Leaving A Neuroscience PhD To Build Two Online Businesses Thumbnail

My name’s John Accardi. I’m 25 years old and just about 6 months ago, I withdrew from the neuroscience PhD program at Georgetown University. Not only was I on a full scholarship that paid my tuition and lab expenses, but I was receiving a generous stipend as well. So why did I drop out and how did I build 2 profitable online businesses with hardly any startup capital?

Why did I leave Georgetown?

I left for one simple reason: I didn’t like it. In the Neuroscience PhD program, I was required to attend class but the majority of my time was spent doing research at the lab bench. I was working on developing the new technology of optogenetics to treat epilepsy. I’d surgically implant fiber optic cables into the rat brain, in the attempts to alter epileptic neural networks. At times, It was cutting-edge and exciting but mostly it felt limiting. Like most jobs, I had to work for long hours in the same place with the same people, day after day. I also disliked the fact that I needed permission to take any time off, even for something as simple as a doctor’s appointment.

I started to become restless and thought of ways that I could earn a living with a more free lifestyle. I searched for different ways to work for myself and set my own hours. I also wanted the potential to earn more money. After some searching, I became excited about the idea of building an online business. It was so fascinating to me because I knew that an online business could be operated from anywhere in the world. I pictured myself at a condo in Florida, sitting by the pool while managing business from my laptop or phone.

Beginning To Build My Online Businesses

I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea of starting an online business, so I immediately began working to manifest it. Every day I thought about what I could possibly sell online. I wanted it to be a niche item, where the market isn’t overwhelmingly competitive. I also wanted it to be something that was regularly purchased online and somewhat difficult to find in brick and mortar retail stores. I wrote up an exhaustive list of all the possible products I could sell and in the end, I chose beer pong tables for 2 reasons. The first was that beer pong tables fit my criteria of being a niche item and they’re nearly impossible to find in retail stores. Most people who want to buy a beer pong table use search engines to find a website that sells them. The second reason was that in college, my roommates and I owned a beer pong table. We’d play almost every night but fill the cups with water instead of beer and we’d play it like a sport. As a result, I learned all the rules, tips, and tricks. I knew that sharing this knowledge online could be valuable in attracting visitors to my store. I named the business PartyHouse Pong and the site is partyhousepong.com.

As I was building PartyHouse Pong, I thought of another product idea that I was really optimistic about: college care packages. I also had 2 reasons for wanting to sell this product. The first was that I wouldn’t have to invest in manufacturing anything from scratch but I could still create an original product. By simply taking pictures of a box, logo, and snacks inside, I would be able to sell my own unique product online. The second reason was that when I was a college student, my parents had bought me a care package offered by the college. I remember thinking the quality was really poor and the snack brands were out-dated. I knew I could do a better job. I called this college care package business CollegeBox and the website: collegebox.com.

Planning To Leave Grad School

I was able to create both websites in a little over 1 month. They were fully functional but neither had any sales yet. This is because no one knew about them!  Despite not having sales, I was so excited to start marketing these businesses and I was extremely confident in my ability to generate revenue in the future. I had a decent idea of how I would market the sites but it would take time and the demands of grad school were getting heavier. I had tried meeting these demands while growing the businesses and it simply wasn’t going to work. Doing a neuroscience PhD at Georgetown University is more than a full-time job. Your days are filled with class and lab work and nights and weekends are consumed with studying.

I knew what I wanted and figured it didn’t make sense to do both grad school and the businesses because, as a result of spreading myself too thin, I would probably fail at both. I started to think about leaving Georgetown to work on these businesses full-time. I took a practical look at my finances, making sure I had the savings to live for 1 year without income as well as weighing my chances of landing a job if the businesses were to fail. I did in fact have enough savings for 1 year of rent  and food so I decided that leaving Georgetown was a possibility. I figured I could rent a place in Washington, DC, and live frugally.

During a weekend in October, I was visiting my home in Stone Harbor, NJ and I went to Cape May to take a walk on the boardwalk. I was looking up at a full moon over the ocean and it hit me that I had to drop out of school. Until this point it was unclear to me but in that moment, I knew it had to be done. I knew that this was my chance and if I stayed in the PhD program, I would always wonder what could have happened. Once I got back to Washington, I met with the appropriate people at Georgetown to plan my departure.

How Are The Business Doing Today? 

Today, both of these businesses are profitable and it’s been only 6 months! To make things better, I never had to invest a lot of startup cash. The profits of the businesses are not able to cover all of my living expenses yet, but based on their growth trends, they should be able to within the next 6 months.

This profitability with minimal startup investment was possible because partyhousepong.com uses what’s called a “drop ship” business model. This is how it works: A customer buys a table from my website for the retail price listed on the site, then I buy that table for a discounted wholesale price from one of my drop ship suppliers. I tell that supplier to ship the table to my customer’s shipping address. The result is that my customer gets their table, and I keep the difference between the retail and wholesale prices. While the profit margin is small, this model reduces risk and capital investment requirements since you don’t need to stock inventory.

For marketing, partyhousepong.com is all about the search engines. Like I mentioned earlier, when people want to buy a beer pong table, they use the search engines to find a website that sells them. It’s too much of a niche product to find success in Facebook marketing, magazine ads, ect. So all of my marketing efforts go towards search engine optimization (SEO). I don’t hire a firm to help me with this and I’ve been successful on my own. The first thing I did, was create phenomenal content. I wrote all the beer pong rules, tips, tricks, ect. and put them on my site. I also wrote a unique product description for all 200+ beer pong tables, and created a PartyHouse Pong blog which I contribute to several times per week. The second thing I do for SEO is write blog and news articles for other websites in the hopes of having them include a link back to my site.

Collegebox.com also minimizes risk and startup capital since the care packages could be made without having to invest in manufacturing a new product. I simply bought the various snacks that would fill the boxes, took pictures, and put them on the website. As orders continue to come in, I buy inventory from a local distributor and fill the orders as their purchased. CollegeBox has been marketed in many ways. Everything from flyers on college campuses to Google Adwords and Facebook. It has been moderately successful but I am still learning how this industry works.

So here I am, 6 months out of grad school, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made. I am pursuing my dream, working hard, and having fun all at the same time.

My Advice To You

There have been obstacles along the way and I’ve dealt with them in 2 ways: persistence and learning. For example, with PartyHouse Pong, I began marketing with Facebook and magazine ads but found that it wasn’t working. I had to quickly change gears and learn everything I could about SEO. As an entrepreneur, you must be willing to learn whatever it takes to get the job done. Persistence is important every single day in any kind of business. When you’re starting out, for every time someone says “yes” to you, 20 people or maybe 100 people will have said “no” before that. You have to believe in your vision and keep going.