Margy Thomas (00:00):
What I'm now realizing ScholarShape is can't be achieved through a DIY resource or a static resource. It can only be achieved in a community space where people are interacting with each other and co-constructing it. And all of that is a fairly recent development in the life of ScholarShape.
Susan Boles (00:21):
Thinking about shifting your business model is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other thing. Do you burn the old one to the ground? Do you make a gradual shift? Or do you just tack on one more service that you're offering? I'm Susan Boles and you're listening to Break the Ceiling, the show where we break down unconventional strategies you can use to save time, boost your profit, and increase your operational capacity. And we've been talking all about risk and resilience in this series. We've explored how examining risks and uncertainty can identify the steps that your business needs to take to create strength and resiliency. We've talked about the two biggest and often most anxiety producing risks for business owners, cashflow, and taxes. And we've talked about some different ideas for building financial resilience with new and diverse sources of income, harnessing your intellectual property or creating a community. So if you missed any of these episodes, make sure you go back and catch up on them.
Today we're shifting from talking about risk and resilience in the abstract and looking at what it looks to actually go through this process, to examine the risks in your business, re-examine your business model, and then actually make some changes to how you do business. For my guest today, that shift was a move from one to one services to a membership model. Margy Thomas built ScholarShape as a place for creative visionary scholars to gather and support each other in creating story arguments, which is a framework that she developed and you'll hear more about in the episode. For Margy, creating her community and shifting the kinds of work she was doing was a natural evolution of a framework she created through her work with her clients. She looked at her business and realized that one to one services really weren't the best delivery option for the folks she was working with. And it wasn't really the business she actually wanted to be running.
So we'll talk about what was going on in her business that drove her decision to create ScholarShape and to shift her business model. We'll talk about how she actually executed that transition, and what her business looks now. Hey Margy, thanks so much for being here today.
Margy Thomas (02:38):
Thank you so much for having me, Susan.
Susan Boles (02:40):
So tell me a little bit about what was going on in your business before you decided to make a shift from one to one work.
Margy Thomas (02:48):
Okay. It's actually kind of hard to pinpoint when I decided to shift, because I feel in a way, the current version of ScholarShape that is not one-on-one was of present from the very beginning, and it was a really natural and gradual evolution process over the course of years. But the way the business first started was freelance editing. So basically I just needed a way to bring in money quickly so I could feed my baby. And at some point, I think it was as early as the first year... I never thought of myself as a freelancer. I never thought of myself as just selling my time. I always thought of myself as an entrepreneur starting a business. So I think on some level I knew it would not always be that way. And I think part of that is even in the fact that I chose the name ScholarShape for the business. And I remember consciously thinking that I wanted to choose a business name that had a sense of expansiveness to it that I could grow into.
But in terms of actual dates and details, I would say... It's actually funny you asked me this because I was just going through old photos of my son, and I found a picture of him at two years old, which would be five and a half years ago. And on the wall behind him was a conceptual map that I had put up all over the wall with post-its of my mental model of my process with my clients. And I was like, "Oh my God, I didn't realize I was trying to map out the process that early on." I was kind of blown away by that. When I tell the story, I tend to identify one of the major evolution points, as I would say, November 2018 was when I first put stuff out there, tools out in the world for people to engage with aside from... In other words, trying to help people without selling my time, but helping people by putting out a tool they could use on their own. So that was just a couple of years ago, but the seed of the idea was there really early on.
Susan Boles (04:59):
That's so interesting. I think oftentimes when we're starting out, we don't realize that we're really setting the stage for what our business is going to be. I love the idea that you had this thing mapped out on your wall before you even realized it.
Margy Thomas (05:14):
Yeah. And it's funny, because I was squinting at the photo, trying to read what I had even written, and it's completely different from what the conceptual model ended up being. It evolved so much over the course of those five years.
Susan Boles (05:27):
Yeah. Such an such an evolution. That's so interesting. So tell me how you evolved into the different products, revenue streams, services, however you want to think about them. How did you develop those to what you're doing now?
Margy Thomas (05:48):
Well, it was a really smooth evolution because I never... Developing tools or a program or a course, anything like that, is incredibly time consuming. It's an enormous investment of time and effort and energy that you're not getting paid for, and not having an income was never an option for me. So the way that it evolved was that I would just kind of... I think of it having multiple tabs open in the computer of my brain. So all those years, thousands and thousands of hours working with my clients one-on-one, I was always thinking about what are the larger patterns I'm observing here? What is the underlying... What am I doing when I am helping my clients? I bill my one-on-one work by the hour, so just countless times I remember stopping my client clock so I could pull up my ScholarShape document and stop and write on my post-it notes to capture what I was doing with clients. In other words, the process of developing ScholarShape as it currently exists, which is this... It's a community based on a conceptual framework that I synthesized called the story argument model, the development of that is really inextricable from all of those thousands of hours I spent helping clients one-on-one.
Susan Boles (07:16):
I think that's challenging for everybody, is to step out and identify what your process actually is. Everybody has a process, whether they recognize it or not, but being able to get that out of your head and get how your brain works out into the world, I think is just really a challenge. I know it's something that I personally struggled with. How did you approach that? How did you get the framework that you were seeing, that you were observing, that you knew worked, how did you turn that into something that existed?
Margy Thomas (07:57):
Oh, that is a great question. One thing was that I tried to notice what I found myself saying over and over with clients. I've tried to notice what questions I found myself asking over and over. I read a lot. I'm in a weird industry. My industry is academia. I help scholars develop their scholarship. So I read everything, scholarly publishing, scholarly communication, books that have already been written on that, and look for patterns there, and I look for what's missing there. I listen. I'm never off duty in a sense, no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I'm taking in information from the world around me and processing it and looking for the underlying structures of things.
The story argument model itself, there's no other way to say it. It just evolved through iteration and conversation. There wasn't a moment in time when I invented the term story argument. I just found myself using that term to convey something in conversation with my clients. Actually, for a while there, because... So the service I was providing was... The closest term to describe it is developmental editing, which means a scholar would send me a rough draft of their manuscript, I would analyze it and provide detailed feedback to help them figure out how to revise it into the most compelling version of itself. So I spent a lot of time writing these really detailed revision memos, and I found myself over and over again, using the phrase story or argument or story slash argument. And then eventually I just hyphenated it, your story-argument. It's not really an easy answer because there's not really a moment in time or even a specific set of steps that I followed aside from just living in the process and thinking about it all the time and listening, absorbing information, and letting the key organizing concepts rise to the surface.
Susan Boles (10:15):
Yeah. I think that's a much more natural and maybe authentic evolution to put out a product or put out a framework than... Sometimes I think we feel we're forced to head in that direction and it can be really hard when it just naturally evolves as it is, I think. So as you were developing this methodology, what actually prompted you to go from, "I'm doing exclusively one-on-one" to, "I'm thinking about offering this in a new method, a new medium." How did you transition that? Have you finished the transition? Are you midway? What does that look like right now?
Margy Thomas (11:05):
Okay. I mentioned earlier in this conversation that November, 2018 was the first time I put out some sort of tool outside of my head and that was free. I did a free 30 day initiative that people could sign up for and I put out a new writing prompt each day for 30 days, and the prompts basically captured the way that I talked with clients, so that people could have something of the experience of working with me one-on-one just by applying these writing prompts to guide their own writing and reflection. I'm going to try to avoid too much detail here. Basically, I guess the next major step forward was summer 2019, when... This is when I charged for the first time for something other than my time. Well actually, let me back up for a second.
So I've been in business for... I started the business in early 2013, and there were a few times along the way over the years that I made money from things other than my time, I partnered with someone to do a webinar and I've done programs with universities and things that. But the first time I monetized the story argument model, it was in late summer, 2019 through a mastermind with Tara McMullin, who's awesome. I was able to discern that this was the actual moment in time when I was supposed to do my first beta program and charge for it. So in fall 2019, that was when I did the first beta of what at that point I was calling it the build your story argument program. And it was basically a library of about 15 hours worth of videos with PowerPoint illustrations, walking scholars all the way through the story argument model.
So basically saying, first of all, what is a story argument? Why are we using this language to talk about how we craft scholarship? And then second of all, what is the basic structure of a story argument and how does that look different across different academic genres? How does a story argument look in a book? How does it look in an article? How does it look in social sciences? How does it look in history or whatever? So some of the points of variation. So it was still really kind of a DIY resource in the sense that I wasn't connecting the participants with each other. I reached out via email to hand invite people who I knew from my extended network and clients to join this program to basically get my brain. I hate to put it that way because it makes it sound like it's about me.
It's not about Margy's so brilliant, have access to her brain. It's about here is a synthesis of thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of studying powerful scholarship, and these are the patterns. This is what it looks like. So people pay for access to that in fall 2019. And then the next giant step in the evolution was just a couple months after that, after that first beta wrapped up and I gathered feedback from everybody, it became clear that it was time... That first version was really kind of one dimensional, having it be this static resource. And what I realized was that all of those videos that I had made were actually meant to be the backbone of a community, or the framing of a much larger dynamic conversation. So I ended up essentially... Now it's not the build your story argument program anymore, it's the build your story argument modules, and they are one of the many resources inside the ScholarShape community.
So it was January 2020 that I opened the doors to that community for the first time and the first cohort came in and started engaging more dynamically with the resources and with each other and through that I was able to revise everything and develop a bunch of tools that layer on top of the story argument model to make it easier to implement in different situations. So at this point ScholarShape feels like a whole universe. It's a world that scholars enter into and move around within and learn a language that they speak to each other in.
And it's about a lot more than just technique. This is one of my major revelations over the last year is that ScholarShape is not about getting more publications, more prestigious publications. It's not about writing more quickly. It's not even really about writing with greater technical excellence. It's about embodying a whole new approach to scholarship that's a lot more holistic and soulful and centers intuition. So in other words, everything that... What I'm now realizing ScholarShape is can't be achieved through a DIY resource or a static resource. It can only be achieved in a community space where people are interacting with each other and co-constructing it. And all of that is a fairly recent development in the life of ScholarShape.
Susan Boles (16:39):
Yeah. January of 2020 is an interesting time to be launching things. So when you decided to go from this group model to a community model and shift away from one-on-one work, why was that shift the right choice for your business model at that point? What was going on with you or with your approach to business and how you're working that drove the shift? Was it your customers were clamoring for it, or you were having a choice that you wanted to move away from one-on-one work? What made this the right choice?
Margy Thomas (17:24):
I think it's really all of those things. But on a personal level, I can't keep doing something once I know how to do it, and I got to the point where I'm working with the most brilliant scholars on the hardest projects for the most famous presses, and it's like, "Okay, I know what I'm doing here." Each project is a challenge, but it wasn't enough of a new kind of challenge. Once I had this whole mental model of the story argument in my head, and I knew how to apply it, it really sapped my energy and inspiration, to feel like I was doing the same thing over and over. Another big part of it was I just increasingly came to feel that that original business model... I increasingly felt out of alignment with it values wise in the sense that it's just such an elite service.
I mean, the people I was supporting are wonderful and I'm glad I was able to support them, and their work needs to get out there and they deserve to have all of that help, et cetera, but you're leaving so many people out and academia is... It's a really hierarchal discipline or industry and there's a massive, massive gap between the haves and the have nots. And the people who have 5 or $10,000 to pay someone to support them through the process of writing a book, they're wonderful and they deserve that. But I don't think that they're more deserving than someone who doesn't have that money. There are a lot of projects out there that really need to be done and a lot of scholars who really deserve support who needed a more accessible way to access to get that support.
So that was a huge part of it, was just desperately wanting and needing to not have to turn people away all the time, and hating the fact that even the people who could pay me, it just felt like, in some cases, an unreasonable sacrifice. People don't go into academia to get rich. No one expects to make any money off of scholarly books that they publish. It's a labor of love and it's a service to society. It felt like the world needed a new way of approaching that entire process. And I would say even the people who would pay me for my time and could afford thousands and thousands of dollars, it's more empowering of them to be able to internalize more of the conceptual model and the mental framework that enables them to do more of it themselves. And then whatever money they spend for my time, they can really maximize that, because they been able to access a lot of the external resources that I've taken out of my head and put into a form that they can interact with themselves.
Susan Boles (20:34):
Yeah. I think that's so interesting, this combination of you being intellectually interested in the work, which I totally understand, because for me, the interesting part is develop the system, figure out how it all works, figure out where the pieces move, but I'm much less interested in running it once it's up and running. It's less intellectually interesting, so I can totally relate to that. But I love that part of this was you bringing your values into the business in a really applicable and structural way of having this value that you want access for the rest of the scholars, and I spent a huge part of my career in the administrative side of academia, so I can totally relate. That the difference, as you said, between the haves and the haves not is so incredibly stark and that there are so many, especially in the adjuncts and the graduate students that are doing important and good work and get financially compensated very little for all of that. I love that you found a way to bring that into your business in a really structural built in way.
Margy Thomas (22:02):
Yeah. I built the entire universe around the people who... Or at least what I'm trying to do. Every day, what drives me is this desire to build a kind of alternative scholarly world that is centered around the people who are marginalized in academia as usual. I had been seeing it as a counterculture, really, over the last few months. I'm now evolving again, to see it less as a counterculture and more as a bridge, because I actually... As I make connections now with the quote unquote powers-that-be in academia as usual, they're like, "Oh, wait, what you're doing is really cool. We want to know about that." And I'm like, "Oh, okay. This is even better." I can actually help make connections between these scholars who are marginalized and the people within the institution. We can rewire and restructure academia without having to totally destroy it or build something completely separate from it.
Susan Boles (23:10):
Yeah. I love that concept. And I think there's so much opportunity because higher ed is just in general, so slow to change for anything.
Margy Thomas (23:19):
Yeah, we have a lot of work to do.
Susan Boles (23:23):
Yes. I think it's so cool. And I just loved that you built it into your business and that that's something that you took into consideration because I think that's an important part of us building businesses that we enjoy being a part of it.
Margy Thomas (23:42):
Yeah, and it's something I talk with my about a lot is that this kind of work, there is no guaranteed reward. There is no guarantee of a lot of money. I don't know what else can propel someone through the process of developing a scholarly book other than internal motivation. Just intrinsic motivation. This sense of this needs to exist. The universe has laid this work upon me to do. And that's really how I feel about ScholarShape. I'm a very weird entrepreneur in the sense that I really don't care about money. I'm not motivated by that at all. I know most people who want to scale up or increase their impact or turn their service into a program, part of that is leveraging your time such that you can increase your income. And for me, when I think about more money coming in, I think, "Ooh, how can I reinvest this in making ScholarShape even better?" It's almost like I use entrepreneurial methods to create something that, for me, it feels like my art or my contribution to society. So it's very idealistic in that sense.
Susan Boles (24:55):
I don't think that's weird at all. One of my favorite quotes is an Andy Warhol quote that says "Business is the best kind of art." I always come back to that because I think there's this real element of being able to create something from nothing, that you can have whatever impact it is that is in you to create, and that businesses can really drive change. They can really impact the world. So I'm with you on the idealism.
Margy Thomas (25:30):
Susan Boles (25:32):
I think those are the best businesses. Those are the ones that are most fun to run. And I think those are the ones that have a real impact on changing the world we live in.
Margy Thomas (25:44):
It's always nice to meet other people who see it that way.
Susan Boles (25:49):
Now what? That's the question I hear from a lot of service based business owners. Maybe you've been asking yourself now what too? You've built your business from the ground up and your business works, but maybe it's not growing. You keep bumping into a ceiling on how many clients you can take on and maybe how much money you can make. And maybe now you're even wondering if your business has staying power. You might be keenly aware of how small challenges could easily balloon into big problems as the market and the economy change. I help entrepreneurs decide how to take action so they can build more resilient business that's primed for growth. I combine strategic thinking with a background in business finance, data, and operations, to see the patterns that have your business bumping against a growth ceiling. I'll show you exactly what you can do to break through and make money all while making sure the foundation under your business is strong.
I have a few new client openings for my quarterly or monthly advisory packages. When you work with me, I'll examine your financial reports to spot opportunities. We'll talk about where you're feeling friction and discover ways you can reclaim your time and attention. We'll dig into how to scale your operations without sacrificing quality, so you can increase your capacity and make more money. And each action you take will be informed by strategic financial insight and data-driven operational planning. The result? You'll feel wildly capable and in control. And you'll finally break through that ceiling. Ready to learn more about working with me as your business advisor? Go to scalespark.co/advisor. So tell me about what kinds of changes you've seen from the business owner since launching, since shifting, how has this shift to a more community focused, community based business model, how has that impacted your operations or you as a founder?
Margy Thomas (27:59):
You know what's funny, I remember having the vision about a year ago, when I was first getting really serious about, "Okay, I'm going to do my first beta now. I'm going to be spending less time on client work." I had this vision of myself being untethered from my laptop, which felt the most liberating thing in the world because I... It's just 12 or 14 hours a day, almost every day in front of my laptop and so much screen time. So one of the things I really anticipated being wonderful and liberating about having a different business that I was running was that feeling of... I wanted to feel more weightless and I anticipated doing a lot more work through my phone as opposed to my laptop and stuff like that. And that really has come to fruition. I'm able to do a lot more... Just day to day, I can do a lot more of my work... Because my community is built on Mighty Network, which I love the platform so much. So when I'm creating resources or tools or infrastructure for that, that all happens on my computer.
But the day to day operations I can do through the app on my phone. And I can do... What is it, talk to text or where I dictate instead of typing everything out. And it is amazing. It feels so good to be able to... Something that used to take 10 hours and someone would have to pay me a thousand dollars for, they can go through the resource I created, type their question, I can be taking a walk or pacing around my apartment, dictate my reply in five minutes and give them the same value that used to take 10 hours. That happens almost every day and it feels incredible. So I guess maybe the biggest change to operations is just the feeling of satisfaction that all of those years creating this structure are now finally paying off in the form of being able to give more value. I can expend the less of my life force to deliver more value to people.
Susan Boles (30:13):
Oh, I love that.
Margy Thomas (30:16):
Is that nuts and bolts enough? Do you want me to talk about actual processes or software or anything like that?
Susan Boles (30:22):
Talk to me a little bit about... Do you have a team behind the scenes? Are you creating all of this and managing it? Do you have somebody helping you? What does your team structure look like here? And did that change at all from how you were structured before?
Margy Thomas (30:38):
ScholarShape is me, and people can't believe this when I tell them, or when I show them everything inside ScholarShape. They're like, "What? You did that? How?" I don't know how. I've had a few times over the years when I would hire someone to do something and it just wasn't right and it took so much more time to redo it and then still have to pay the person. For whatever reason, I think it's amazing when people build teams. To me, that is in itself, that's an art. Defining a vision that you can't do with your own two hands, that requires more hands and then finding the people, bringing them in and choreographing them to all work in concert to realize the vision, that is amazing to me. I'm so in awe of it, and I think there's a version of that in ScholarShape's future.
But right now I'm still so close to it. I still can't separate the vision from the execution. For example, I've made every single graphic inside ScholarShape because I can't explain to someone what the graphic needs to convey. I figure out what it needs to convey through the process of creating it. And one of the core premises of ScholarShape is that scholarship is a form of art, so our aesthetic choices are inextricable from the meaning that we're conveying. So in order to actually embody that core value, things like fonts and the graphics, every single detail of that really matters in order to create the universe that facilitates the transformation that I'm gathering scholars into.
So the short answer is I do everything myself and it's crazy. And I work a billion hours and I love it. Now and then I'll do the exercise you're supposed to do where you write on post-its all of the tasks involved in running your business to figure out what you can delegate, and every time I do that exercise, I either find something I can automate or something I can cut out and not do at all. So I still haven't gotten to that point of being able to define what I could hire someone else to do.
Susan Boles (33:11):
Yeah. I have a very similar model that ScaleSpark is just me, intentionally because I do the same thing and I'll go through and I say, "What can I automate or what can I stop doing?" And that's been intentional for me from the beginning and yeah, eventually it'll have to change, but I think that's a really lean way to go about business. And I'm always interested in the different kinds of business models and the different ways that people can execute scale without growing a team, because I think there's a lot of different options in terms of the choices that you make about your business that drive whether or not you do need to have a team. I think there's lots of viable ways that you can go about not having a team, because to me having a team as a choice, and it's a conscious choice, sometimes unintentionally people grow a team, and then go, "Now I have a team and I don't want to be team manager."
Margy Thomas (34:09):
Yeah, it's really fascinating. I think for me part of it is a lot of the things people hire team members to do are just things that I don't need. I don't use social media. I don't enjoy it. There's probably a future version of ScholarShape that will, but there's no point hiring someone to post on social media for me because I've built my entire marketing network around not needing it, and so much can be automated and all that.
Susan Boles (34:43):
No, I think you're a great example of what I'm always talking about here, which is, if you can eliminate the problem at the front end by either saying, "I don't need this," or, "I don't need a person to do this," you can really be very, very lean, very profitable because you just don't have to do things that don't matter. A lot of the time it doesn't matter. Social media is one of those where I think everybody feels we should be there and that it should drive our businesses, but I've talked to very few people that actually have that being the case, that they are getting a lot of clients from social media or particularly in client based businesses.
Margy Thomas (35:27):
Yeah. It's really fascinating. And another one is the complicated email sequences. I'm not dissing them. I'm sure they're wonderful for many people. But I barely even email my list of people. I don't even know how many people are on it. I don't know. I think you're right. It's important to be really, really intentional about what our specific business actually needs. It's just like when you're developing a book, a scholarly manuscript, you iterate toward what your central thesis is. What claim am I actually trying to advance in this book? And how much can I cut out of this book in order to advance that claim, because if I include anything that's not necessary, I actually detract from my point.
Susan Boles (36:18):
Oh, I love that analogy. That is a good analogy for running a business.
Margy Thomas (36:23):
Thank you. Oh, it's amazing. It's really the exact same process. I say this all the time. It's one of my favorite discoveries from building a business is that they're all knowledge products. When you develop a scholarly book, that's a knowledge product with a thesis and you carefully include... You carefully decide what you're going to include and how to arrange it. And when you're building a business, it's a knowledge product. You've got your thesis, is your value proposition, the thing you're selling, why someone should pay you money, and then everything you include in the business is designed and arranged to support that one central point.
Susan Boles (36:58):
I think that is a perfect place to start to wrap this up on. So is there anything you think that we should talk about that we haven't touched on yet?
Margy Thomas (37:08):
Well, this has been a really wonderful wide ranging conversation. I think the biggest thing for me is just really honoring and respecting intuition and trusting yourself and developing your capacity to trust yourself and letting it be okay and actually wonderful that your business doesn't look like anyone else's. For me, that's the joy of business. When it can truly be a creative act and when I can feel my business is something only I could create or the way that I do it is a way that only I could do it.
Susan Boles (37:47):
Perfect place to end on. So where can our listeners find you if they want to connect with you or learn more about what you do?
Margy Thomas (37:55):
Well, if people are curious to just get a more detailed picture of what ScholarShape is all about and what the community offers and how I describe it, because I know it can be tricky to sell a community based product, but you can check out my website just if you're curious to see how I've laid it all out there on my internet storefront and that's scholarshape.com. I guess I'm also on Instagram. And Twitter, actually. I do have these social media accounts. I'm hoping to become more active on them at some point in the near future. You're welcome to connect me with me there if you'd like to.
Susan Boles (38:32):
Awesome. Great. Thanks so much for being here today. Think this was a really wonderful discussion and I appreciate you sharing all of your experience and evolution here with us.
Margy Thomas (38:43):
It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Susan Boles (38:47):
For Margy, evolving her work into a membership model was natural. It was something that allowed her to lean into her creativity and curiosity and to be in direct contact with her customers as she continues to evolve her work. The shift allowed her to create more weightlessness and freedom in her business and to continue to operate her business as a company of one. Margy made conscious choices about the best way she could serve her customers and that turned out to be a community. Next week, I'm talking to Katie Hunt of Proof to Product. She also shifted her services to a community, but it's very different than Margy's. We'll look at how this idea evolved in her business, how her community fits in with the rest of her services, and what her business looks after she shifted. So make sure you hit subscribe in your favorite podcast player so you don't miss it. Break the Ceiling is produced by Yellow House Media. Our production coordinator is Sean McMullin. This episode was edited by Marty Seefeldt with production assistance by Kristin Runvik.