E021 Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Lindy Ledohowski on the Origins of EssayJack
September 27th 2020
Dr Lindy Ledohowski (B.A., B.Ed., M.A., PhD) was a former English teacher and then English professor in Canada before becoming an EdTech CEO for the academic writing software platform, EssayJack. She has won numerous awards for her teaching, research, and publications, and is now an award-winning entrepreneur — among others, All Digital Schools Editors Choice 2020 (Category: Communication with Students, English, Poetry, Reading, Teach Tools, and Writing), Pitch deck Asia Startup Awards 2019 (winner of EdTech Startup Most Likely to Succeed), or Tech Edvocate Awards 2018 (finalist for Best Literacy App or Tool). She has published both peer-reviewed scholarship and popular pieces on writing and transitioning from the academy into entrepreneurship.
In this webinar, Lindy told us the story behind her decision to leave her tenure track. She also shared the origin story of her academic writing software platform, EssayJack. What was the motivation behind the project? What were the main bottlenecks so far? How to make sure that your online marketing works as expected? What is the secret behind the platform’s recent exponential growth? How to successfully develop a business as a couple? What is the most surprising and the most tricky aspect of moving from academia to industry?
Lindy’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lindy-ledohowski/
Lindy’s Twitter profile: https://twitter.com/DoctorLindy/
The website of EssayJack: https://www.essayjack.com/
The episode was recorded on September 27th, 2020. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their current or former employer(s).
Natalia 0:10 Hello, everyone. This is yet another Sunday webinar by Welcome Solutions. In these webinars, we invite PhDs and other professionals to tell us their success stories, the story of their professional development and interesting career moves that they made in the past and how it came about that they found themselves in the place they are now. And if you would like to get more of such content, please subscribe to this channel. And also, you’re very welcome to comment on this content on YouTube. We will be happy to take all your questions and we’ll answer all your comments.
Today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Dr. Lindy Ledohowskii, who is a former English teacher and an English professor in Canada. She was a professor before becoming an ed-tech CEO for the academic writing software platform EssayJack. She has won numerous awards for her teaching, research, and publications, and is now an award-winning entrepreneur. She has published both peer-reviewed scholarship and popular pieces of writing and transitioning from the economy into entrepreneurship. I couldn’t be happier. And thank you so much, Lindy, for joining us today. Thank you for accepting our invitation. Now, I would like to give the floor to you so that you can introduce yourself to the audience. Thank you so much for coming.
Dr. Lindy 01:38 Thanks, Natalia. It’s lovely to be here. Happy Sunday to everyone or whenever you end up watching this one. It’s great to be here. That was a nice introduction. I began my sort of formal career as an English teacher. I taught high school English. In the North American context, that’s like grade 10 to grade 12, so age 15 to 17. I taught English and debate at the high school level. Then I went back to school and did my master’s, PhD, and postdoctoral fellowship. And throughout that, I was also teaching at the University of Toronto, which is where I did my graduate school. I was teaching English and I was teaching critical writing about poetry and critical writing about literature. And, and then upon completion, while I was in the middle of doing my postdoctoral fellowship, I got a tenure track job. That works in North America, so there are a bunch of different ranks in terms of the formal Academy and being a professor.
Typically, you start a tenure track job at the rank of assistant professor and that’s a permanent job like it’s a salaried position. And then if you go up the ranks, the next step is usually promotion to associate, and that often comes at the same time as tenure. And then years down the road. Once you’ve got a couple of books, you can go up for full professor. And there’s that trajectory. Then there are also other ranks in terms of contract teaching. That’s called sessional. And essentially, that’s your paid-on contract per course that you teach. I was in the tenure track route. And so I was teaching English at the University of Waterloo and it was great.
My husband is also an academic. He was on that tenure track at a different university in a different city. We were sort of figuring out, okay, well, how do we have a life together seems how we’re married and we quite like each other. I started at that point to think about life outside of the academy. Now, I think it’s probably helpful to talk about that. I mean, even though this was a few years ago, now, almost 10 years ago, when I was quitting my job, it was the height of the financial crisis.
There was a lot of pressure to say, you know, don’t leave a full-time professor’s job. It’s a financial crisis. Who knows what’s going to happen. And as we talk today, I have landed on my feet and I think it’s helpful to tell that story because right now, in the middle of this pandemic, the job market for academics, people who are newly finishing PhDs, or who are already on the job market, it’s a bleak time.
And education as we know is changing radically. And those changes in terms of distance learning and online learning are changes that are probably going to outlast the pandemic. I think I’m being able to share my story which is about you know, landing on your feet at a moment in time when the job market looks bleak. It might feel like there aren’t any other options out there. I think it’s just helpful to sort of hearing that story.
Because there will be a lot of people who always dreamed of being a professor and won’t get the chance to be a professor. Now, given that more people are graduating, then there are those permanent jobs in the system. I feel that it would be a great tragedy, if you lived out your life, always feeling like the life you’re living with second best, and if only you had been a professor, so I like to sort of say it’s helpful to hear somebody’s story who was a professor, and it was fine.
But at the end of the day, it was just a job. When things didn’t line up for that particular job, I went and did other things. Some of the other things that I did first, upon quitting, I started consulting. That was interesting and rewarding in a bunch of different ways. Firstly, it got me to learn how to charge for my services which was something I didn’t know. And then it was through consulting and still thinking about academic writing and wanting to help students that we ultimately came up with the ed-tech solution, which I’m now the head of, and it’s a company called Essayjack.
And you can find it at Essayjack.com. EssayJack is a platform for academic writing. We kind of said, Okay, so we know all this stuff about academic writing. And students don’t necessarily know that whether it’s undergraduate students, graduate students, or even high school students.
And wouldn’t it be great if we could use technology to kind of decode some of the things that can often seem very opaque about what the expectations are when it comes to the genre of academic writing? So scientific papers, journal articles at the high end, but then everything down to you know, your short book review, or essay that you’ve got to submit on, you know, an event in history or something like that. That’s what the technology was and we’ve just celebrated our fifth anniversary of founding the company.
That means we’ve landed on our feet. That’s in a nutshell. You know, a high school teacher turned a graduate student, turned University professor, turned consultant, or turned ed-tech CEO along the way.
Natalia 07:43 That’s amazing. Thank you, Lindy, for sharing your story. Before we get to the questions about your career path, I would like to first ask questions that I think many people watching you might have which is, basically you mentioned that you quit academia quite a few years ago and that you are a professor back then. At the same time, you look like you’re fatty. My question will be how to be forever young.
Dr. Lindy 08:21 You’re my new best friend. Thank you. But I came even to graduate school late, I mean, I started my PhD when I was 26, turning 27, something like that. At that time, I thought, you know, my gosh, I’m already so old and had all of those fears. Now, of course, 26, or 27 seems very young given where I am now. And a lady never reveals her age but it’s significantly more than 30. I think one of the things in terms of taking that question a bit seriously is I’m one of those big nerds and I do like learning and, you know, if I put on my more scholarly professor hat, then there’s a lot of talk about being a lifelong learner.
And that’s a real positive. I have to say that I do truly believe that being a lifelong learner. I want to know more things today than I knew yesterday or the day before or even if it’s not daily, at least, it’s sort of weekly, monthly, yearly learning. And so certainly moving from being a professor into the sort of world of tech and startups and development and digital marketing and social media and all of those things that I knew nothing about, I did open up and continue to open up a new field of things to learn and I find that quite invigorating.
If you see me smile, that smile is what keeps me young. And learning keeps me young. Although I mean, I have noticed that I see myself on the video that I have very long hair. I haven’t had a haircut in months. But that’s again this strange horrible event.
Natalia 10:19 Okay, let me ask you a little bit more about Essayjack because I would like to know a little bit more about what the product is and what services you offer for people who are watching us who experienced the problems with writing. If they are curious about what you offer, maybe you could explain a little bit more. Let’s say I have a hard time. I’m not a native and I have a hard time writing my academic papers. What can I find on your platform?
Dr.Lindy 10:53 That’s a great question. Thank you for asking that. What we want to do with EssayJack was fill a gap that we as professors found that there was a real gap in terms of students’ knowledge. Right now, I’ll even date myself to go back to the agent question, when we learned to write by hand and then we went and typed it up and printed it out and submitted it. But of course, nowadays, the very first draft that somebody starts to write is already happening in a word processing interface. You open it up, there’s a blank screen, and you’ve got to start writing.
And, again, content is easy to acquire. Back then, I would have to listen to teachers and take notes and all the rest of it. From those notes that I took, I would have content and create an outline and then I do a rough draft and then type it up. Now, it’s quite different. We’re learning content constantly through screens. This webinar will be posted on YouTube. People can watch it at home. There’s content that’s coming at you from a screen and you can get things whether it’s Google or Wikipedia, or wherever it is that you want to find and learn things.
That ability to acquire content or learn is done well by technology. There are some significant gaps in terms of fake news and being able to quality assure the content that you’re getting. You’ve got to be careful what you take seriously in what you take with a grain of salt when you’re finding content online. But it would have been the same anyway, even if you were in a classroom back. In old days, you had good professors and bad professors. It was up to you to sort of make some decisions about the quality of that content. Content is easy to get. And then on the other end, there’s a bunch of really good text editing technologies and software out there. I’m thinking like, you know, whether it’s your built-in spelling and grammar check just on your word processing software, so anything like Hemingway app, or Grammarly, or things like that, that can kind of address and fix the actual linguistic issues that you might have with writing.
But between getting the contents and then making your writing better, there’s this whole middle spot which is that blank screen. You may have good ideas. You may be able to acquire content, and then you sit down and there’s sort of a blank screen. To answer your question, what do people get when they go to Essayjack. If you’re just a student, so a high school student or a university student, you can go to EssayJack, you can sign up for a free trial and see if it works for you. And what you’re gonna get are several different templates for different pieces of writing for academics.
There’s the most advanced template called the academic essay which has different sections with tips and prompts and videos that walks you through the structure of an academic essay. What are the parts of an extended background? Or how do you write about your methodology? How do you provide evidence and then explain how that evidence helps to build whatever it is that you’re arguing so there are those kinds of pieces with sentence starters, tips, and prompts.
As I said, there are other ones like a lab report, a TED talk, and some other templates that you can use as a student. And you just go to the Essayjack website. You’ll find that and that can help you out. But we also do sell to schools, colleges, and universities. If you’re a teacher or professor, then you can use Essayjack to teach writing. Maybe you’re a tutor and you’re working with students who are grappling with learning, writing in English, and writing conventions in an American context which still ends up being the kind of dominant modality for scholarly publishing. Even if you’re a scholar in Indonesia, chances are the Scopus ranked journals that you’re publishing in, will be shaped by expectations set by that sort of Anglo-American writing context. That’s like the UK and US kind of writing standards.
And then the rest of us postcolonial kids like me, we sort of inherited some of those conventions as well. They end up setting certain kinds of global standards. What Essayjack can provide the educator is a framework for teaching writing and it’s entirely customizable if you have an educator account. If you don’t like the built-in tips and prompts that EssayJack gives about an extended background or methodology or what have you, you can go in and change that wording and say, well, here’s what my tips would be, or here’s what my sentence starters would be, or, you know, I’m a world-famous YouTube star.
Instead of using the Essay Jack teaching videos, I’m going to upload my own teaching videos. There’s all of that functionality as well. There are two cases. As a student, you can log in and have a free trial to see if it works for you and write how much you want. If you want to subscribe, it’s 999 USD per month and 9999 USD per year. We’ve tried to keep it as reasonably priced as possible. If you’re in school, you can get it for your classroom, or you can simply just recommend it to your students.
That’s kind of how the technology does what it does. And again, because I am one of the co-founders and my other co-founder is the law professor. For us, we needed to have some pedagogical standards as the backbone of the technology. In the education, technology, and tech startup world, you get entrepreneurs and business people whose priority is business first, and then the education is kind of like the gamified way you get to your business goals, whereas we did it in an entirely reverse way because we want to solve this teaching problem.
We want to solve this education problem. And then once we solve that, we move forward and have 1000s, and 1000s of people using the platform, then we’re like, okay, we also have to build a business. Because we need to be able to advertise this digitally. We need to be able to have a help desk and continued development staff who can do upgrades both to the platform but also just to keep up with the technology.
There are these requirements that mean that we have to pay people. And so to pay those people, you need to sort of figure out what’s the business model. That’s kind of the what the technology does and then how from that in true Lifelong Learning desire to help people that, you know, we also had to build a business as well as opposed to sort of being an entrepreneur first and then sort of ed-tech second, that was like education first. And then entrepreneurship grew out of that commitment to helping as many people as possible. I suppose that it’s the best way to put it.
Natalia 18:26 Great, thank you so much for this extensive explanation. I would like to ask you also since I track your social media activity and I can see that you’re following and you’re several users for Essayjack and it’s growing very fast. We’re grown very fast in the last two years. I would like to ask you about the secret behind success. What do you think, you know, when you have an online business, this is what it is. It’s a platform that has a global reach. If you have this type of business, and the dynamics are often exponential, then this is the nature of the scope of business. But I would like to ask you, do you think that this growth curve is, again, an outcome of the fact that you have this particular business model, or was it some specific time or some specific events that trigger dispersed fast growth in the recent two years in the past?
Dr. lindy 19:37 That’s an excellent question. It deserves the sort of peeling apart a bit to give a full answer. There’s a lot in the public domain, whether that’s traditional media and news outlets or online media and social media. There is a lot about startups. There’s this whole realm of fixation with, like startup tech startups, tech CEOs, and they’re all going to become billionaires. And they’re all going to be the next whatever the big platform is. Anything from, you know, Instagram to Facebook, which is now the same, to Shopify Reddit, they’re all of these tech companies that have gone to sort of this exponential growth curve. There’s a lot of conversation about that. And a lot of those conversations are shaped by investors and investment in these companies through subsequent rounds. That’s one kind of track. One thing that was interesting for us when we started Essayjack, was that we were very uninterested in that track.
Because ultimately, for us, we were thinking, well, I don’t know if this thing that we’re inventing this space that we’re seeing between content acquisition and final pros. We are inventing a category of thing that doesn’t exist. Does anybody want this? Now, you can make a good presentation to investors and it’s gonna be great. We’re gonna have this exponential growth. But then you have to live with yourself. Let’s first just see if anybody wants it. And so for the first couple of years, we were building and figuring out the business and figuring out the product.
And we didn’t take investment. We put our savings into it. We’ll figure it out. And if nobody wants it, then it’s embarrassing to us. But nobody else knows. I’m not in debt to a bunch of angry investors. Then along the way, I started to develop my own kind of business philosophy which is to provide a really valuable product, some of which is for pay, and some of which is for free, and then focus on the types of users who are your types of users. For us, we know, particularly students that are transitioning from high school into university, or early graduate students who are at the writing stage.
It could be that they’re master’s level students writing for the first time, or it could be that you’re sitting down to write out a PhD thesis, and you’re a good researcher. But nobody told you. You have to do that. You know that writing was going to be such a big component of what’s required. Now that we figured out like, those are the people who like our product, it’s really valuable people who are non-native speakers of English, but who have to write in English. And he said, Okay, so if these are the people who like our product, let’s provide value for them.
We have free blog posts, videos, ebooks, and all of those sorts of things, which are valuable. But we’ve created it and it has value here. You can have that content. And if you like it, come try Essayjack for seven days. And if you like that, then you can subscribe. There’s sort of no mystery to what you’re getting. There’s no mystery to the value of the product. I’m not promising anything that we’re not delivering. Essay jack is five years old now. Now, I can say, okay, we can go to investors now because it’s not about experimenting with a product, does it work or does it not work? Now it’s saying, Okay, we have a great product. We know who wants it and we have grown. We know who uses it, what they like, what they don’t like. Now, all we have to do is sort of spread the word because it’s a global product that anybody in the world can access. But to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible, you do have to have a bit of an ad spend. You do have to be able to put some marketing dollars behind it which we hadn’t done to this point.
Our growth is purely and truly because people recommend it to other people. People try it, they like it, they tell other people, and they engage with us on social media, or they sign up for the blog, and they get the free blog content. And they’re like, Okay, actually, maybe I should try it for that. Try signing up for this thing and see what happens. That’s how we’ve grown to date. Now, we’re saying okay, we could now put some marketing dollars behind some of our more successful blogs, and some of our more successful videos and drive up those eyeballs to the site.
That’s kind of a big picture of what our philosophy has been to go back to your real question, which is like kind of how do you build a Business Online, which is a really good question and a hard question to answer. Because ultimately, we were very naive when we started, as I say, we were focused on the product, not necessarily the business or business model in the early days.
But what I naively thought was, well, it’s the internet, put it on the internet, and people will find it. And then as you become more sophisticated, and as I say, being a lifelong learner, you learn these things along the way. You learn things about, you know, even just how Google algorithms work, and how things get ranked on pages and the kinds of coffee and content that you need to have and how you optimize various kinds of things for various audiences, how you get paid ads, and where you want to put your ad spend, do you want to put an ad spend, and where you want to create online communities. If you think about it in a non-online world, if you get alone and you start your restaurant, and your restaurant is on a good street corner with lots of people who walk by, you can assume people will find your restaurant and they’ll walk in and they’ll come to your restaurant.
As long as your restaurant is good, they might come back, and they might tell their friends. Whereas the internet is like you have to drive people to your street corner to find your thing. Because nobody’s just magically going to be walking by and find it. It’s that how do you drive people and drive them intelligently and also drive the right people.
Because in our space, in academic writing, the sad truth is, there are a lot of essay mills out there where students will get somebody online to do their work for them and they’ll pay them to do their work. And that can happen just at an undergraduate level. In the second year of university, when students find themselves overwhelmed, they don’t know what they don’t know. And they hire somebody else to do their writing for them.
Some people hire people to write their theses and dissertations for them. Again, it’s ridiculous because, on the one hand, you rob yourself of lifelong learning, you rob yourself of the learning potential there. Secondly, you’re guilty of plagiarism and you’re engaged in fraud. And depending on which country you’re in that fraud might be illegal.
Thirdly, at some point, you’re going to get a job, and you can’t pay people to do your job for you. If you haven’t acquired those skills along the way, because you’ve been hiring Essay Mills, then you’re going to find yourself in a very disadvantageous situation in the long run. We were competing with those Essay Mills and we have to make sure that the traffic we drive to our site are people who don’t just want somebody to write their essay for them. Then we’re not a good fit. Like, if you want to be a cheater, don’t come to Essayjack because we will write your work for you, we’re going to make you do it, you know, the content is yours. Our platform helps with the structure and helps you organize things in a logically coherent manner.
But you have to do some thinking. And some people don’t want to think. They want to hire somebody to think for them. Again, in an online space and an online business model, you need to be able to differentiate, okay, these people are the ones we want because they want to do the work and they want to learn. And these people are the ones who literally would like to fraudulently complete their degree for whatever reason. And so again, in terms of targeting those audiences, you want to make sure that you’re able to identify the patterns of both types of audiences. For us, the way we differentiated that was by not spending any money on online marketing at the beginning.
We put out the content, and then we track what kind of users come to Essayjack and enjoy what we have to offer. If we do an investment raise now and get some marketing money, we can put that marketing money to the real people who want what we have to offer and not just drive, you know, 1 million people to our website every single day who are never going to be Essay Jack users. That’s a waste of time. The lesson there in terms of building an online business is not just to try to get lots and lots of eyeballs on your content of whatever business it is that you’re building, but to get lots and lots of the right kind of eyeballs. It’s better to have fewer people in aggregate. You know what you’re doing if they’re the fewer of the right people as opposed to more people who are never going to be your purchasers.
If you’re selling a shoe in an online store, if you’ve got shoes that you want to sell online, you want to draw as many people who are shopping for shoes to your site, not just as many people as there are in the world who happened to be browsing anything and everything. I think it’s kind of the key to growth with an online business. It’s a bit of a science and it’s a bit of an art. It requires kind of tweaking things regularly like what works and what doesn’t, and quickly saying, Okay, well, this is working. Let’s do more of this. This isn’t working, so let’s get rid of that. I’ll stop because there’s a very long answer to the question. But it’s a very good question. And I think it’s easy for online businesses and the entire world of sort of tech startups to make it seem like all you have to do is invent something, and it’s gonna go viral. That doesn’t necessarily happen.
I mean, virality is great. And you know, after this webinar, Essay jack and welcome solutions are both gonna go viral and it’s going to be fantastic. But in the absence of that virality, you still want to know that you have a viable business that can grow.
Natalia 31:17 that’s a fantastic answer. I agree with absolutely everything you said. First of all, I share your point of view on how to develop a business. I know how long it takes to develop a viable business model. And I have exactly the same plan to only take investors on board when I have the business plan up and working up and running. I’m still testing different strategies. I feel you 100%. To have good content and to let this content be noticed are two different things. And I also kind of learned in my own skin. But I think you master the art of online advertising. I think one can learn a lot from you. I would like to ask you something very general at this stage. Since I work as a career advisor, I’m often asked about my predictions for the future of the job market. And how it’s gonna pan out in the next decade or two decades?
And of course, it’s very hard to answer this question. But I think my feeling is one of the skills that are kind of becoming rare these days is the skill of writing. One of the reasons is the social media and the supremacy of emoticons and because I feel that writing is very easy, it’s like a muscle. If you don’t exercise, then you slowly lose the ability to do it well. I think the presence of emoticons and other ways of doing short messaging kind of makes people lazy these days and you don’t use the muscle regularly.
That’s also one of the reasons why I love your project. I lined up to do a webinar with you as soon as I learned about it. And maybe you could share some thoughts on this problem with us. Do you also see this problem? And what do you think is the best way to develop and keep your writing skills over the scope of a lifetime?
Dr Lindy 33:37 Thanks. I’ll respond first to your comments about the business model piece. And then I’ll jump into the sort of predictions about writing over time because I just wanted to say, I haven’t done any research into this in any real in-depth way but I think there’s a gendered component to the more conservative business model that wants to try and test things I have found. I’m in sort of entrepreneur. I’m in some sort of women in business or women in entrepreneur communities, and many of the conversations that we have in these communities with smart, accomplished successful women, is that they want to ensure that they underpromise and over-deliver.
I want to make sure, firstly, that everything I’m going to say is backed up by some kind of data and research. But secondly, I can stand behind everything that I’m saying. And I mean, the best plans can be affected by the world. I don’t think anybody planned on a global pandemic hitting in 2020. But I do think that there are exceptions to every rule but generally, I find the trait of sort of going in front of investors and telling a great story without all of that backup. It can often be more masculinist as a trait.
I haven’t done the requisite research to back that up with any stats and figures but that’s kind of you want to take your time build it up, make sure that by the time you go to investors, what you’re, what you’re presenting to them is something that you’ve lived in for a while. I’m surprised because we’re both ladies here. I think that’s something that we might share. And then to go to your question about the importance of writing. You’ve just hit the nail on the head, I find, and I have researched it. So statistically speaking, looking at the US, the US spends on average, 3 billion a year in writing remediation. In workplaces, where people have already graduated, they have their job.
And writing is still such an important skill, that workplaces are ending up hiring these consultants to come in and teach writing. Because at the end of the day, emoticons and sort of text speak, and the short forms are great for transactional communication. You know, I’m here to meet you at eight, where are you, you know, those sorts of things that are very short. I think it’s done very well by texts speak. And even sharing like short tweets, again, you can kind of share like, hey, it’s hot outside, or, watch this video or something like that, that’s very transactional activity and it can happen in short form.
But anything that requires analysis of any sort of academic analysis, professional analysis, or a longer form of writing to communicate something, is a little bit more complex or a little bit more nuanced. That’s the differentiator between an entry-level job and moving up the ladder. The same goes for academics. If you’re a bad writer, you’ll graduate from high school, you know, that’s fine. But as you go along, being able to write well ends up often being the sort of gate that will stay closed, if you’re unable to acquire that skill. You can be a smart, thoughtful, and very competent person in your other discipline.
If you’re a chemist, or a biologist, whatever, ultimately, it’s going to be your ability to write up those findings that will open those doors for you and get you from a first science degree to a master’s degree to a PhD and onward. And the same goes if you are in the working world. If you can communicate well in English enough to get a job, you can chat nicely in your interview, then that’s great and you get that great entry-level position.
But if you want to be promoted up and up, then you’re going to have to produce written reports of some sort. If you’re working in a mining company, you’re going to have to analyze what the mining engineers are sending you about the soil quality, and make a recommendation based on that to your bosses, and they’re gonna have to go to the board of directors and all that. And all of that happens in writing. I truly do believe that if you want to have the most options available to you, educationally and professionally, being able to write well is just the absolute best skill you can have in your toolkit of skills to help open the most doors possible for you. I also do truly believe that acquiring the skills to write well goes hand in hand with the skill of thinking well. Right now, at this particular moment in time, there’s so much that’s happening globally. That’s crazy. I think in large part, not enough people know how to think through complex problems with a greater degree of sophistication. I think when you can write well, you can also think well, and you can identify, Okay, so that person is saying x, but it doesn’t hold up there. What they want is why they’re saying x and that’s to confuse me or convinced me or whatever.
I think being able to see and analyze what people say or what’s written can make you feel very empowered in this very strange world and this very strange moment in time even with a global pandemic. Trying to make sense of what information is accurate, even when it comes to various countries’ responses to a global pandemic, and some people say it’s fake, or people being able to take that information, read and analyze it. This is quite scary.
That borders are closed and people are working from home and you don’t know if you should wear a mask or shouldn’t wear a mask or what are your risks. I think the more you can read and understand quality research, the more you’ll be able to understand an argument to understand statistics. That goes into being able to write critically. It’s also being able to read critically and then think about, okay, so that person is not making a good argument as to why I should or shouldn’t wear a mask. But this person has made something that’s convincing.
It has convinced me by building a coherent and logical case. And so, you know, to go back to your question, which is like, just writing still matters, you know, we can quickly text, and there’s emojis, and that can communicate things. My answer to that is that the quick texts are great. I don’t want to be so much of a grump that I dismissed the significance of the quick texts for transactional stuff, or even just to validate like, I can send my mom a hug or my sister or kiss or whatever.
And that’s great. It’s a way to be connected. But it’s that long-form writing that is important academically and professionally. Again, it is intimately linked to that ability to think critically. Critical writing is crucial to make the world a better place. If we could all think better, we’d make better choices. It’s very motivating in terms of I don’t know that essay jack itself is up to the task of fixing everything wrong in the world. But if I can play my small part in helping people to think and write better, I do that. That’s a contribution that I will be happy about when I look back on my life. I do think writing does matter because it’s a crucial skill.
Natalia 42:37 I couldn’t agree more. If I could add to this, what you just said, I also think that writing skills can save you from a lot of trouble. I remember the times when I was still an undergrad at the University of Warsaw and I was doing three different masters at the same time, mathematics, physics, and psychology. And if I could describe myself as a student, I would say not present because there was always too much to do. I was always noticed there. I had to ask for forgiveness from all these deans and professors all the time. And I think if my ability is not to write very heartbreaking emails and persuade people to my points and ask for forgiveness, then I probably wouldn’t be a master’s graduate today. I think, indeed, writing is so influential in your life and it can save you from a lot of thrall. Now, I would like to ask you a little bit different question about the kitchen behind your business, since I know that actually, the co-founder of your company is also your life partner. I have that question. You know, I think many people would have that question. The question is, how does it work for you? I know that for some couples, it’s a blessing that they have a business together, whereas, for some other couples, it can be. There are certain drawbacks. I’m very curious about how it plays out for you.
Dr Lindy 44:11 There are a couple of different ways of answering that question, you know, the sort of being in business with your spouse, which can be can be both a blessing and a curse. A couple of things and one that I want to make clear and this goes back even to the sort of business model of tech startup and investors and the choices that you make, and one thing that I always think is important when I tell my story about some of the finance parts of things.
Again, social media and traditional media, you know, loves to tell the investment story, you know, raise the series D or you know, 20 million 100 million, whatever. But the truth of the matter is you do need some money to start a business of whatever sort whether that’s going to be the money that pays your rent or your mortgage and buys your groceries, or the money that goes into developing whatever it is that your business is going to be.
You kind of have to be clear at the outset where you’re getting that money from. If you’re lucky, you have a family business, and you’ve got rich parents, then they’re willing to be your backers. That’s great. If you have a trust fund and you’re able to sort of take your independent wealth, it’s also great. If you happen to have been bought out of your last job and have a nice chunk of money, it’s also great. For many of us, that’s not the situation. And it wasn’t the situation for us. But for my husband, and I was like if one of us keeps the professor job, and that’s his case, he’s the law professor, I was like, if you keep your job, then we can still like buy groceries and live. I can do this experimental startup thing for free. I won’t pay myself which, you know, of course, is a bit of a blow to the ego, but you tell yourself that you’re building value in this company and that ultimately, you’ll be remunerated out of the company as the company grows.
But in the early days, it was a lot of hard work. I worked so hard and I got a paycheck at the end of the month. I worked so hard and there’s sort of nothing to show that. I do want to be clear. In our case, it’s a professional choice but it’s also a financial choice. That was the way that we were able to kind of swing things and get Essayjack off the ground without having to get investment money in the early days.
Again, it’s all fine and good for me to tell the story of how we’ve held off institutional investment for five years. But that’s been based on being in a position to do that. If you’re drowning under student loan debt and don’t happen to have a spouse who has a job who can pay the bills, then you’re probably going to have to get that institutional investment or debt of whatever sort earlier on so that I think it’s just important to flag.
I flagged that there’s that kind of financial peace. He can pay the bills. And I can do this experiment. It’s less experimental now. But in the early days, it felt very experimental. And then there’s the other piece, which is how do you make decisions when you’re both co-founders but you’re also spouses. And so again, we were very clear at the beginning that only one of us ultimately could be the decision-maker. Because it could potentially kill the company if everything ended up being like a marital discussion. Because if any of the viewers are married, marital discussions can go on for a long time, you know, like, I’ve been married for coming up on 12 years, and I still haven’t convinced my husband to do laundry. That’s a long-standing discussion that we have. But in a business, you can’t just have those long-term things that pop up now and then and that sometimes happens in marriages.
We had to be very clear. We were very clear that in this case, I would be the decision-maker and that his role was in terms of being supportive and content development. Because he’s in the classroom with students that he needs to pay attention to what students want and what their needs were.
We were clear in terms of identifying who does what, how that happened, and how decisions are made. It was interesting because a couple of years ago, he was on leave from his university, and was thinking about, Okay, does he want to come and work more full time in EssayJack, because he was very intimately involved in the development of the product. He was on sabbatical and we’ll think about that there’s a place in the company for him and which is fine, what you figure it out and see if there’s a place for you.
What was interesting is that he realized, like, in a business, once you’ve developed the product, the product is continually being developed. But a lot of the creative work that happened at the beginning is now a little bit more institutionalized. Now, new features come about because there’s a need in the market for them as opposed to us thinking, Oh, wouldn’t it be great if that’s kind of how we originally developed the product. As a company, there are sales, there’s marketing, there’s content development, there are human resources, there’s finance, there are investor relations, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that is like a regular job at any other company. What he found is that he’s not a sales guy. He certainly isn’t an operations guy. He doesn’t want to do that sort of being on top of people. He doesn’t want to think about hiring and firing. And you know, all of those human resources are technically bookkeeping, accounting, finance, and all of those.
Ultimately, I’m just happier being a professor. I’m gonna keep on being a professor. Then he and I can have those high-level conversations, like, What is the vision for the business? Where do we want it to go? What are some other niches we see as fruitful areas for expansion, and those kinds of conversations. What I’ve discovered is that while I am still academic in some ways, I can jump in and I can do sales and marketing. And I have one on one calls with our developers and meetings, and all of that kind of internal operational behavior that has to happen to keep a machine going forward.
I have enough ability to be that lifelong learner and I want to learn all these different components. I do that. And then I kind of report back to him. And so for us, it works. It works because we were sort of clear about the sort of financial division of labor. Secondly, we were clear about the sort of hierarchy and who is ultimately the deciding person. Thirdly, as it turned out, he is happier in his job as a professor than wanting a job in EssayJack, which is sort of an interesting reality that he came to. And one final point, I’ll say which is very fascinating to me, is that in conversations now, like in a typical investment conversation, they seem to always be a little bit worried when there’s a married co founder, couple, like, oh, my gosh, what happens with the company if people get divorced, or whatever.
I mean, if their marriage breaks down, they will not have the bandwidth to drive the startup forward. Largely speaking, you should probably care about your founders, whether they’re married to their co-founders or not. I just think that it’s that ability to prioritize relationships and having people be happy and productive and do well. That’s again related to the whole sort of sharing vision. If you’ve got a partner or an investor, or your banks or whatever, you want to make sure that you share the vision of where the company’s going. And whether you’re married to your co-founder or not, it’s being very clear that we’re on the same page and we’re going in the same direction. I think I can help solve a lot of hiccups that may happen along the way.
Natalia 53:26 Okay, perfect answer. I’m still curious about how your daily life looks like. Are there specific hours when you are life partners and then specific hours when your business partners? Or is it more like fluid dynamics?
Dr Lindy 53:42 It depends on the day. My day is shaped by work. I work probably longer hours than I should. But we’re very clear that we have that morning coffee in the morning together. Morning coffee is our time and when I say more than coffee, it’s usually like a pot or two of coffee, you know, and that’s when we talk and we reconnect and that’s sort of couple time. And then at the end of the workday, whenever that happens, we usually go for a walk. And again, that’s like a couple time to go for a walk and try to not talk about Essay jack. Now, I think, as the company has gotten a little bit more mature along the way, it’s a little bit easier to have some of that separation. When we very first started it and we’re launching and sort of like, Hey, does anybody want this product we invented? It was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that was just all we could talk about. We probably bored each other and all of our friends and family because that was our everything. And we joked about it. Because we both went through PhDs. During our PhDs, there’s also this tendency to see the world through the lens of whatever it is that you’re researching.
Everything that you kind of see out there in the world, you filter through what you’re currently writing about if you’re in the doctoral experience. We both had that and knew that it was passed, you know, that you don’t just continue going through the world, seeing everything through the lens of your doctoral research. When we were in those early days of Essay jack, everything was through the lens of Essay jack. We would see both opportunities but also everything just got filtered through, like, can we use this here. It was like a phase that we’ve kind of made our way through so that Essay jack isn’t the topic of conversation in our marriage, all day, every day anymore. I mean, it’s still an important piece but it’s not the most important piece and it doesn’t shape our every waking conversation the way that it did for quite some time. In the early days, as I say, we’re five years in, and probably the first two years were pretty all day every day but we’re still smiling. And we’ve now also been indoors with each other for six months of a pandemic, and we’re still happily married. It seems to be working.
Natalia 56:40 Fantastic. Can I ask you a little bit about the lessons that you got from your entrepreneurial journey? And also maybe before from the times when you were thinking of transition to the industry? The question is, is there anything you can think of that you would do differently if you had the chance?
Dr Lindy 57:06 One thing that I would do differently is, I think for Essay jack, I probably would have gone a little bit slower with some things like, you know, release the product, you know, before it was fully ready to be released, and then just kind of figure things out along the way. And I think I would have given us a couple more months to see things through. But you don’t know then what you know now. That’s one thing.
Another thing that I would have done differently is certainly learning what I’ve achieved since leaving the academy and getting out sort of in the industry is that there’s a real difference in timescale. In the academy, typically everything moves very slowly. The semester that you’re teaching is like from September to December. You could submit an article for publication. You wouldn’t hear back even if it was going to be peer-reviewed for six weeks. If you’re lucky, by the time it’s peer-reviewed, it’s been another 12 weeks, then you might have to revise and resubmit.
You’ve got another chunk of time in terms of the job cycle. Jobs get posted and you then apply three months later. And then you don’t even hear if you’re shortlisted for another three months for a job that starts like a year after the original posting. And so often as academics, you get very used to that slow sense of time, even writing an article, if you’re lucky, it’ll take 12 weeks often it takes much longer.
The dissertations themselves or multi-year projects take too long. You get used to thinking of the world over these long period of time. Outside of the academy, it’s different from industry to industry but things just move a lot faster. If you’re looking at it in terms of business, like a week over week changes and cash flow. You’re looking at month-over-month changes and everything is like quarterly reporting. I mean, in an academic quarter, you may write an article in a quarter. Like it’s just the sense of time. You know a quarter is like October, November December. A quarter of a year in an academic framework doesn’t much change between October and December in your life as an academic. You could be running an experiment that takes you multiple years and thinking that once you get out in the industry stuff, just moves differently. That was a thing I had to adjust to.
It’s not something that I would change. But it is certainly something that I was a little bit prepared for. Because my sense of even in terms of evaluating Essay Jack’s success in those early days kind of changes, like I was wanting to make sure what we want to get through the first year, you know, be able to see, okay, year over year, what’s happening. And again, because it’s an educational product that’s tied to the academic calendar to a certain extent, there are certain times of the year where people are writing more and certain times of the year where people are writing less.
Our bankers would say, how many new users did you get this week over last week. I’m going like, it’s December vacation, and nobody’s writing right now. We didn’t get you. That’s not the way the business works. And that was very obvious to me. But it’s not obvious to people outside of the particular framework of education or the academy more broadly.
Again, it took me a while to figure out that things and the timescale that I was operating in, were just very different for other people. And again, that difference is fine. But you need to be aware of it and adjust where it’s necessary because people outside the academy just don’t see things in the same kind of timeframe. And this is maybe helpful for people who are thinking about jobs outside of the academy because sometimes you can think, well, I don’t know what I’m going to do next, you know, if I’m not a researcher, or if I’m not a scholar, if I’m not a professor, and you can find a job, and you can think, Okay, I could apply for that. And maybe I can do it.
But you’ll hold off from applying because you can’t envision yourself doing that long-term. But the thing is, you don’t have to do that long-term. Like, you can get that job. And literally within three weeks, you could be in another department in the same company. That kind of mobility, change fullness, and progression through the ranks and all the rest is very common outside of the academy.
You could start with one job in five weeks, be in a different job in the same company, within five months be promoted, you know, two different times up to two different levels or whatever. At that same time, as an academic, your life wouldn’t change at all. You wouldn’t expect that it would change at all. It’s not an exact answer but I certainly didn’t know that when I started this post-academic worldview that I’m in now.
Natalia 1:02:43 I couldn’t agree more again. It’s really heavy when you’re a budding entrepreneur to adjust to these new dynamics. That’s for sure. And another question I would have is, do you have any specific piece of advice? You just gave your advice to researchers who are thinking of moving to the industry? Is there anything else you would like to add to this?
Dr Lindy 1:03:15 One sort of specific piece of advice that I think is valuable is to apply for everything, even jobs that you think are only an imperfect fit. Because I think the process of applying for various types of jobs can also give you confidence. You can get confidence by applying for a bunch of jobs. You can practice having a bunch of interviews, even for jobs that you don’t want but you get that experience of speaking to people in the industry and sort of seeing the way that they do things.
Thirdly, by applying for a bunch of jobs, you also see how different organizations are structured and you start to create a mental map of like some jobs. You’ve got directors and managers and VPs, and senior VPs, or whatever. Some of those structures are very opaque if you’re unfamiliar with them. The more you apply for jobs, the more you start to get the knowledge of who does what and how are those divisions organized in a particular company or a particular industry.
That can help you navigate that world and sort of see, okay, I should be aiming for director level of that type of job or whatever the case may be, and it can help refine your job search. I think another reason why I would recommend applying for everything is that it’s also a way to network. You often don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t know who you don’t know.
If you get into a position where you put your best application or maybe you’ve had an interview or even just to chat with the person who’s hiring, they’ll be able to identify like, maybe you’re not a good fit for that job. But they know, oh, there’s this other job that’s going to be opening up in six months that you’d be perfect for, or there’s this other person I know, and their company is going to be hiring in exactly your field.
There’s absolutely no way that you would have that information as an outsider. But once you are getting in the mix, you can get in front of more people. And it’s helpful. The fourth reason why I always recommend applying for anything and everything is that it can build up your confidence. It can give you experience. It can help you navigate the different kinds of worlds that exist in the industry. And then finally, you can get some really valuable connections who can help you out in your job search? I mean, some people will be like me and they’ll want to be the one creating the business and creating the jobs. But a lot of people aren’t entrepreneurs at heart and don’t want to be entrepreneurs, which is absolutely 100% fine.
I mean, there are some times when I think, why did I become an entrepreneur? But I think for everybody who’s thinking about alternative paths, be they entrepreneurial or not, the more information you can get about how the world works outside of the fields that you might be specifically trained in, the better your chances are to find a happy place where you’re going to be fulfilled professionally.
Natalia 1:06:34 I got one question when you were talking about people who might or might not be entrepreneurs at heart. I am very curious if, in the past, there were already some signs, overshadowing the fact that one day might be a successful entrepreneur, because, from my experience, we often ignore those signs for a long time because we are not being told that we might be a successful business owner. This is one of the talents or one of the qualities that typically is overlooked in the school system. When you look back at your life, are there any signs that you now can see? And that would tell you that, yes, I was born as an entrepreneur.
Dr Lindy 1:07:22 I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. This wasn’t a thing that was on my radar. I mean, I’m a book lover. I like reading and I like writing. And that’s what I wanted to do. But the way you phrased the question, which is like, is there are any of these signs that you may be overlooked? it makes me kind of change my answer. And I will say, as a kid growing up, I was one of those bossy kids.
And I was one of those girls who now we would say, don’t call girls bossy, say they have leadership potential. I was one of those kids. I even say to my mom to this day and she jokes about the fact that I said that even as a little kid, you’re not the boss. Whenever I was going to do something, I was going to do it my own way. And you know, you’re not the boss of me. I find those signs which I sort of overlooked as a kid are certain aspects of my character which lead me to be an entrepreneur. I have that kind of personality trait. I also would say, growing up in my family, my family owns hotels in Manitoba, the province where I’m originally from, and that was a company started by my grandparents. My dad runs it now. My brother and sister worked for the company.
For me, business always meant that particular family business. I’m not motivated by that family business. I mean, I think who I am is shaped in part by that family business and by a sense of hospitality and service orientation. I think those are things that I’ve taken from growing up in a family business but I never wanted to work in the family business. I wanted to do my own thing. I never recognized business or entrepreneurship as something interesting for me because otherwise, I would have just joined the family as opposed to starting it off and doing my own thing.
Natalia 1:09:56 Okay, perfect. The last question I have for you today is what should we wish you and your company for the future?
Dr Lindy 1:10:06 Wish us tons of success. If you’re teaching English, if you’re teaching writing, if you are a writer, check out Essayjack.com. You know, it’s free to sign up for the flat platform, it’s free to subscribe to the blog. See if what we’re offering is of value to you and recommend it to your students. We wish your audience, that they can achieve their dreams and write well. We wish that they help us achieve our dreams and reach more people so that more people can be critical thinkers and critical writers.
Natalia 1:10:52 Fantastic. Thank you so much, Lindy, for joining us today and for sharing all these wonderful insights. I’m very proud of you and I think you’re a great example of a female leader who is also academic and successful in the world of business. I wish you all the best for the future. We’ll be observing your development and I am sure you great success with great interest. I hope that many of the viewers of the webinar will also be interested in checking out Essayjack. I will check out myself and thank you so much again for being with us today. And maybe I can still give the floor to you for a second.
Dr Lindy 1:11:48 Thank you so much. I hope that this’s valuable to people who are sort of thinking about life outside the academy. I mean, as I said at the beginning, the thing that I want to be able to offer people is that sense of hope that you can land on your feet, even though when you start leaving the academy lonely and a lot of things can be very frightening and even unknowable. But what do they say, to climb a mountain, starts with the first step. Take that first step, whatever it might be.
Natalia 1:12:23 Thank you, everyone, for watching. Thank you for being with us and have a great day!
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Please cite as:
Bielczyk, N. (2020, September 27th). E021 Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Lindy Ledohowski on the Origins of EssayJack? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e021-academic-writing-for-graduate-students-lindy-ledohowski-on-the-origins-of-essayjack/
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