Thought Feeder. A higher ed marketing podcast

Episode 26: How to Side-Hustle in Higher Ed

Thought Feeder - A Higher Ed Digital Marketing Podcast
Thought Feeder
Episode 26: How to Side-Hustle in Higher Ed

In this episode, Joel Goodman talks about how he started Bravery Media, the difficulties in legitimizing a higher ed career to other industries, and the challenges in going freelance.

Transcript for How to side-hustle in higher ed

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Welcome to Thought Feeder. I’m Jon-Stephen Stansel. And with me as always is Joel Goodman.  and today we’re just going to talk about a few things that we’ve got on our mind and what’s going on. And, you know, one thing  Joel and I have been doing this podcast for a while and we’ve been friends for, for quite a bit.

And, I know. his work with Bravery and his company and some of the awesome things they do. But Joel, I don’t know your backstory. I want the Joel Goodman prequel. Like, how did you go from being in higher ed to being in charge of your own business, doing your own thing?

How did this happen? How did this come about?

Joel Goodman: Yeah. So I started working in higher ed in 2007. I was hired as the assistant director of public relations at Greenville College, which is now Greenville University outside of St. Louis. And from there moved into a web role very quickly, because web stuff is just what I’ve done my entire life.

Like I taught myself how to write HTML when I was in junior high, out of the HTML 4.01 Bible, which is this massively thick book that hurts when you drop it on your foot, sort of a thing. And I remember like sitting in front of my computer on Windows 98SE, Notepad open, giant book in my lap, like learning how to type out table layouts and junk like that.

So like web has just been — web design, web development, you know, given I’m not as good like I’m not a true programmer. I can, I can get by and, and I, I think I’m pretty good at frontend.  That’s just been kind of like a hobby self-improvement sort of a thing. And,so once I got into my first real job, despite none of what I did in school, being directed at doing web stuff, I just fell into that.

And I think that’s, it’s a common story in higher ed, right? Like, well, like you, J.S., you weren’t planning to be a social media manager or, or do like short-form content

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, long-form. I’ve got a master’s degree in literature. I was all long-form. I, you know, I specialize in novels and, and just big heaping epics. So the fact that I was gonna do anything in, at the time, 140 characters or less, now 280, is,  it’s just, it’s beyond me.

Joel Goodman: Well and I think it’s, I think it’s a pretty common tale, just hearing how people got into higher ed on the administrative side in general. Right? Like there, there aren’t that many people that go to undergrad thinking I am going to work full time in higher education as my primary industry for my career, right? 

I think there are some people that, that kind of get into that, like probably like on the student affairs side of it, like, you know, you get a taste being an RA and you get into the inner-workings and that sort of a thing, but it’s not until you start working in higher ed full time that you decide, Oh, I’m going to go get a doctorate in Higher Education Administration, you know?

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I hate to use this comparison, but it’s almost like prisoners being institutionalized where like

Joel Goodman: When they turn, they turn into the guards?

Jon-Stephen Stansel: (laughs) No, you just can’t imagine life on the outside. well, because higher ed is such, it’s its own kingdom, it’s its own thing. And, you know, the forays I’ve taken outside, it’s just so massively different.

And we spend so much time learning to navigate the silos and, and all of the red tape that goes along with being in higher ed. Or you’ll notice this when somebody comes to your institution outside of higher ed and there’s a giant learning curve to how to function in higher ed.

So yeah, I think, think in a way that kind of happens, you know, for me, my goal, just to go and continue to get my Ph.D. and teach literature. And I noticed that we had a job, tenure-track position open at the university I was working at while I was applying for my Ph.D. program, which I didn’t go into because of this.

They got just a heaping, you know, just massive pile of applications, all for a tenure-track position at the, you know, a small state school in Conway, Arkansas in the middle of nowhere. To me, it was like wanting to become a movie star with how, you know, the same odds of that happening without the pay and fame.

So I thought, well, what else can I do?

Joel Goodman: Your point on this being a very insular kind of, bubble, kind of a thing where like, people really can’t imagine what it’s like on the outside.  There are a lot of places I could take this, but one of the detours that I’ve found is that once you get into the higher ed asterisk side of, of what’s going on, and start working as an outsider, not on an institution, but with institutions or not on a campus, but with institutions, it’s, it’s very hard to convince the outside world that you also know what you’re doing. 

Like I live in Austin. J.S., you lived in the Austin area for a while, you know, the kind of saturation that’s here with tech and startups and the number of people that are trying to make it big in the, you know, in, in that hot sector called technology.

And I remember when I moved to Austin in 2012, my first gig was with a, I was just doing design work for a, they were an ad middleware company. So like when you would play games on your phone, like, like you used to back in 2012, like, you know, when, when, uh, when Zynga had all their games and was real popular, but it would like interrupt you in the middle of the game with a video ad and you’d have to like tap through it or wait for it to play or whatever? We did those. Or, if anyone remembers GrooveShark, like the company that I was contracting with to do interface design, handled all of the advertising middleware for GrooveShark.

So you’d be listening to some music and then all of a sudden they would make you watch a video in the GrooveShark app or whatever before you could continue listening. And the work was boring for me, cause it was like it’s ads and whatever. I didn’t really care about that side of things, but we were working out of one of the main incubators here in Austin, a tech incubator, where it’s kind of like coworking plus there’s as a side that gives lightweight funding to people’s startups to try and help them get better. And it gives them like mentorship and stuff. 

So we had co-working space there because one of the devs was, related to the guy that started this thing up. And I remember talking to people, you know, like we walked down to lunch with people in the coworking space and they’d say, “yeah, so what do you do?” 

I’m like, well, I came out of higher education and that’s kind of still what I’m looking to do. You know this is right as I was starting up Bravery as I still want to work with universities. And they’re just like, “why?!” 

You know? They didn’t understand. They really didn’t.  And you know, you think about the, you think about all the tech companies that have been trying to disrupt higher education for the last decade-plus, and everything they have tried to do is replace what universities do with education, not help them do things better. Right? 

And so it’s been, you know, these it’s been MOOCs. Remember when MOOCs were the big topic? Like these massively online learning center, what did the C stand for? I can’t remember, but it’s like a giant forum. It’s courseware. It’s just, it’s a giant courseware system.

And none of these people realized that like with, with higher ed, like, and you know, I’ll get flack for this from probably some of the listeners but one of the things that I think a lot of people don’t realize, and I think higher ed has done a very poor job of communicating, is that the mass majority of people that go on to higher learning do not go on to do college or university because they want the “college experience.” 

They don’t do it because they want to go to the parties and they want to, I mean, there, there is definitely a group of students that do,  and oftentimes they go to the institutions that have a whole lot of, marketing power. They’re a loud voice. It’s state schools, it’s party schools, the ones that are in the news all the time, and so you hear about them. 

But when you look at the total number of students in the United States alone, what that percentage is less than 20, that go to school for the traditional college experience, less than 20% of students do that.

So when we sit here and we sell higher education as being primarily this experiential thing and not the value of the outcomes that you get from what you learn, who your instructors are, the network that the university has among their alumni,  you’re shortchanging yourself. Like you’re leaving out 80% of the population or, or something close to that, that’s looking to progress themselves professionally and make sure that they can set up a good life for themselves. 

And I think that’s a problem that higher ed has, and that problem bleeds out into the other side. Because all these people that are trying to disrupt higher education and, and failing at it, cause I think there are some that are nailing it, like our past sponsors at Podium Education. Like I think they actually are nailing it.

 There’s this whole group of people that are just like, well, yeah, if we set up these, uh, you know, these learn-at-home, self-paced, sort of a thing, that’s fine, but they don’t realize that the credential is what a lot of employers look at, you know? It, it took a pandemic for Google to start recognizing their own curricula as something that’s valid to hire people.

You know, and so, and so now we’re really in trouble in higher ed because they’re figuring it out. Like that, that credentialing system is finally starting to change. Or the acceptance of other types of credentials is really starting to change. And we still don’t have messaging in-line, that fits where our value proposition is.

The value proposition is not your campus, as much as you want — I know that’s the thing that sells it for people that visit. But just because that’s one thing that sells your institution doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that can sell your institution and you have to find out what those other value propositions are.

And I just, it doesn’t happen much. And people on the outside see it that way. They look at higher ed and they say, Oh, you work in higher ed, why do you do that?

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, I think that’s kind of one of the things being on the inside we don’t (sigh), I think we know we don’t acknowledge. Like we want, we want to bill ourselves as the underdog, right? We’re, we’re the scrappy underdog, and to some degree, we are. Like, budgets are low, especially in state schools, like state funding is constantly cut, we’re asked to do more with less all the time. 

And we think of ourselves as the underdog, cause we are working very much as an underdog, but outside, when people look at our institutions, they don’t see that. They see rising tuition costs, they see administrative bloat, they see the new buildings going up on campus. They don’t understand the donation structure and… 

Joel Goodman: They see waste. They see waste.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: They see that. They don’t see all of the other things going on beneath that. And I think we need to do a better job of telling that story and explaining some of these things and then showing those things. Showing, showing that professor who gives that, you know, one on one interaction with the student, you know, that isn’t in the big flashy building all the time.

Because really, what people see is, like you said, it’s, it’s the waste and they see rising tuition costs.

Joel Goodman: Yeah. And, there are plenty of people that I know in higher education, on the content side of things, creating web content, creating social media content, or whatever that recognized that there’s a huge gap there. That is a massive content gap at their institution. Telling those actual stories in a good way.

And I think again, I mean, I think we’ve said it before. I think one of the big problems is that they’re just underfunded. We’ve funded the wrong things.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Cause you hit on something that I think is really important in higher ed. And one reason why it, it, I don’t want to say it’s prime for disruption, but

Joel Goodman: It is.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Or, so many people want to disrupt it. It’s you know, you talked about talking to other people in the tech field, outside of higher ed them saying like, why would you want to be in higher ed? Well, that perception is why we have trouble attracting good talent in higher ed and keeping good talent! 

Because one, the pay is really low, the red tape is very high, and the type of work that you’re going to be doing a lot of times it’s going to be hindered and aligned like a lot of people in tech industries who are being courted by those outside of higher ed are like, hey, I can go work on this amazing project and have a lot of creative freedom and be able to ship a product that’s really amazing. Or I can go work on a higher ed homepage that I’m going to have to fight somebody to not put a carousel on the front? I don’t want to do that. And get paid peanuts for it? 

Joel Goodman: So I think, the reason we’re the underdog J.S., is, or, I think it’s kind of a complex that we have — an underdog complex, but the reason that that higher ed is the underdog is that it’s that exact thing you just said. It’s that we don’t provide the salaries and the environment for the best talent to feel like they can thrive at universities.

And, and I think on the other side like you were saying earlier, people that grow up in higher ed feel trapped and they may have a ton of talent, but they’re not, they’re not valued enough in terms of being paid or in terms of being given the decision-making power that they should.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And I want to hit on this because I think a lot of people will come back and say, well, higher ed doesn’t have the money to provide those salaries to top talent. But, but here’s the thing. Well, let’s just for the sake of argument, let’s say that’s absolutely the case, right?

Joel Goodman: Where did Purdue dump millions of dollars? Oh, was, was it into Plexiglas instead of into staff? Uh, I don’t know, like…

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Allow me to play devil’s advocate here, though. Quality talent. As much as I do need money to support a family and all that, — I’m not going to say money’s not important — but I work in higher ed and I don’t have as big of a salary as I would get working outside of higher ed, but I do it because I love and I believe in the mission. And if you can add on top of that, being able to work on projects that I think are really exciting and really interesting, my, my loyalty is going to increase 10 fold. And if you’re going to give me the creative freedom to make those things happen, I’m as loyal they come like that’s, that’s great.

That’s what I wanted. I’d much rather be doing that, than anything else. So yeah, I, I don’t think it all always comes down to, to salary to attract good talent and it comes to like freedoms, like being able to work remotely,  professional development.

Joel Goodman: And that’s a problem, right? It’s that the intrinsic motivators are so much more powerful than the money. I think there are some people that do just want the money.  What really sucks, when you work for a university, and this isn’t every university, but when you worked for a university is that you don’t get the money, you don’t actually usually get the really good projects, or if you’re doing a really good, really cool project, there are 20 other voices that have to have some sort of say that make it not nearly as good as it could have been.

 And you then see what universities are doing right now in the middle of a pandemic and it makes it very hard to, to feel bought into the message, the messaging anyway like you feel almost culpable in what institutions are doing to students like bringing students back to campus and letting COVID run rampant and being totally disingenuous about it.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, and again, that comes back to, telling the story. Because there’s, we can get into this. And you know, a lot of times we’re not in the room when, how these decisions are made, but the perception that the public has of what’s going on right now on university campuses, we’re not telling that story.

And it comes back to “perception is reality.” Right? That new building that’s going up on your campus that’s cost millions of dollars, that was donated by a donor who earmarked that money for, for that? Well, you know, the average Joe on the street passes by and thinks, man, they’re raising tuition and putting up new buildings.

They don’t understand that. And we’re not explaining that. We’re not telling those stories. And we’re expecting people just to know? Like we have to be open. We have to be transparent. We have to talk about, those real things. And when it comes down to why are we making these decisions on COVID? There’s a credibility gap in higher ed right now. And regardless of what the intentions are, it’s what people actually believe that aren’t in higher ed and we need, we need to start thinking about that.

Joel Goodman: I think back to when Harvard was announcing that they were making cuts to staffing on their campus several months ago. And I remember Twitter blowing up about, “how big is their endowment?!” And everything’s, I mean, yeah, their endowment’s big, but endowments are very strictly regulated. They can’t just like pull their endowment out and subsidize people’s salaries with that. But the general public doesn’t understand how an endowment works. They don’t understand what, what cash is reserved, how that cash can be used, what an endowment is for. And then the, and then universities don’t do anything to further communicate that in a way that helps people.

And that’s detrimental, right? It’s a communication issue.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Allow me to contradict myself because I agree we need to be more transparent, but like, how are we going to do it? Do you, do you really think the average person is going to sit down and read an article about how endowments work?

Joel Goodman: No, definitely not, but you get ahead of the message, right? I mean, it’s, it’s crisis comms. It’s really like, banal crisis comms, cause why should your endowment be part of a crisis communication campaign? But at the same time, like if that’s what everyone is talking about, you get ahead of it somehow. You say we have this endowment, but honestly, we can’t spend the money and these are the reasons. It could be on Twitter, it could be, it could be a quick YouTube video. I mean, there are so many ways that you can make that information digestible 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, it comes into to false equivalencies amongst those not in higher ed. I think a good example of this is I can’t remember the name, but at Baylor, the twin influencers that they’re paying right now that they recently caught COVID and, and that came out like, okay, well, they’re, they’re compensating these influencers somewhere. Well, we can compensate influencers, but we can’t compensate athletes? Well, those two things are not. Anywhere remotely in the same camp, but to somebody outside making that comparison, that makes complete and total sense. Why can you compensate student influencers on Instagram, but you can’t compensate athletics? 

Now, I mean, we know all the myriad reasons that keep that from happening, whether you agree with whether it should happen or not,  but the equivalency between paying an influencer and paying an athlete, it’s not the same thing, right?

It’s not the university. It’s, you know, NCAA regulations and all these other things that come into athletes. And then paying an influencer, that’s just the marketing team going, Hey, let’s give these, you know, these kids, some swag.

Joel Goodman: We also don’t know how they were paid. We don’t know how they were compensated. Was it monetary? Was it some sort of scholarship that, you know, as long as you’re an influencer and you’re learning how to do this and you’re staying in this program, you can have this scholarship? But we just don’t, we don’t know how that was set up either.

So. Yeah, but the perception, again, the perception is something that is very real and it colors how people outside of the inner working of higher education look at and perceive our colleges.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: And they perceive it differently and well, they don’t perceive what we’re selling as an actual product. They’re like higher ed is using influencers? Well, that seems sketchy. Like every single marketing agency is using influencers right now. Like it’s not like the techniques that we use to market higher ed are no different than what we use to sell soda pop.

Joel Goodman: And this is, this is the point. So I was saying, and eventually, we’ll get back to my story, but I was saying that when I was talking to people outside of higher ed and they’re like, why do you work in higher ed? Like one of the hard things that I’ve found is that when you want to make the change from having been in higher ed for a while to any other industry and you want to retain the same status, the same position in a company, it’s not going to happen because most companies outside of higher ed and I think it’s, I think it’s a, it’s a two-way view, right? It’s like, I would never go work in higher ed because blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then it’s like, I would never hire someone coming out of higher ed because the perception is they don’t have the skills, they haven’t dealt with the same things that X agency has dealt with. But it’s all the same stuff.

It’s all the same!

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yes. Yes. And I want to clarify this to anybody who’s listening that some of these are, I would say that some of my own insecurity about my professional career of like, okay, well, you know, how is higher ed perceived outside of, of our quote-unquote “ivory towers”? Or, even, you know, the idea of like, sometimes I think higher ed is perceived as where business people go to take their golden parachute, you know? OK. I, I’m tired, tired of the hustle and bustle of business. So I’m going to quit working at this company and I’m going to go work at a university.

Joel Goodman: It’s like sports — sports, so J.S. won’t get this, but — it’s like an English Premier League player going to the MLS in their retirement. It’s you know like that’s the perception.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Talking about a baseball player going to the Japan league for a bit? (everyone laughs) I know that…

Joel Goodman: Sure that works.

Yeah. And that that’s really the problem. I mean, I’ve had, so I’ve owned my agency for eight years, a little, a little bit over.  I’ve worked on lots of great projects. We did design in a stupid-short amount of time, design and build, for the College of Business at Cornell back a few years ago. I’ve done tons of work for Loyola Marymount University in LA. I’ve, you know, destroyed melt for them. 

We redesigned National University’s website and generated like $8 to $10 million of additional revenue in one year for them. Like I’ve done really good work, work that when I tell people outside of higher ed that we’ve done it, they’re like, “Oh, wow, that’s really impressive.”

But at the same time I’ve, because freelance is lean or because, you know, contract work is kind of lean, especially like right now, like a lot of universities aren’t hiring agencies or they’re going back to safety and they’re hiring the agency they’ve worked with forever. But their budgets aren’t there. They’re not spending the money on this marketing stuff. And so when work is lean and there’ve been times in the last couple of years where I’ve looked outside.

Like, maybe I need to shut down the agency, you know, real talk. Maybe I need to shut down what I’m doing and actually go get a real job again, which I don’t want to do because I don’t, it just sounds terrible to me, but I’ve sat down with people

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, and let’s check out the language too. You have a real job, like if there’s, I mean, there’s a traditional job versus…

Joel Goodman: A traditional job where someone else is paying me and is providing benefits, and I have to work in an office, you know? Like I feel like what I do, I have a lot of control, right? To some extent. Like I can take a day off if I want to.  I often don’t because I have work going on. And so I don’t feel like I can take a day off, but. You know, how having that, having a rigid structure in place from someone else that’s, that’s being put like, I think you’re right. Yeah. I have a real job now. I really do. And I do a lot of really good real work. 

Going to a traditional office setting, I have sat down and I’ve interviewed with hiring managers for like, Product Manager positions, things that I’ve done for a decade — I’ve done these things since before there were labels and names for them. And I’ve done them successfully, but because I work in higher education, even on the fringes, even as, even as an external consultant that comes into institutions, they just, they just kinda like, yeah, I really don’t know how we’d find a place for you here.

And it’s not because I haven’t done great work it’s because they don’t understand that higher education is the exact same thing. We attract the same people. We, you know, we have the same demographic as most popular brands do. If you’re working on, in the online education and adult education space, like you’re competing with a lot of things and, and if you’re successful at it, you’re doing really good work. 

But going on to look at a job outside of higher education, after being stuck in it is it’s very hard to do because the public perception is that we, we are not up to speed. You know, it’s not that we’re not competent, it’s that we are way behind 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well for an industry that, that bills itself on innovation as much as higher ed does. I don’t think we are definitely not perceived as being innovative.


Joel Goodman: Cause, it’s cause our students are the ones that are doing the innovative work, we are not. And that’s, that’s always been since I was an undergrad student working kind of closely with administrators on various big projects like my undergrad, we had a music festival that was entirely student-run, and I was a big part of that. And we worked with, a couple of vice presidents on it. We had to work with the business office. We worked the president every once in a while. There, there was a lot of inner workings in higher ed and one of the big things that I kept seeing over and over again. And one of the reasons why I was actually okay coming into higher ed, and one of the things that’s made me stick in higher ed is that universities have so much potential to do incredible things and they don’t. And they need people internally, or they need people working in the industry to help them figure out how to reach that potential.

And. It’s. (sighs) It still just frustrates me to no end. I mean, I will be honest, like in the last three months there have been at least five times where I have sat down and been like, should I even stay in this industry? Like, we still don’t care. Even in the middle of a pandemic,  there’s not enough work being done to get us to a point where we are actually doing what we can. Like we’re nowhere near fulfilling the potential we have as universities. And I think one big part of that is that innovation side. That’s one big indicator. 

It’s that we train students to go out and be critical thinkers and start their own companies, or go do incredible work at other companies and save the world. And, you know, create all kinds of things and find cures and all of that. And unless you’re a research institution, how are you being innovative? Like how, like it’s your students that are doing it. 

And then you’re not even telling those stories. You’re not even showing that, Hey, these students are, are changing the world. And it’s because of the education that they got at our university. And (sighs) I don’t get why there’s a gap there. I don’t get why higher ed — and of course these are generalizations, cause I know plenty of people that want to do this work and are trying hard. And I think even they are frustrated a lot of times, because they’re not given the latitude to actually do the work that they want to. And, it’s all connected, but I don’t understand why higher ed seems to be content, to just sit and do the same thing that they have always done.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Because up until now, it’s always worked. It was, you know, for the past 50 to 70 years, right? It’s kind of, you go out of high school and you go to college. That’s what you do.

Joel Goodman: So the main difference, J.S., The main difference between how higher ed approaches this stuff and how successful companies that, that are run pretty much the same way, it’s I think it’s a mentality issue,  is that companies are always striving to make things better. They’re always striving to optimize. They’re always striving to figure out, is there a better way to do this thing? Is there a way that we can maximize the return potential of our customer? Is there a way that we can keep them coming back? 

These questions can be rephrased for higher ed. Is there a way to better engage our students so that when they’re alumni, they continue to give us money? Is there a way for us to improve the delivery methods of our education and our curriculum so that it’s not dependent on people being in person, just in case, God forbid, a pandemic hits? All of these business cases can be translated in different ways that apply to higher education, but higher ed is still content to not look at those things you know?

I think on the educational side, there are tons of faculty that look at improving pedagogy. They sit and they figure out how can they better teach, better improve the learning that their students are doing. How can they facilitate that better? 

But on our side with systems, it’s, “who gave us the best sales pitch on a CRM?” And, “Oh, there are only three that are doing anything.” And it doesn’t matter if they’re actually good. It doesn’t matter if they actually save you time. It’s that you knew someone or they showed you some fancy things and you don’t have the internal resources to actually put towards evaluating whether or not it’s a viable solution. Or if it’s going to even affect your business goals. 

And that’s a big issue. That’s that is such a huge gap between what actually goes on in the business world and, and how higher ed got behind. Honestly. Anyway.

So I back to, back to my story. I,  

Jon-Stephen Stansel: So how did you get into higher ed Joel?

Joel Goodman: It was accidental and then I couldn’t leave!

Jon-Stephen Stansel: How, how did you end up starting your, own business? 

Joel Goodman: So I spent three and a half years at Greenville as their web person. I went through it was the last major recession where every school was laying off staff. And I survived cause I was the only person that did web.

I actually had a second developer working with me for about six months and then he got laid off, which really sucked.  The president had left. We had an interim president that was basically he was a hatchet-man. Like he just came in, cleaned house to some extent. I think there were poor decisions made. Like my direct boss was fired after being there forever and ever and ever.

And then they shook everything up. Like they moved me from the Advancement office where Marketing was over to IT because they were like, “Hey, why not put the computers with the other computers?” You know?

Jon-Stephen Stansel: We could do a whole episode on higher ed restructuring and just where different things belong.

Joel Goodman: I will say I had way better access to IT resources once I got there.  Like as someone that is a, that’s a marketer that also like writes code and, and is, kind of a tech nerd, like I didn’t really have that big of an issue with it. I thought I was more like, just chuckling. Like, “you guys have no idea how to market.” 

And so I did that. I had gone through a CMS migration there. Like we had gone from our first CMS — that was Joomla that launched, I think when I was a student — to moving to dotCMS — shout out to dotCMS, it still exists. Actually a really cool platform that no one accepted, except for a few of us. And there are some people that complained about it a ton, but from a development standpoint, it was really cool. And they’ve made really awesome strides on the product, I think. 

So like we did all of that and I handled 80% of it, that 20% is when I got my own dev, but the rest of the time I was building, I was redesigning, I was writing content. I was working with our photographer to go take photos. I was taking photos. Like it was, it was a lot of work. And, I got that up and running in the middle of all of the upheaval, of people being laid off and me being moved over to IT, and that sort of thing. 

My senior vice president of Advancement moved up to Trinity International University north of Chicago. And I followed him up six months after he left cause it was a massive pay raise. I mean like living in rural Southern Illinois, doing all of the web work and finding out that at the end of the month, you and your wife who are renting a house that you’re from your parents, you know, my parents bought, bought a house there and we were renting it from them, so we got a good deal cause my parents love me. and we did a bunch of renovation work on it while we were there.

But working in rural Illinois at a small college, we had like, I want to say like at the end of the month we had like $16 leftover in our budget, for just fun. So it was like, we could drive to a Starbucks outside of town or something, you know, like that was about all we could do.

And so I needed to change. Like there wasn’t any progression. There really wasn’t any chance of me making more money there. There wasn’t really any chance of me moving up. And we were in the St. Louis Metro. We couldn’t even go to St. Louis and do fun things, you know, cause we didn’t have the money to do it. So I went up to Chicago, it was like double my salary, um, which was awesome. 

But I also was the only web person, still. And we had, the main university site, there was the graduate school, there was the seminary, there were two regional centers. There was a law school website, and there was one other. I think total, I had eight sites that I had to manage and deal with as well as an intranet. And I was there for two years and that ended up being, basically, I redesigned, rebuilt, rewrote from the ground up. We, we actually contracted mStoner for some content help and information architecture help. Shout out to Voltaire, cause Voltaire is awesome. And I love the folks at mStoner. 

I did a ground-up redesign, rewrite, rebuild on a new CMS for eight sites in six months while doing an online master’s program through The New School in New York. Nine credit hours a semester, full-time work. And so I was, I think the website itself, I was probably doing about 80 hours a week. And then I was doing all of my grad school work, at the same time. 

So there, I would get up at like 5:00 AM, I would do an hour of schoolwork, I would do an hour of web work while I drank coffee.  I’d get to work. I would do all day working on the website. I would go home. I would work on the website some more, eat dinner, do another hour or two of schoolwork. And then do more web work and do it again. Like I was probably, I was probably sleeping four or five hours a night. And I would do it six days a week. Like Saturdays, I wouldn’t go into the office, but I was still be working on the website stuff at home. 

And I know there are other people that have done this in higher ed. It’s not sustainable. I remember my wife coming up to me at one point being like, you’re going to have a heart attack. You need to find a way out of this. 

Finally got the sites launched. It must’ve been something like August and then, come November for Thanksgiving, we were driving to my wife’s parents’ house from Chicago to West Virginia. And I remember the day we were leaving, my boss calling me in and saying, “Hey, I noticed that you’ve only been, you’ve been working 40 hours a week.” You know, you’ve been only doing like your 8:30 to 4:30. That’s a minimum as a salaried person. 

I was, I got so mad. I was like, you have no idea what I’ve done at the time, you know, you’re not thinking about free work, you’re young in your career and you’re, you’re salaried. And so like, you know, there’s the stability side of it, but there’s a real toll when a company takes advantage of the work that you do.

And at that point I was, I was very close to finishing my, degree and I remember, shortly after that being at home.  So I remember I had done … Georgy Cohen — shout out to Georgy, I have a lot of shout outs today. Georgy Cohen was starting up her own consulting project. And so I had worked on a website for her just to help her out.

And oh, I should say like, I had been doing like freelance web projects for people for that entire work time. Like at Trinity and when I was at Greenville as well, so like I had a nice little portfolio of WordPress sites that I had built for, for bands and, actors and optometrists and professionals like Georgy.

And I remember Georgy had, she’d gone to the UK. I think she had gone to South by  (SXSW) or something as well, at some point. So she sent me a  “Greetings from Austin” postcard. I recommend anyone Google this, it’s a very iconic mural that we have here in here in town. Uh, she just sent me a postcard of that. And I think she sent me some Curly Wurlys that she brought back from London and some Airwaves gum, which is my favorite, as just a thank you. And it was super nice. 

We took that postcard. We put it up on our tack board in the kitchen. And probably a week or two, after that, I said, Hey, Jess, we got to figure out what to do. Like I’m almost done with my masters. I don’t really want to stay here. I don’t know that I want to start applying to other universities. Like, do we stay in higher ed? Do we figure something else out?  And, we had been thinking about where to go. And she was like, Hey, what about Austin? 

And this was right after the, it was right after HighEdWeb Austin in what, 2011. And I had driven down from Chicago with Aaron Rester. Shout out to Aaron Rester. And, and had had a great time. It was, it was a really fun conference, roomed with Seth Odell — shout out to Seth Odell. and the conference itself was great. I loved Austin. I thought it was a cool town, hadn’t really thought about it anymore. 

But once we’d gotten that postcard from Georgy, my wife had like gotten on Google and said, “where are the young people moving?” You know? And Austin was the thing that came up. So we actually got to Austin, I would say, six months to a year before it really started exploding with just everyone with tech dreams. 

You know, moving to Hollywood, dreams of being an actor or moving to New York, dreams of being on Broadway. It’s like, I’m moving to Austin with dreams of being a tech millionaire that can afford to live somewhere. Cause it’s not San Francisco. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Who can afford Austin now, right?

Well back then you could. And that was the thing. I mean, moderately, like we, we lucked out, we got a great condo with views of downtown. That was cheaper than honestly, it was probably like $800 cheaper than anyone else in the building was paying for theirs.  And it was cheaper than what we had been paying for our,  townhouse in the North Chicago burbs. And we were like, A mile from downtown. Like, I mean, it was perfect.  so Austin really was affordable and that first contract I had was really good. 

And I just decided that higher ed was going to be the industry cause I had the network from HighEdWeb. I had had the network from being online in different groups, from Twitter. That was where I had my connections.  But I think one of the best decisions I made was, choosing a niche to actually work in. You know? 

I think there are a lot of people that start out on their own and they’re like, I’m just going to be available to everyone. That’s fine. But there are a lot of people that are just general web people. Right? It’s better if you can say I’m an expert in this particular channel, this particular field, this particular industry.  And try to own that.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Oh, definitely. That’s one thing, you know, when I left, The Texas Department of Transportation, my one foray outside of higher ed, the government, which is not that different from higher ed. But you know, as my exit interview, you know, my, my boss asked me, you know, what, what should I look for in the next person I hire?

And I said you need to hire internally. You need somebody who understands the department of transportation and its issues. You can teach them. The social media and communications part, a lot easier than you can working in a government system and, you know, the details of traffic management.

Actual literal traffic management, as in cars, not web traffic.

Joel Goodman: Or office traffic. Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I think, J.S., one of the symptoms that, that comes with working in higher ed for a while, and I think honestly — I’ve taught college classes in web design and at the undergrad level, I remember I taught at Texas State, which you know, for a semester. And I remember the students in my, my Intro to Interaction Design class being very, they were convinced that they had to go spend time at an agency before they could step out and do their own thing. Or that the only way to do valid work was to work at an agency. 

For them, you know, it was a Communication Design program. They’re thinking ad agency, marketing agency, whatever.  I’ve never had that mentality. I’ve always been entrepreneurial. Like personally, I’ve always thought like, how do I get out and work for myself and provide jobs for other people or do really good work? Because the constraints of working for someone that may not do as good a work as I do drives me nuts. Like that idea. Just it. I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t like the idea of having to do that.

And so I think that’s something that happens within higher ed, too. I think that’s something that happens with anyone that’s worked at a job where you have benefits and you have a consistent paycheck. There’s a real fear there, right, of stepping out and doing something on your own because you don’t know if it’s going to succeed. And that’s why starting to take freelance and moonlight sort of projects is really important. I think one just for personal self-esteem.

I’ve said on past episodes like I don’t suffer from imposter syndrome. It’s just, I’m a very confident person. And it’s the same thing with stepping out and starting my own business. Like, failure was never something that I considered was ever going to happen. I was going to make it work regardless. If I needed to switch and pivot to something else, that’s cool. But I was never going to let it get to the point where I didn’t have the money and I couldn’t do this work. I mean, you might have to like take a job here and there, but the goal was always to make sure that I was running my own company and that I was providing for other people.

And that’s, I think that’s a very specific mentality that not everyone has. I don’t think that, I know that that is a very specific mentality that not everyone has. And I wouldn’t even say the majority of people have that mentality.

So in order to help get someone to that place, I do think it’s very important to freelance. So if you can, if you don’t have, you know, a noncompete and you want to work in higher education and you want to think about stepping out on your own or seeing if you can make the jump to being a consultant or, you know, or working at an agency, just do some tester projects. Find a network and say like, look, I need some practice doing this, can you help? Or I need to see if I can make money doing this and can manage my own project. You know, do you have any projects that are coming up?  

The other thing is that it’s better to make the jump before you get laid off. Speaking in particular about the pandemic. If you hear rumblings that your university is going to be cutting jobs and you think you may be one of them, if you make the jump before that happens, you can attempt to lock in a contract to continue doing work, or to continue on the projects that you were doing until they find a replacement for you.

And not only does that give you something to put into your professional portfolio and a client to put on your client list. It. Gives you a safety buffer you know, as you step out and try to do stuff on your own. 

For me, before we made the jump to move to Austin, I had lined up some contract work. I had made sure that we at least had the same income that, that I had had before. And, that helped, uh, in terms of making sure we had a net, in case we fell. And I think like putting those structures in place is very important. If, if you’re more on the, I don’t want to say timid, cause that sounds bad. But you know, like if you’re not on the overly confident side that (I am on)

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, no, I think it comes back for me. Like that’s something I’ve always had a salaried position and, you know, my parents worked salaried jobs and just that it’s hard to give up that consistency and benefits of like, Hey, I’ve got a three-year-old, I’ve got health insurance.

Joel Goodman: Yeah. And benefits are a huge thing to weigh because health insurance is expensive. And for those of us that live in the United States, our healthcare system is not focused on taking care of citizens. It’s focused on pulling as much money out of your wallet as it possibly can.

And so I think the U.S. actually makes it a lot harder for people to step out on their jobs by tying health insurance to the work that we do. Like right now. I mean, I’ll be honest, I don’t have health insurance right now because my wife got laid off at the beginning of COVID and we were on her company’s benefit plan.

And so what do we do? Well, we stay in our house and we make sure that we don’t injure ourselves and we make sure that we don’t go out anywhere where we can possibly get sick, because we won’t be able to afford it. And it sucks. Like, you know, it sucks. But at the same time, we hope that we will have health insurance again soon, but it would be way better if health insurance was, was something that our taxes paid for, you know? Because I already pay taxes.

I haven’t worked for a university or a company in eight years. And so when we’ve had health insurance, it’s been, one, it was through the ACA when that launched, through the public market. Which, was still very expensive. And before that, it was just an independent plan that we had set up through, through a company that then stopped servicing Texas, when the ACA went through and it’s never been cheap. It has been very, very expensive.

And so, that’s something you have to weigh. Like if you, if you can’t have enough income to pay for health insurance, or you don’t have a spouse or partner that has a benefits package at their job that can apply to you, that’s a very, it’s a very real concern. And, one that we, we deal with my family deals with every, every day we don’t have any kids, which is, which is helpful, you know, in some ways, and, and on a financial standpoint, but it’s, you know, but it also, like, it also limits us. If we wanted to have kids, like we, we couldn’t do that right now, you know?  we can’t even plan for that sort of a thing because there’s no guarantee that we’re going to have health insurance to cover those costs or that we’ll be able to survive financially as, as a family.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Benefits are a plus! So, I mean, yeah, but I think how it goes with what you’re saying, you know, while you’re employed, test the waters of freelancing and get a few gigs under your belt and see, before for making that leap, before jumping out of the plane.

Joel Goodman: And I think with that, there’s probably an opportunity coming where other people at other institutions will be in a similar position as you, either wanting to leave, wanting to make the jump before being laid off or being laid off, unfortunately.  There may be opportunities to, partner with people. You know, if you can get two or three people together with great minds that are driven and want to, want to do really good work and have good connections. You’ve got yourself, a mini-agency, right? You got yourself a mini-partnership there and you, I mean, you can go and, do this. 

And that’s, Bravery has been set up that way from the start. I, don’t have any full-time employees other than myself. I give contract work out to, friends that want to do that need to do work, and that are really good at what they do.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, it’s interesting cause every single place I’ve I’ve worked at and done marketing in, the department has joked, “we should just quit and start our own agency.” Like every single place I’ve worked, it’s the same running joke. Like, Hey, we’ve got so much talent here. We should start our own agency.

It’s like, there is so much talent in higher ed. There are so many talented people. And I hate to say it, some of that talent is being, being squandered in certain places. and finding ways to tap into that and tap into that community, I mean, there’s, there’s just so much potential there.

Joel Goodman: I think, I think everyone has to get to a point where they recognize that their work, their expertise, their selves are not being valued enough by the place that they’re working. Or that they are not and haven’t been achieving the level of excellence in the work that they do that they could be. 

And then the decision is, am I happy sitting in that spot? And I think that’s totally fine. Some people are. I’m not. Like, I’m, I don’t want to do mediocre work. I don’t ever want to. that’s kind of the hard part with running an agency is that sometimes you end up pushing work out that is not up to the standard that you want and you have to fight to make it better.

And it’s, you know, it’s exactly the same as working internally at a university where you may be an awesome designer or have a really good concept for a marketing campaign or a really good writer. And then it goes through some administration whose expertise and knowledge is not in marketing or design or, or whatever else. Who’s not as close to the data as you are, is not as close to the research, is not as close to the students, or whatever it is that you’re doing. And that work gets watered down. 

It’s exactly the same on the outside. The thing is that I dunno, I feel a little bit more empowered to say, you know what, you, you paid me to do this work the right way and this is what’s going to happen if we do it your way, you know, sort of a thing.

Thought Feeder is a production of University Insight.