The Academic Consultant, Part Four--The Rear-View Mirror

Over the past year, I wrote a series for Next Wave on my experiences developing a consultancy business while maintaining my role as a university-based academic. In that series, I discussed some of my motivations for developing a consultancy and some of the challenges unique to academics wishing to take this route, such as steering clear of conflicts of interest with your home institution. My company, Podium Performance Inc., which specializes in elite sport science support for top-level athletes in Atlantic Canada, is now about to pass its first birthday. It is very much like my own little boy of the same age--crawling along and bumping into obstacles, but every day moving further towards the big steps of walking and, eventually, running. Like any new parent, I've learned quite a few things over the past year. ...

The past year has been interesting in terms of personal and professional growth. Life as an academic often seems like a constant juggling act between research, teaching, and administration. In the 5 years since joining Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, it seems like each year has brought another dozen balls, plates, and even the odd chainsaw to the juggling act! I started my consultancy, Podium Performance Inc., last summer at the exact same time as I was preparing my tenure application package, becoming a father for the second time, and helping my first two graduate students complete their degrees. That's a lot to juggle.

Now that the dust is somewhat settled and the first birthday cake has been eaten, what have I learned?

Bureaucracy Has a Huge Inertial Mass!

Two major incidents over the past year--getting insurance and seeking university lab facilities--have had me checking if my middle name was Dilbert:

Getting liability and malpractice insurance coverage for my business has been bizarre, to say the least. My first approach was to obtain coverage for myself by becoming a member of the Ontario Kinesiology Association (OKA). Simple enough process, I figured, because I am a faculty member in kinesiology after all. Right?

Think again! My employee, with a B.Sc. in sport science from the United Kingdom and a M.Sc. in kinesiology, qualified as a member. But for some reason, my M.Sc. and Ph.D. in kinesiology, together with the fact that I teach the people applying to be OKA members and also do leading-edge research in the field, still does not qualify me as a kinesiologist! No amount of reasoning on my part has been able to budge them on this issue, but they seem to be hung up on the fact that my B.Sc. 13 years ago was in oceanography. I have since obtained insurance directly from a commercial broker instead.

One of the things I mentioned in my first article was that the often-hidebound university system can work at a dramatically different pace than industry and the rest of the "real world." Was I right on this one! After contacting my department in May of 2002 to request use of some of our unit's lab facilities and equipment to perform testing on athletes, the issue has bounced back and forth between my departmental chair, the dean, the various vice presidents, university legal counsel, and just about everyone else in between. At the end of the day, it has been over a year without any firm working agreement drafted by the university, and I have made arrangements to perform testing elsewhere. When the department tells you that they are "behind you all the way," consider asking them to be a little bit more exact about just how far behind you they plan to be standing!

Overall, the past year has seen my previously comfortable and supportive relationship with my department and university erode somewhat. I can't help but wonder whether a lot of the uneasiness that has developed over the past year is due to my starting Podium, and specifically the dragged out, and eventually terminated, process of negotiating facilities usage. Although my tenure application was successful this past year, it probably was not smart to launch a consultancy and add another layer of complexity to my university life at the same time. If I were doing it again, I would wait until the initial tenure period is over and perhaps then I would have more clout and security.

Be Innovative With Marketing

In a previous article, I wrote about how scientific excellence gives you a key marketing advantage because of the name recognition it provides. Was I ever naïve! Despite knowing that I'm a university-based sport science researcher, the average athlete didn't seem to be interested in me unless I had some big names in my coaching stable. In the coaching industry, nobody has marketed themselves better than Chris Carmichael. He is now looked upon as a coaching god by thousands of clients in different sports, principally through his association with cycling star Lance Armstrong. My passion is bicycling, but how do I go about landing a contract with an elite cycling squad with a marketing budget of zero and this big industry gorilla already in the jungle?

One of my best moves has been linking up last September with a new bicycling Web site, PezCycling News. I noticed that the content and visuals were terrific, but that the site had no articles on physiology, training, or sport science. I wrote to the site's publisher offering to write some articles for them. One thing led to the other, and now I'm the site's sport science and training editor.

I don't get paid for this work (yet), but the relationship has worked out terrifically for all parties. PezCycling News has gained a higher profile and more respectability because it's the only English Web site with an actual Ph.D. and active sport scientist writing for it. I've been a big contributor to its immense growth and popularity over this past year. For me, it has meant the fulfillment of two goals:

  • From a strictly nonbusiness perspective, it gives me a popular outlet to share my passion for bicycling and apply the stuff I read in scientific journals to real-life cyclists. It's an ego boost, but sobering at the same time, to know that one of my Pez articles probably gets more readers in a couple of hours than all of my scientific articles combined!


  • For my business, it has been a terrific marketing venue. I have now developed a fairly large and devoted following amongst English-speaking cyclists throughout North America. Planning long-term, once the business is ready for expansion, I will build an online component to tap into this market.

Writing for Pez has also given me the credibility and industry contacts to negotiate with some professional cycling teams in the United States to serve as their sport scientist, and I hope to have some firm contracts for 2004. I will also get a chance to mingle with the top athletes and industry people in the world at the upcoming World Cycling Championships due to my affiliation with Pez. Overall, this kind of volunteer work has given me the kind of credibility and opportunities somebody just breaking into the field just cannot buy.

Find Good Help!

Nobody stands alone, and Podium could not have made it to its first birthday without some excellent help. First and foremost, my former grad student and current employee Leo Thornley has taken on the bulk of the actual day-to-day sport science support with our existing local stable of teams and athletes. Realistically, there was no way that I could have given these teams the same level of service by myself. His taking care of this aspect of the business gives me the time and opportunity to focus on my main passion of pursuing work with elite cyclists. In retrospect, working with Leo has been the most gratifying part of the whole venture, because I got to help create employment for a top student in an area he is passionate about. And while I'm still his boss, it has also been fun to see our relationship develop more towards being collaborators in a joint venture.

Stepping Into the Time Machine

If Podium grows big enough, will I jump ship from my life as a university professor, my career goal since early in my undergraduate days? At this point, I will say absolutely not, because I love being in the lab and working with students far too much. I'm currently looking at my consultancy as a professional hobby through which I can meld my professional knowledge with my personal passion. But that's not to say that I won't close the door on what might come from it.

Having checked the rear-view mirror, would I bother to go through it all over again? Pardon yet another parenting analogy: A few years ago, I couldn't imagine what life with children would be like. Having two children now seems like the most natural thing in the world, and my wife and I can't remember any more what our lives were like before they came along. I feel much the same way about Podium. Despite the stumbling blocks, it now seems a perfectly natural extension of my professional role as an academic to be a consultant on the side, and I'm already finding it hard to remember what I did before.

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