My guest today is a scientist turned digital artist, animator, entrepreneur, as well as an academic escapee.
She has a Ph.D. from the University of Waterloo and has over 15 years of experience in research. During this time, my guest has generated $340,000 in funding, prepared manuscripts and lectured.
Today, she is the founder of Sciconic.com, where she explains scientific concepts through creating simple graphics, infographics, and custom animations and explainer videos.
The Value of Crafting an Entrepreneurial Vision (and Sticking to It)
Jonny Nastor: Hack the Entrepreneurs is part of Rainmaker.FM, the digital business podcast network. Find more great shows and education at Rainmaker.FM.
Voiceover: Welcome to Hack the Entrepreneur, the show which reveals the fears, habits, and inner battles behind big name entrepreneurs and those on their way to joining them. Now, here is your host, Jon Nastor.
Jonny Nastor: Welcome back to Hack the Entrepreneur. It is so very cool of you to join me again today. I am your host, Jon Nastor, but you can call me Jonny.
My guest today is scientist turned digital artist, animator, entrepreneur, as well as an academic escapee. She has a PhD from the University of Waterloo and has over 15 years of experience in research. During this time, my guest has generated $340,000 in funding, prepared manuscripts, and lectured.
Today, my guest is the founder of Sciconic.com, where she explains scientific concepts through creating simple graphics, infographics, and custom animations and explainer videos. This year, she was recently named as one of the 25 top entrepreneurs to watch by Fizzle.co.
Now, let’s hack Shelley Sandiford.
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Welcome back to another episode of Hack the Entrepreneur. Today, we have a very, very, very special guest. Shelley, welcome to the show.
Shelley Sandiford: Hi, Jon, thanks. Thanks for having me.
Jonny Nastor: Oh, it’s absolutely my pleasure.
All right, Shelley, we’re going to jump straight into this. Could you tell me Shelley, as an entrepreneur, what has been the one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your successes so far?
Taking Herself Seriously — How It Affected Her Business Decisions
Shelley Sandiford: Wow, I think really the biggest thing that I’ve done is this realization that no one is going to take me seriously until I do. Coming in from a completely different career field, I tried to start my business on the side while I was still in academia. Science is an all-encompassing career. There was just absolutely no time.
I wouldn’t necessarily advocate this for anybody else, but for me, the decision to become serious about myself and where I wanted to go, the first decision I had to make was to walk away from that career, that doing this part-time wasn’t going to work in my case even though I wouldn’t necessarily advocate that for anybody else. Taking myself seriously also meant, in a sense — even though I still consider myself a scientist — meant almost shedding that identity temporarily. If I were to meet you in some sort of a public setting today and I went to introduce myself, I’d introduce myself as an animator and a storyteller, not as a scientist.
Taking myself seriously meant changing my identity. It also meant admitting that I had an awful lot to learn. There were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and I was way out of my comfort zone. I still am in many ways. It meant seeking out help. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a couple of business coaches this year, but it really did start with taking myself seriously. The decision to work with business coaches, the decision to change, to look at myself through a new identity, the decision to walk away from a career — it all stemmed from taking myself seriously.
Jonny Nastor: Wow. I love it. So you said tried to do it on the side, so you were a scientist in academia, as in working at a college?
Shelley Sandiford: Yeah, I was a bench scientist. I would conduct experiments during the day, come home at night, then open up my computer once my daughter was asleep, try and draw some pretty pictures and make them move, and I just didn’t have enough time.
Jonny Nastor: How long did you do that for?
Shelley Sandiford: I tried to get my business off the ground probably for about two years before I left.
Jonny Nastor: That seems pretty typical.
Shelley Sandiford: Yeah.
Jonny Nastor: At some point, you either have to give up on the business or … you’ve got to give up on something.
Shelley Sandiford: Yep, you have to give up on the dream, or you have to give up on the … yeah, I agree.
Jonny Nastor: Can you — I guess you probably still can — remember what it felt like that last day you walked of your job?
Embracing Your Vision and Going for It
Shelley Sandiford: It felt fantastic.
Jonny Nastor: Really? You weren’t shaking and like, “Oh my god! What am I doing?”
Shelley Sandiford: Absolutely. Yeah, I would maybe stick some swear words in there, too. if I could, but absolute elation. I had wanted to walk away for a long time, or the circumstances were right before my mindset was right. The day I walked out I knew I was never going back. Even if the business idea failed, I knew that my life was going to go in a new direction, so it’s absolutely fantastic.
Jonny Nastor: Wow, so were you just fed up with academia, or did you just know that it would lead somewhere and you didn’t know where?
Shelley Sandiford: No, I was done with it.
Jonny Nastor: I know some people, they still do make that leap, but they’re also like, “But I love my job. I did. It just wasn’t fulfilling on the right level.” Or you want to know what you can accomplish.
Shelley Sandiford: Yeah, I love science, and I loved being a bench scientist. I fell out of love with academia. When that distaste eclipsed my love for being a scientist, it was time to go.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah. Well, I think you’re in good company here, falling out of love with academia, so it’s good. Now I’d like to know, because there seems to be this point — this was the point for you — there seems to be two camps. Either you’re trying to go and make something big, like this big difference in the world, you simply just found that you just couldn’t work for somebody else, or as in your case, you just couldn’t work within academia. Which one pulled you harder, do you think?
Shelley Sandiford: Oh wow. At this point, once I had the idea in 2011, 2012, when I first started to have this idea for a website, even though I didn’t have a clear idea in my head of what it would look like at that time, I had that vision. It wasn’t so much about not necessarily wanting to work with other people anymore. It was like, “I have this thing in my head. I want to try this thing in my head, and if it doesn’t necessarily work, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go back to work for somebody else or anything like that. This is my chance to give this a shot.”
Jonny Nastor: Exactly. I believe your story … you didn’t just, “Oh, I’m going to just find a widget, sell it, and try to make more money than I did at my job.” You want to bring science to more people in an accessible way. That’s a big change. That’s awesome.
Shelley Sandiford: Yeah.
Jonny Nastor: Now, every blog post, every expert, they talk about the 80/20 rule. I’m sure you’ve heard of this.
Shelley Sandiford: I have.
Jonny Nastor: Do 20 percent, and get 80 percent of the results. Do what you’re good at. Delegate the rest. Shelley, could you tell me something that you’re absolutely not good at in your business?
Doing Whatever’s Necessary to Grow Your Business
Shelley Sandiford: Oh my god, it’s sales, for sure. I’m very introverted by nature. It’s quite difficult for me to reach out for people. Unfortunately, that 80/20 rule, right now, where my business is at, at this stage, I have to spend most of my time doing that one thing that I really don’t like to do. Spending a lot less time with the content creation these days as I am compared to the amount of outreach that I have to do.
Jonny Nastor: Nice.
Shelley Sandiford: It’s reaching out to people. It’s making phone calls. It’s sending out emails. It’s all that stuff that I wish I didn’t have to do right now but I do.
Jonny Nastor: Are you saying that you’re telling yourself that you’re going to work on this to do something every day that scares you?
Shelley Sandiford: Yes.
Jonny Nastor: Are you going to push yourself to get good at this, or are you going to push it so that hopefully your business grows enough so that you can delegate it out, immediately?
Shelley Sandiford: Absolutely, yes, answer B. Right now, I have to do it myself, but with the goal that someday … really if I didn’t do it myself, the business doesn’t grow. It’s that simple.
Jonny Nastor: Exactly.
Shelley Sandiford: If I can’t do it, won’t do it, or make excuses every morning why I shouldn’t do it, business doesn’t go anywhere. By refusing to do it, to me, that is a sign of giving up on this business, at this point. I’m not willing to do that. When I get to a point where I can bring somebody in to do that for me, that is the first hire that I make, absolutely, so I don’t have to do it. Right now, I’m not in that situation, so that’s just the way things are.
Jonny Nastor: Of course. Most businesses aren’t in that situation. Sometimes people just love the battle. Then, also, the most introverted of us, which I am myself, we find that sometimes we do like sales, especially online, because you don’t have to go knock on someone’s door necessarily and make a pitch.
Shelley Sandiford: That’s true. You don’t necessarily have to make cold calls. I can tell you this, I’ve actually gotten better at it, for sure. The more you do it, it’s gotten easier for sure. It’s still not my favorite thing to do.
Jonny Nastor: Right, small businesses, though, we don’t often get to do just that one thing we love to do. It takes a while to get there.
Shelley Sandiford: Yeah, I think so.
Jonny Nastor: Excellent. Let’s move on to work if we can. As you just said, you don’t want to make those excuses every morning not to do it because you have to do it. Could we, with work — and today’s a work day — you’ve come from academia, so probably fairly structured I would assume. How structured is your workday? You wake up today on a workday, could you walk us through the first 30 minutes and what you do to set yourself up to get the things done?
Self-Awareness — The Benefits of It
Shelley Sandiford: Oh gosh, yeah. Because sales and outreach is where I struggle and it’s not necessarily my strong suit, that is the first part of my day now. If I don’t do it first thing in the morning, I will make excuses as the day goes on why I don’t want to do it or why I have something more interesting to do.
Basically, I’m up and ready to go between eight and eight thirty in the morning. By that time, my daughter is off to school or camp. I open up my email. I either will research some companies or certain organizations that I would like to reach out to or I have already formulated from the day before, and I go. I just start trying to reach out to people. If I have already reached out and they’ve agreed to chat with me over the phone, then I also try and get those conversations out of the way as early in my day as possible as long as it works for them. That is always, always the first part of my day.
Jonny Nastor: Wow, I love it. Get it out of the way quickly.
Shelley Sandiford: Get it out of the way. Get out of the way, or it’s not going to happen. Shelley will think of something better to do. The day will come and go, and it won’t happen.
Jonny Nastor: Wow, I love the self-awareness of knowing that. I think I know that about myself, but I can still trick myself into, “No, I’ll do it later.”
Shelley Sandiford: It was months of trying to convince myself that I would do it at three in the afternoon … until three in the afternoon. There’s no way it’s happening at three.
Jonny Nastor: You’re working from home at this point, or do you go out of the house sometimes?
Shelley Sandiford: I actually do a combination. This summer, I’m working a little more from home, but I actually do have some rented office space, downtown Ottawa. Most days of the week, you would actually find me there.
Jonny Nastor: Do you find that helps?
Shelley Sandiford: Absolutely. Yeah, I do. I’m actually pretty good. I don’t tend to get often distracted working out of my office at home, but I just find the office space that I rent out of is fabulous. There’s people walking around there. You can start conversations. There’s a couple people associated with it that have become almost like mentors to me. People that you can bounce ideas with, you can have chats with. I find the atmosphere really, really helpful, really invigorating, so when I can get down there, I choose to work downtown.
Jonny Nastor: Wow, that’s awesome. So is it co-working space, or is it literally separate offices but there’s communal areas?
Shelley Sandiford: No, it’s a business. Actually, I’ll give a shout-out because they’re fantastic. They’re called Rhapsody Strategies. They’re in Ottawa. They offer business coaching. They offer web strategies, social media, and they have a fantastic office space. They actually do rent out desks there. So if you want to come down, if you want to have a meeting, or if you want to work down there, you can arrange with them to go down and get some work done.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome. Rhapsody Strategies. We’ll link to that in the show notes, so it’s easy for everyone in Ottawa or going to Ottawa.
Shelley Sandiford: Yeah, please do. It’s an excellent space.
Jonny Nastor: Now, I just now realized that you’re Canadian. That’s awesome. I knew there was a reason why you were so awesome. Us Canadians, we got to stick together. Just the way it is.
Shelley Sandiford: We’ve got to stick together. Got to support each other.
Jonny Nastor: But we should probably move along I guess because there’s a lot of Americans listening. Shelley, I find that, as entrepreneurs and as human beings, one of our greatest struggles is the fear of being wrong, making mistakes, and failing. I’m sure, since you’ve started your business now, you’ve probably been wrong with some decision you made. So could you, right now, tell me how you deal with being wrong?
How Indecisions Can Kill Your Business
Shelley Sandiford: You know what, Jon, it was hard at first. It was almost this feeling that the wrong the decision is going be the decision that sinks your business altogether because everything was so new for me. I just learned along the way that there really isn’t such a thing as a decision that’s so colossally wrong that there’s absolutely no recourse from it.
If you just build yourself up to making small decisions where you have to make a decision, be okay with it being wrong, just take it as a learning experience, make sure you note what you think might have gone wrong, what you think you can try differently next time, and just sort of go from there, I think it’s much better. What I’ve learned the hard way is that it’s much better to just bite the bullet and make that decision today, than to put it off, put it off, put it off. Now you’re not making that decision for three months, six months down the line. I’ve fallen into that trap. That makes it awfully hard to grow a business if you can’t get past making a wrong decision.
I’m at the point now where I have embraced this idea that there’s really only one kind of wrong decision. That’s a wrong decision that you make continually over and over and over again, and you’re not learning from it. You just keep making that decision thinking magically that you’re going to get a different outcome. That’s a bad trap, too. That’s just not a smart way to run a business — to not measure anything. You don’t know what’s working and what’s not.
I think so long as you just bite the bullet and do it, and make a few wrong ones — because I’ve made few wrong ones over the past year or two — just know that you’re going to be okay. It’s not going to be the end of your business. You’ve just got to switch courses, learn from it, and move on.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, exactly. You touched on some really, really good points there. The whole how you have to bite the bullet and make a decision rather than sitting on a decision for six months. You’re right. Especially if you break ideas down smaller, you’re not going to do something that’s going to kill your business, but indecision will destroy your business.
Shelley Sandiford: Absolutely. It will destroy business, yeah. You learn that pretty quickly.
Jonny Nastor: Then the idea of taking colossal decisions and breaking them into smaller ones so that, incrementally, it can’t sink the ship, was this something that was hard? Or even making quick decisions, it seems like the opposite of maybe how academia would work.
Shelley Sandiford: You know what, Jon, I was actually just going to touch on that. Academia is all about analyzing the you-know-what out of something so that you can come to what you think is going to be the right decision. That can kill you in business. I learned that the hard way, that I do tend to take information … I like making lists, Jon. I will make a list. I will make pros and cons. My husband will walk in the room, and he’ll be like, “Just make a decision already!”
So that’s been a learning experience for me. To just take the information that I have at that moment, understand that any more information coming in isn’t going to make the decision any easier or harder, and just make the thing. Just make a decision. Just do the thing.
Jonny Nastor: I love it because it’s so true. That information you have right now is enough. Really, the information you need is acting on your decision and seeing what happens.
Shelley Sandiford: Absolutely.
Jonny Nastor: That’s really, really it. Okay. Shelley, you’re fairly early on in your business, and I know that often at this stage that we get a lot of ideas. The shiny objects thing — things come across our email inbox. We might go to a conference, or we might talk to people at Rhapsody Strategies and get different ideas of things we do.
Let’s call them ‘projects’ — something new you could go into. With all of this new stuff coming in and your business still at an early stage, and you probably don’t even know exactly where you want it to go at this point, could you tell me if you have a process to filter these things out, and then once you do, how do to decide that, “Yes, actually, this isn’t just shiny. This is something I should pursue”?
How Self-Awareness Can Quash the ‘Bright Shiny Object’ Syndrome
Shelley Sandiford: That’s taken me a while, too. When I started the website, it was always with this idea that I could and would be quite willing to pivot the business if I found markets inside of different areas. So far, most of the interest in my business has actually come from outside the science community altogether.
For me, part of the struggle has been, “Okay, what are these other markets? Do I feel okay about that, or is something falling so far outside my comfort zone that it’s just not something I’m willing to do?” I’m actually not so bad with the ‘bright shiny object,’ with the concept of the bright shiny object.
At this point, I have a vision, and I have a list of areas that I would veer off into. I stick pretty closely to that at this point. About a year ago, I can tell you that it was a little bit more difficult. I had about five or six ideas floating around my head at any given point, and it was hard to stay the course. Now, there’s A, and there’s B. There’s possibly C. Everything else is a distraction, so it’s not so hard now.
Jonny Nastor: Nice. That’s impressive. Again, your self-awareness and knowing these things about yourself.
Shelley Sandiford: I didn’t initially. That was a process in and of itself.
Jonny Nastor: Right, but you know it now. I’ve talked to people who have been in this game for 10 and 20 years and still can’t figure that out about themselves. Sometimes you fall into still-good projects that are successful, but overall, it doesn’t help your long-term vision.
All right, Shelley, this has been fun. I want to wrap up on something. This is going to be interesting because you are, again, early in these stages, but there’s this idea I’m sort of struggling with called the ‘entrepreneurial gap.’ The entrepreneurial gap is where we are today, and we’re always, always, always looking forward. We’re entrepreneurs. We’re dreamers. We want cool, big things.
We’re always setting goals and settings our sights one month, three months, six months, a year, three years, five years, 10 years ahead. Sometimes, before we even hit that goal, we send five or 10 new bigger ones further into the future. It’s always, “In six months when I get there and my business is doing that, I’ll be more successful.” Always in six months. Always in a year, but never right now in the day today.
I would love it if you could, right now, Shelley, just stop, turn around, and look at what you’ve learned through that two years of doing as a side project, then quitting your job, quitting academia, and moving into business. Can you just tell me how you feel about what you’ve learned, what you’ve experienced, and how you’ve grown as an entrepreneur?
Embrace and Celebrate the Little Things
Shelley Sandiford: Oh man, this has been fantastic. Even though I’m slow to say that my business is growing, I feel very, very comfortable at this stage that I’ve done and am doing everything that I possibly can to get this business moving forward. Over the past couple of years, just the amount of the stuff that I have had to learn has been mind-boggling. Who would ever think you’d come out of a career situation into a new one, a career that took a lot of years to train for.
To walk into another field and realize you know nothing is very, very humbling. I think part of my past, just the way science moves, it’s very, very slow, and a lot tends to go wrong. If it can go wrong in science, it will go wrong. You learn to embrace those really small things that do go right during the day. You learn to embrace them and celebrate them because it might be months before something else good happens.
These days, when somebody agrees to chat with me over the phone, I celebrate that. When I finish off a small project, could be just a tiny, tiny little logo animation, I celebrate that. I’ve just learned over the years, it sounds really cliché, but it just really is more about the journey than ‘that goal’ that you’re trying to chase.
Jonny Nastor: Nice, I love it. Now that we’ve looked back, let’s look forward. We’re sitting here, say, one year from today, Shelley, and you are celebrating an amazing year in your business. Can you tell me what you’ve accomplished to make it that awesome of a year?
Shelley Sandiford: What I accomplished? For me, if I could just reach the right audience somehow, to have just put together some projects that I really, really felt had made some sort of a difference, and gotten into the hands of the people who really, really need to hear it in an engaging way. It wouldn’t have to have made a ton of money. Just that alone — to have gotten out there, to have gotten my name out there a little bit, and to have worked with some really, really cool people. To me, a year from now, if you were to check back, and I were to say, “You know what, Jonny, this has been cool. I’ve worked on a couple of really great projects with some great people,” ‘that’ would be where I want to be.
Jonny Nastor: That’s awesome. Since you would like to get your name out there, and this has been such a fun conversation, can we, right now, tell the listeners specifically where they can find out more about your business and you, Shelley?
Shelley Sandiford: Sure. My business is called Sciconic.com, and you can reach me at [email protected] I’m also Shelley Sandiford on LinkedIn. You can reach me there. My company is also on Twitter. The Twitter handle is @SciconicMedia.
Jonny Nastor: Excellent, and it is definitely, definitely, definitely worth checking out. So LinkedIn, @Sciconic on Twitter, [email protected] is Shelley’s email, and Sciconic.com is the website. All that, as well as Rhapsody Strategies, will be linked to in the show notes.
Shelley Sandiford: Yes, please do. They’re fantastic.
Jonny Nastor: Yeah, just so it’s very easy for you to find out there. Please go check out Shelley’s stuff because it really is very, very cool. Shelley, not just because you’re Canadian. You really are doing awesome things, and I’m so happy that I got to talk to you today.
Shelley Sandiford: Oh, it’s been my pleasure.
Jonny Nastor: Thank you so much. It’s absolutely been my pleasure. Please, though, keep doing what you’re doing because it really, really is awesome to watch.
Shelley Sandiford: Oh, thank you, Jon.
Jonny Nastor: Shelley, thank you so much for that. That was a really, really, really insightful and enjoyable conversation. Scientist turned animator and entrepreneur, I love the title. It’s amazing. That’s so cool. Fifteen years in academia is amazing, with the PhD, and then throwing it all aside to start your own business. It’s a brilliant story. I love that you’re being recognized for what you are accomplishing. I look forward to actually what you will go on to achieve still, and I truly, truly thank you for joining in that conversation.
So you’re out there listening, and Shelley’s been through a lot. She’s a really different story than a lot of my guests, that whole PhD, studying at the University of Waterloo, researching for 15 years, and giving it up. Lots of us, we want to make that leap to entrepreneurship, but we think that maybe our background doesn’t lead us that way, or the career we’re in is, “It’s been chosen. I’ve been at it for 15 years. How would I give up? I got a PhD, and I’ve been at it for 15 years. Why would I give it up to follow my passion and my dreams of starting something myself?”
But Shelley did it. She has a really good mental take on it, like a mindset and philosophy behind it. I really, really loved that. Throughout the conversation, we talked about that. She said a lot of really smart things, and she said a lot of really, really insightful that really, wow, I was taken aback by it.
But she said one thing. She said one thing that I can’t get out of my head. Did you get it? Did you hear it?
Let’s do it. Let’s find the hack.
Shelley Sandiford: I just learned along the way that there really isn’t any such thing as a decision that’s so colossally wrong that there’s absolutely no recourse from it. If you build yourself up to making these small decisions where you have to make a decision, be okay with it being wrong, take it as a learning experience, make sure you note what you think might have gone wrong, what you think you can try differently next time, and just sort of go from there.
Jonny Nastor: And that’s the hack.
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, Shelley. This is one of the most important lessons any entrepreneur, no matter how far into the game you are or if you haven’t even yet to get started, but how important it is to be able to make a decision and go for it. These decisions are hard when the decisions are really, really cataclysmically large, meaning that they can cause devastating effects to your livelihood, your family, or yourself.
Chris Brogan in the very first episode of Hack the Entrepreneur said, “Being wrong is no big deal as long as you’re not like an airline pilot and your decision to crash into a something or not … ” — that’s something, obviously, that’s terrible.
Shelley’s taking it down to taking these big, big decisions you have to make as an entrepreneur or as a human being, break them into smaller ones that won’t cause great, great effect, and they’ll allow you to actually take action. Make a decision, today, right now, and take action on that — not think of it as this giant thing because then we never start. We’ll never get anywhere.
I honestly think one of the most valuable skills of an entrepreneur is the ability to just make a decision and act on it. Whether the decision is right or wrong is irrelevant. It truly, truly is. I’m not just saying that. It’s not that all ‘just be wrong’ thing, but it truly is. It’s more important. More businesses fail, more ideas never get off the ground or executed on because of indecision.
Paralysis through analysis of just the most ridiculous ideas that don’t have anything to do with anything or the things that you think you or may feel possibly need to know. It’s just not necessary. Break your ideas down as small as you have to, to the point where you can make a decision on it right now, immediately. Then take action on that idea. Shelley, that is so awesome, and I thank you so much for that.
So that’s it. This has been a lot of fun. As always, as always, as always, I truly, truly do appreciate you stopping by. It’s just always a lot of fun, and I do thank you for that. If you want to reach out to me, you can find me on Twitter, @JonNastor, or find me through email, [email protected] I would love to hear from you.
Please, until next time, keep hacking the entrepreneur.