Ah the age-old question.
Most people know that professors teach university students but the part about research is confusing for even my most interested family members (outside of my partner, and parents). And don’t get me started on the fact that most people assume I relax, and sip cocktails all summer long (Spoiler alert: this is absolutely not true. I have a 12-month appointment and a high distribution of effort in research which means the summer is one of my busiest times). How exactly do you explain the details of the research process to someone who asks you?
I had a senior colleague who once told me that his perspective was that being an academic researcher was like being a small business owner or entrepreneur. At first, I thought it was a strange analogy but the more I have thought about it over the years, the more I like it. I think my research team runs very much like a small business and I think that it has been helpful for me to talk about it that way with my graduate students because it helps them to better understand how I spend my time, and my role in the bigger picture (essentially keeping the ship afloat and pointing in the right direction).
As researchers we deal in the business of ideas and not widgets, but to me it is very similar.
See? Running an academic research lab is in fact, a lot like running a small business.