There is no substitute for learning from failure—it’s priceless.
Jessica Parker is a researcher, educator and entrepreneur. She is the owner and CEO of Dissertation by Design, a consulting firm that provides scholarly writing and professional editing support to graduate students all over the world. Her team consists of coaches, methodologists and professional editors who have experience in a variety of specialty areas, including but not limited to education, psychology, nursing, healthcare administration, business and leadership studies. She donates 5 percent of the company’s annual revenue to local charities that align with her mission to help a woman or girl find her voice through reading and writing.
Jessica has also worked in higher education for six years as a research program director and lecturer at two R1 institutions. Her research focuses on interprofessional education and collaborative practice to improve the oral health and overall health of vulnerable and underserved populations. She has published nine peer-reviewed articles and serves on the editorial board of several prominent publications. Jessica continues to teach healthcare research courses to nursing and doctor of health sciences students.
Jessica lives in Raleigh, N.C. with her partner and their dog, Sunny. In her local community, she participates actively with charities that offer opportunities for achievement, enrichment and service to local students. When she is not working, she enjoys hiking, surfing and walking her dog.
Where did the idea for Dissertation by Design come from?
The idea for Dissertation by Design came from my own experience writing a dissertation and from my experiences helping my peers with theirs. I noticed that many of my peers were struggling with the isolation that comes with writing a dissertation, as well as making decisions about how to design their research and communicate their results to an academic audience. At the time, I was a full-time research program director and already had years of experience conducting research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals—so writing my dissertation felt like an extension of my work.
When the idea first came to me, I did some digging online to see if the problem was observed by others and learned that approximately 50 percent of doctoral candidates never graduate and become “ABD” (all but dissertation). I also noticed that there were a number of existing dissertation coaching businesses that primarily provided technical support, but I could not find a business that provided both a writing community and technical support. I saw that as an opportunity and ran with it.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
A typical day for me involves going into my office, which is located at a coworking site for entrepreneurs and small businesses. My hours vary, but I typically start at 7:00 a.m. and leave the office around 5:00 p.m. I often have to take calls in the evenings and on the weekends because most of our clients work full-time.
I make my days productive by adhering to a calendar that has default appointments for important tasks (e.g., accounting, marking, strategy, team meetings) that is peppered with client meetings. Setting a default calendar is extremely helpful because it reminds me of critical tasks that need to be taken care of on a regular basis. I give myself the option to rearrange the events scheduled for any given day, but try not to drop anything entirely. Going into an office instead of working from home has also improved my productivity. I feel more motivated and productive when I see other entrepreneurs working around me.
How do you bring ideas to life?
My approach for bringing an idea to life is similar to my approach to project management. First, my team discusses the idea at a weekly team meeting. I often take notes in a shared document that evolves as a concept document. If everyone is on board with moving forward, I work with the individual who brought the idea to the table to build a project timeline. We then delegate tasks at subsequent meetings. We also like to discuss more developed ideas with existing clients before piloting the idea with a small group of new clients. This last aspect has been crucial to our success with developing and expanding our services to meet the needs of our clients.
What’s one trend that excites you?
One trend that excites me is the growing number of individuals that want help with pre- and postdissertation support. We have noticed that students want to position themselves for success and decide to get help while still completing their coursework. Similarly, most of our clients continue working with us after they defend to get help publishing their research or applying for research grants as postdocs or junior faculty. This trend is exciting because it expands our market and allows my team to use their skills for a variety of purposes.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
One habit that makes me more productive as an entrepreneur is that I test partially formed ideas early before I have a finished product. For example, instead of developing a new workshop curriculum and then enrolling participants, I marketed the workshop first to confirm interest. Once a handful of people expressed interest, I offered the workshop at a steep discount for early users. This approach has helped me avoid wasting valuable time and resources developing a workshop that no one wants. I also collect as much data and feedback as possible to help me identify when to pivot or push forward. I believe that this approach has helped me test many ideas before dedicating resources too soon.
What advice would you give your younger self?
If I could give my younger self advice, I would encourage myself to take more risks and not be afraid of failure. Now that I’ve built a business and met other entrepreneurs, I realize that almost no one knows what they’re doing. There is no substitute for learning from failure—it’s priceless.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
It’s possible to motivate employees and give them purpose through social impact. When I started Dissertation by Design, I knew that I wanted to use the business for good by creating opportunities for others. I made the decision to donate 5 percent of our gross profits to help local women and girls find their voice through reading and writing. I frequently use this social mission to motivate my employees by developing “giving goals” and letting them choose their own local charities that align with our mission.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Develop a vision, mission and culture statement. Read it often and have your employees review it frequently, especially when there is conflict or disagreement within the team. I like to think of our vision, mission and culture statement as our true north. I once used our vision statement to help center myself and my team when an idea was taking us down an interesting, but tangent, path. I also use the culture statement during employee evaluations and performance appraisals.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One strategy that has helped me grow my business is recruiting current or previous clients as brand ambassadors. These individuals are typically clients who were especially complimentary of our services and left a glowing review online. They recommend us to other prospective clients on social media or elsewhere.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One failure that I had as an entrepreneur was a launch and associated marketing strategy for a new workshop. I made the decision to spend a considerable portion of our marketing budget for the year to promote the workshop online. The workshop was only half filled, and we did not get a single new client as a result of the marketing campaign. But I did acquire a lot of valuable information, which I documented so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. For instance, I learned that an expensive workshop is more likely to sell through client referrals and word of mouth than through online marketing. I also learned that right after Christmas is not the time to promote expensive services.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Someone should create a platform for organizing and aggregating all the unused research data that exists for other students to use for future research. I’m not sure how this would work with institutional review boards and human ethics considerations, but there must be a way!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I paid for a DISC profile when hiring a new employee to help me better assess whether their personality would be a good fit with mine and other members of my team. It was recommended by a business coach, and I believe that it helped me identify the right candidate for the job.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Zoho CRM to track our work with clients, employees’ time, lead sources and project time. I’ve created a number of reports that I rely on to help me make decisions about marketing and pricing our services.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
It’s not a book, but I religiously listen to every new episode of NPR’s podcast “How I Built This with Guy Raz.” The podcast shares stories from successful entrepreneurs. I’ve learned so much just by listening to how other entrepreneurs built their companies, and I always learn at least one nugget of valuable information.
What is your favorite quote?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. – French proverb
When we work with doctoral students, we hear many stories of venturing and gaining, stories of struggle with which we can resonate. We’ve listened to clients who were going through a divorce, planning a wedding, caring for a dying spouse or parent, needing emergency surgery or losing a job and starting over in a new career. Difficult or overwhelming life experiences can be stifling. Even if you aren’t experiencing something particularly challenging, you might be uneasy about what lies ahead. You might be doubting yourself. Don’t.
• Develop a company vision, mission and culture statement. Use it as the company’s true north to guide employee evaluations and to center the team when an idea takes you down an interesting, but tangent, path.
• Test ideas early and often so that you can pivot before pushing forward to deploy valuable resources.
• It is possible to motivate employees and give them purpose through social impact. Create giving goals for the company and learn about what causes are important to your employees.
• Use a default calendar to structure your day and help you be more productive.
• Don’t doubt yourself. Embrace a new venture and risk gaining everything.