The Entrepreneurial Historian

As part of the “Malleable PhD” series, the panelists on “The Entrepreneurial Historian” gathered to present not just an alternative career path to academia, but a path that exists in a supposedly alternative universe—that of for-profit history. If there was one thing that all the panelists agreed on though (and there were actually quite a few things), it was that this opposition is a false one. 

The panel’s lively and professionally diverse presentations quickly dispatched any lingering doubts about the ability of historians to move successfully into the entrepreneurial space.  As each participant talked through their business story, they made clear the many aspects of historians’ training that translate well in a world that prizes developing ideas, and growing those ideas into successful businesses.

Kristen Gwinn-Becker—founder of History IT, a company that provides digitization and database services for historically focused archives and organizations—demonstrated how to combine two existing areas of expertise (database development and history) with an ability to recognize and act on a market opportunity (the increasing need of archivists for database management systems). She succeeded in part because she could “speak the language” of both, but also because she eventually realized that the kind of thinking and problem-solving rooted in a humanities-based education positions humanities scholars to develop solutions and systems of all kinds. This insight introduced a theme that emerged more fully over the course of the panel’s conversation: historians have skills, training, and experience that can translate very successfully into a business environment, if we can learn how to recognize those abilities and sell them to a customer.

When Alexandra (Lexi) Lord started the Ultimate History Project, she was looking for a non-academic outlet for historical writing to meet what she saw as a large unmet desire in the general public for history content. From the outset, Lord envisioned the Ultimate History Project as both a serious journal and a for-profit venture, and she stressed the need to understand your audience or customer and find a way to make the enterprise pay for itself—two strategies that the panelists agreed were under-valued in academia. An inventive marketer, Lord attended steampunk conferences, did advertising tie-ins with romantic fiction, and generally advised paying attention to fads and current events as a way of finding new markets for historically based businesses. This was the panel’s second major theme and the one that may require the biggest shift for academic historians: recognizing just how large and diverse the audience for history truly is.

Jennifer Stevens had always planned to be a consultant rather than an academic, and she had an early introduction to that world through her mentors. The Boise, Idaho-based Stevens Historical Research company conducts studies on behalf of a variety of environmental and legal clients and is now moving into cultural resource management. A “fairly good market for this” already exists, Stevens explained, if you know how to market yourself and make potential clients aware of what you do. What’s more: “all of you in this audience know exactly how to do this research.”

The Washington, DC-based History Associates stood out among the startups on the panel for its longevity (over 30 years), its size (80 people), and its excellent slogan (The Best Company in History), and COO Brian Martin came across as a highly experienced and business-focused COO. He underscored Stevens’s point about the wide spectrum of work that historians can do and the “huge market” for all kinds of “history business.” Again, historians “need to identify and pursue the skills and experiences to pursue those markets.” And if this all sounds like the kind of business-speak dominating any panel on developing new businesses, Patrick Moore and Michelle McClellen would argue that if we’re successful in academia, we’re actually already doing much of what the panel identified.

McClellen, tenure-track faculty at the University of Michigan, urged us to drop the idea that the academic milieu and the private sector are oppositional systems. “It is a fantasy that academic life is separate from the market,” she began, “it’s not either or.” The entrepreneurial skills discussed—also known simply as “hustle”—are necessary to academia. She explained that the university and its world are a system of resources to be allocated; navigating the pursuit of those resources is something that successful graduate students and academics already do.

At the University of West Florida, where Patrick Moore runs the Public History Program, students are encouraged to think of themselves as content deliverers focused on the audience or customer for history. Through the development of the mobile app, Next Exit History, Moore has crafted a way to deliver historical content to small communities that is shaped in partnership with the communities themselves. As heads nodded all along the table, Moore emphasized the need for students to be able to write for a variety of audiences they’ve taken the trouble to really understand, and to produce on deadline.

While much of the panel described the ways in which their background and training as historians was vital to developing their history-focused business, the conversation concluded with a number of ways in which academically trained historians might find challenges in this environment as well. McClellen and Stevens both noted that the crucial ability to conceive of one’s narrow specialization in a broader application—“disaggregating the skills from the content”—could be uncomfortable for some because “so many pressures in the academy push against that.”

One audience member asked how McClellen and Moore, the panel’s two academics, managed to navigate the balance between the expectation of service for the professoriate with their expectation of being paid for their work. Several panelists suggested ways to parse this issue, especially when student work was involved, but ultimately Moore dismissed the idea that we should do the real work for free out of devotion to our craft, looking to the hard sciences for good models and reminding his audience: “the skills that everyone in this room has,  have value.”

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