Aligning Your Research, Business and Life with Cheryl Lau (Part 1) | GBP053

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In today’s episode, we enjoy a detailed discussion with Cheryl Lau from about aligning your research, business, and life.  This is the first of a two-part interview with Cheryl on building a business you love.

Cheryl is presently a researcher in the social work department of a Hong Kong university. She also runs a side hustle business as an online personal branding strategist: she helps other researchers develop a personal brand that presents them as an emerging thought leader so that they can apply to graduate school programs or jobs and ultimately create value-packed content for their fields.

Cheryl’s question about fear of sharing her work online was featured in Episode #42.

Cheryl’s venture into the online space started when she dropped out of law school a few years ago, having realized that law was not the right career fit for her.

“That’s when I saw firsthand how discouraging and stressful it can feel to start your career journey over,” she said. She gave herself a year to experiment and find something that worked for her. She started building her personal brand, which helped her to attract new opportunities, both academically and in business.

“In the business space, I started pushing myself to show up online to share my thoughts and ideas and experiences. This led to building an audience on social media that took an interest in what I have to say. Eventually, I was able to work with some of those audience members in a professional capacity, and this became a business.”

When Cheryl decided to leave law school, her parents were against it because they saw it as quitting.

They had also been so proud at the prospect of their daughter going into such a practical and prestigious profession. Although they accepted her decision, they weren’t supportive at the time.

“Fast forward to today, 2020, they’re seeing the progress and the things I have done since leaving law school,” Cheryl said. “I think they’re very relieved to see what has come about since (I left) law school.”

She was also worried about what her peers would think because they were moving ahead in their careers. “At the time it seemed like, “Wow, I am taking a few steps back and everyone else is moving forward.” I dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome, a lot of self-doubts. Self-doubt is the keyword here. But now, in hindsight, I’m grateful for the opportunity to make a decision to leave law school because now I feel like I am definitely aligning my interest and passion with my career.”

Cheryl said that she stumbled into online coaching by accident.

Initially, she had certain inaccurate presumptions about coaching, namely that certain qualifications and certifications were needed. She also didn’t know that it could be done online.

She was still intrigued by the concept of coaching and decided to hone her skills and build knowledge so that she could eventually help people in a certain area. But which area? Social media and marketing seemed relevant and interesting, but because Cheryl didn’t have any skills in those areas, she knew she needed to learn more before she could even think about charging someone to work with her.

Because she didn’t know much about personal branding, marketing, and social media, Cheryl’s earliest content pieces were about her perspective. She talked about her fear of putting herself on the Internet by using Instagram Stories and the challenges she faced.

“I started with that and then, later on, when people were engaging with me, asking me questions or responding to my Instagram Stories or my Instagram posts, I started producing content about that. I started producing content about how you can create content that gets engagement. Then I kept on building that from there.”

Like a lot of people in the early stages of their journey, Cheryl had intrusive thoughts.

Who was she to even show up on social media? What did she have to say? What did she have to offer? Who would listen to what she had to say?

This fear kept her stuck for a couple of months. Then she found content creators who inspired her, including Chris and GradBlogger. Finally, she asked herself, “What is the worst that can happen if I put myself out there? And what is the best that could happen if I put myself out there?”

She realized that she didn’t have that much to lose. If anything, she had a lot to gain by showing up online, so she committed to using Instagram Stories every day. She talked to the camera and shared her thoughts as clearly and concisely as possible.

“If you look back at the first few Instagram Stories I posted and compare it to the ones I share today, they are worlds apart. The confidence and the communication skills and the flow, everything is so different. It’s fun to watch back your first pieces of content and feel proud of how far you’ve come.”

Cheryl’s recommendation for those who want to build an audience focus: give value.

When you’re trying to develop a personal brand or business, it’s important to share content that will benefit people. She listed three critical points:

  • Your reputation
  • The relationship with your audience
  • The quality of your work/content

By overcoming self-doubt and putting herself out there, Cheryl was able to build trust with her audience and eventually start a business that attracted paying clients month after month.

Cheryl’s advice for anyone wanting to start a service-based business was to:

  1. Identify a problem you want to solve for other people
  2. Confirm that there was an audience willing to pay for a solution
  3. Confirm that it is work you would enjoy doing

“Once you figure out those three elements, then I would say start implementing and start getting results for people,” she said.

When she started her branding/marketing business, she had no experience and therefore no social proof to show.

With this in mind, Cheryl reached out to a few audience members and asked them if they would work for her for free in exchange for feedback and a testimonial.

“I worked with a couple of people that way. I worked with them for a couple of weeks and was able to help them build an audience and create a personal branding strategy and content strategy. A few of them got paid clients through our free work together. That’s when I knew I was doing something that I could monetize.”

In January 2019, Cheryl accepted a full-time research position while running her online business.

Time became such a precious commodity that she identified the key business activities that had to be accomplished every day. They centred around her activity on Instagram Stories, where her clients and an audience followed her.

“Honestly, running a business has been such a personal development journey,” she said. “The act of putting yourself out there and building relationships and showing up on social media and talking about your thoughts and what’s on your mind and documenting your journey, all of those key things that you do while running an online business, does wonders for your own confidence in terms of your life and your career and where you’re at and overcoming any self-doubt that you may have.”

As 2019 progressed, Cheryl found that her interest in the field of research was increasing day by day.

She enjoyed her job and was thinking more and more about a PhD. “At the same time, I thought, “Well, do I want to do the business full time?” I got the feeling that the answer was no. That’s when I thought, “Okay, something needs to be clarified here.”

During the latter half of 2019, she took a hiatus from the online business to self-reflect on what was next for her and how she could have a business that supported her career goals. To learn more about where Cheryl took her career next, continue on with episode #54 of the GradBlogger podcast, coming April 16, 2020.

If you have any questions about how to successfully align your business with your research and your life, you can contact Cheryl at Cheryl Theory on Twitter and Cheryl Theory on Instagram or visit

For questions about GradBlogger, you can reach out to Dr. Chris Cloney via email or leave a comment below.

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