I’m trying to catalogue some of the lessons I learned in my entrepreneurial journalism course at CUNY. There’ll be more, especially after the students and I share our postmortem in the final class, Wednesday. But here’s a start.
The students presented a dozen businesses to a dozen jurors who had it in their power to award up to $50,000 in seed money (thanks to a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation). I have said from the start that I couldn’t be too open about the class because these are the students’ proprietary ideas and if one of them has the next Google (or New York Times, for that matter), I don’t want to ruin it. So I’ll be brief (Saul Hansell already deftly and succinctly described many of them). And, besides, maybe one of you would like to invest:
The jurors were quite engaged by a proposal to have the public help decide what followup stories journalists should do. Other likely grantees (if the entrepreneurs answer some questions and meet some conditions): a multimedia blog serving BedStuy; a service to help high-school athletes sell themselves; a content/social service helping people in their late 20s and early 30s with personal finance even if they think it is boring; and an already-started online magazine for and by Muslim women (which has already sold an impressive 1,500 subscriptions at $20 each). The rest did not receive grants but as I told the students after the judging, I have taken businesses to some of the people on that very jury who turned them down, but those businesses went on to get funding and launch. That’s how startups work: seduction. There are more very good proposals in the bunch: a hyperlocal tourist site in Oregon (it was too small for the majority of judges but that’s precisely why it was a particular favorite of some of the others); a social site for teen girls built on existing social networks; a metablog and search engine for the best of the music blogs; a hyperlocal green blog, community, and directory; a social network for big-team sports fans; a series of videos about successful black businesswomen; and a site that captures what’s really happening in leading cities around the world from journalists working there.
The jurors — again, the list is here; they brought many distinct perspectives — were, I’m glad to say, quite engaged in the process. They asked very good questions — that’s what yields many of my lessons learned, below. They were passionate in their deliberations. And here’s the best part: Jurors volunteered to act as mentors to the students’ businesses. I couldn’t have asked for more from them.
So, some lessons:
* You can never be short and clear enough in your elevator pitch. This was one of the first things I told the students when we started together. When my old boss Steve Newhouse talked with the class, he told them about a company he’d bought, explaining what it did in 17 words, which he counted on his fingers as he told the students they should all do likewise. But at our jurying session last week, I saw the judges get confused a few times, and hearing these pitches through their ears, I understood why. In Hollywood, this is called high-concept: the show you can describe in one phrase (‘It’s Cheers meets Survivor and the audience gets to vote Cliff off the bar’). We make fun of that; it’s a sign of dumbed-down TV. But startups are different from sitcoms. If you can’t describe what you’re doing — to customers as well as investors — in 17 words, then you’re probably trying to do too much or you haven’t worked hard enough to define what you are doing or you simply aren’t describing it well and you’re going to lose people.
* I also wasn’t tough enough on the competitive analyses. They all did them, but the judges hammered hard on the marketplace. It is almost inevitable that when someone with a startup is asked about competition, he or she will answer, “none.” But I told the students that’s never true and, besides, in a networked world, you actually want company in your space. It gives you something to link to and it gives you an analogue others will understand. You can always be better than your competition, unless there is simply too much of it (which was the judges’ issue with a few of the students’ businesses).
* In one of the early classes, Jim Kennedy, VP for strategy at the Associated Press, heard all of the students’ then-still-nascent ideas, gave feedback to each, and then said: Well, guys you’ve all proposed websites; what’s up with that? We felt properly chastened and old-fartish. This is what inspired more than one of the students to build their businesses where they should have been conceived, atop existing social networks and platforms. And during the jurying, Fred Wilson also pushed one student to include SMS or Twitter feeds from the audience’s mobile phones as news. We should have spent some more time cataloguing the possibilities. That’s what the web is really all about: new possibilities, new opportunities. Hansell is right in his blog post: A critical lesson from the class is that media enterprises can be started atop existing platforms. So next time, we will catalogue them.
* I also required the students to formulate marketing plans — which, in most cases, means an analysis of social and viral potential. It was very hard for them to come up with comparable audience numbers and that is the underpinning of any media business plan. I’m not sure what to do about that. I also pushed students to do market research: to interview their customers (it’s just reporting). Those who listened that that benefiteed (one business, for example, changed its target audience when it found that the original target wasn’t as interested as they thought).
* I’m glad I spent a lot of time on advertising, getting down to the details of CPM, CPC, CPA, RPM, and all that. It was foreign to all the students — as it is to many or most journalists — but as they well understood, this is how they’re going to eat. The idea of selling ads is properly daunting for them, but the good news is that ad networks are beginning to emerge that may help support media enterprises such as these. At the end of a three-hour class session on ads, I asked whether the students were OK with what they’d just heard and one said, with a wry grin, “Well, that’s journalism.” A fellow student didn’t see or hear his irony and jumped down his throat, lecturing him about why we have to understand how to sustain and support journalism or else they won’t have jobs and we won’t have reporting. It was one of those moments in class you can’t pay for.
* My not-so-hidden agenda in the class was to teach journalists about business and sustaining journalism and I hope that mission was accomplished. Whether they start their own businesses or become managers or just so they can make wise career choices, I believe it’s necessary to understand the pressures and opportunities presented by the change in the economics of media.
* Journalistic entrepreneurship is not an oxymoron. To my amazement, every single one of the students said they wanted to start these businesses; I was hoping one or two might be so ambitious and independent. Now, of course, real job offers with real salaries will properly distract some of them. But the fact that these young journalists want to think entrepreneurially surprises and delights me. The fact that they realize they may need to work independently should surprise no one. It is a lesson to the industry: Give this kind of talent an opportunity to invent and innovate and they will.
* But we need an incubator. These businesses need ongoing advice and nurturing, most do. Just during the semester, I quickly learned that each student-entrepreneur and business needed even more individual attention than I’d anticipated; they and their needs were unique. If we are going to get innovation in the news and media businesses, then we need to bring help and resources to the effort. Just as big, old media companies can’t just sit there and think that the future will come to them — when, instead, it’s passing them by — so the industry has to actively support innovation with incubation. I have plans. More on that another day.
Bottom line: I loved being in this class. The course itself was a risky venture but it surpassed my expectations. As I’ve said here, I felt as if I were on the board of a dozen exciting startups. It was energizing working with the students’ creativity and passion — which was only intensified, frankly, by the possibility of real money (a stronger motivator than grades). I hope this also sends a small message to the industry about the possibilities for and need for innovation. And I hope at least one of these students might end up being the Pulitzer, Hearst, Ochs, Sarnoff, or Paley of this century. Could happen.