allow people to educate themselves—particularly if it’s displayed in a way that the masses can understand and process.
Q: Were you ready for this big career shift?
A: Absolutely. By the end, I was ready to leave. I got to a point in life that since my career had stalled for so long, I was in my early 40’s, and it was terrifying. I got to a point where in terms of my mindset, the fear of staying completely eclipsed the fear of leaving. It didn’t matter what I was walking into—the concept of failure didn’t apply to me. I was just terrified to stay. When fear starts to drive a decision, it becomes much easier to make that decision.
The type of business I run is completely virtual, so the contracts I have landed haven’t been local to Ottawa, nor do they have to be. We picked this city because at the time my husband was thinking of careers with the government, so we picked the city for opportunities for him, knowing I could work from anywhere. We have met an amazing community here—all around the same age, all career changers, and they have become mentors to me. From that stand point, just having people around me who understand what I’m going through and can provide feedback and some moral support is very important to me. I feel very lucky that I have met the people that I am surrounded by.
Q: How did you go about finding your first clients?
A: They came to find me! It started off as basically friends of friends. I put up a Facebook page shortly after the website, and the first client was somebody we knew from back in London—he wanted a video for his small business, and I developed a reputation for producing quality.
A lot have fallen in my lap because I got my name out there as somebody who did great short animations. I still want my science contracts, and I am trying my hardest to get in with them. I even have a business coach that is helping me with this. He has had me do everything from broadening my network to broadening my vision for the business. I moved from just trying to get in front of some local organizations to thinking more globally. I have even started to get more aggressive in my pursuit of science-based businesses, which is truly my ultimate goal.
The more people you can get in front of, the better. I have been working with him for a few months, and it has completely opened my eyes to what I need to be doing. At this point, I am doing less content creation than I would like to. It’s a lot of outreach and selling myself. I’m quite introverted and not crazy about picking up the phone or reaching out through email, so this has been the biggest challenge and change.
Being a scientist is a great job for an introvert! The whole concept of sales is something I was never inherently comfortable with, so that has been a huge eye opener. If you told me a year ago that I would be spending most of my day outreaching for sales, I probably wouldn’t have been very happy.
Q: How do you find the difference in time commitment between the educational route and the entrepreneurial path?
I can tell you with very little doubt that if I hadn’t walked away from my job, that the website would never have gotten up. The only reason it exists today is because I walked away and was able to focus on it full time for the 8-9 months when we moved here. I was on it all day and night. It’s undoubtedly a full time job. In my case, I absolutely had to walk away from my job to make this happen—post-doc hours were all over the place. Being a scientist isn’t a 9-5; it can be weekends, evenings—especially when you are running experiments.
Towards the end I tried to cut it close to a 50 hour work week as much as possible so that I could do a little bit of work with the website. I took online courses in art and took an entrepreneurial course through the Ivey Business School—I had to cut my hours in academia back to make time for the small amount of work I wanted to do. I couldn’t do it with the 60-70 hour weeks in the lab. As an entrepreneur lately, it’s closer to 50 hours per week.
One thing I don’t miss is having to run back to the lab on weekends and evenings. I can relax, do things with my family, and I am hugely thankful for that. Entrepreneurship is much better suited for my ideal life.
Q: Do you see any limit to the scope of your quest?
A: I see absolutely no limit. I have sat back and watched in awe as other science based YouTube channels that haven’t been up for long (about a year), grew to over 1 million subscribers. There’s no limit to who you can reach, no matter where and who they are, and I am happy to be at a point in my life where I can try to accomplish that outreach myself.
Want to hear more?
For one hour, on Monday, August 24th, let Shelley Sandiford teach you how to excel through a career change.
6PM Central (7PM EST, 4PM Pacific). Only 10 seats available.