New Classes, New Year, and the New American Entrepreneurs

February 1st, 2012

Digg's Kevin Rose is an example of the new breed of American entrepreneurs - especially in digital media startups

I feel energized and hopeful about the future, buoyed by the first full week of the new semester and a State of the Union Address where the President actually mentioned Entrepreneurship.

Meeting a new class of students usually has a positive impact on me. Fresh faces filled with enthusiasm, energy and determination. Heads filled with ideas, dreams and images of the future.

This semester, I am especially thrilled: I am teaching two classes on entrepreneurship. One is an introduction to the concept of The Lean Startup (ICC 300) for digital media startups; the other is a class (ICC 400/600) where students – grads and undergrads – will actually LAUNCH digital media startups.

I started the Lean class with a reading – as if from scripture – from the new book:  The Lean Startup by Eric Reis. (Uh-oh. Sacrilege!  If my Jesuit teachers could hear me now.)

Reis starts out the book with a familiar tale. [Cue the soaring and inspiring soundtrack.]

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Brilliant college kids sitting in a dorm are inventing the future. Heedless of boundaries, possessed of new technology and youthful enthusiasm, they build a new company from scratch. Their early success allows them to raise money and bring an amazing new product to market. They hire their friends, assemble a superstar team, and dare the world to stop them.

Then he debunks the myth. [Kill the music.]

Ten years and several startups ago, that was me, building my first company. I particularly remember a moment from back then: the moment I realized my company was going to fail. My cofounder and I were at our wits’ end. The dotcom bubble had burst, and we had spent all our money. We tried desperately to raise more capital, and we could not. It was like a breakup scene from a Hollywood movie: it was raining, and we were arguing in the street. We couldn’t even agree on where to walk next, and so we parted in anger, heading in opposite directions. As a metaphor for our company’s failure, this image of the two of us, lost in the rain and drifting apart, is perfect.

It remains a painful memory. The company limped along for months afterward, but our situation was hopeless. At the time, it had seemed we were doing everything right: we had a great product, a brilliant team, amazing technology, and the right idea at the right time. And we really were on to something. We were building a way for college kids to create online profiles for the purpose of sharing … with employers. Oops.

Yep. They were THAT close. “Almost Facebook,” you could say.

“It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way,” Reis continues in his opening. “In magazines and newspapers, in blockbuster movies, and on countless blogs, we hear the mantra of the successful entrepreneurs: through determination, brilliance, great timing, and above all a great product, you too can achieve fame and fortune.”

Yes. I’m terrible. I come to a class filled with youthful exuberance and hope for the future… and then I destroy their dreams by starting the semester with THAT reading.

But that’s not all. In my New Media Entrepreneurship class, I started the class by telling them: “Your idea is worthless… ALL ideas are worthless.” I even tell them that many of the ideas they have aren’t even worthy of being called ideas, they are mere notions, not even full-fledged ideas. Then I go on to say it is only with work – especially team work – that these notions can become ideas, ideas become concepts, and concepts can become SOMETHING: a plan, a demo, a prototype, and ultimately a startup.

And so begins the shiny, new year.

This is the first time I’m teaching both these classes. I developed the curriculum for the Lean Digital Media Startups class last year. I believe is the first of its kind in a media and communications school – following in the footsteps of Steve Blank and his Lean Startup class at Stanford Engineering. This is the second year (I think) for the New Media Entrepreneurship class, this time revamped around Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Generation approach, seasoned with lots of lean concepts. This is a class about forming teams around good ideas and working to turn those ideas into something with value.

I want to inform, inspire and support my students. Being at a major university, I remind them they are only a few minutes’ walk from an expert on nearly any topic or problem they might encounter. Since I’m teaching non-business media majors (in Advertising, Journalism, Television, Public Relations, Photography and Design), I also remind them they can take a walk down to the business school if they need a team member with skills in accounting, marketing, or logistics, or go up and woo an engineering or software student from those schools if they need help them with development or infrastructure or building something. I tell them business ventures are all about teams. I tell them they need to be leaders to attract great teams to their great ideas. That’s the only way to add value to the idea: having a team work on it to create something: a product, a service, a platform, something that didn’t exist before.

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama was trying to rally Team USA to come together to fix our struggling economy and re-establish the role of America as the shining example of innovation and self-made success. He referenced the power of entrepreneurship to help.

It means we should support everyone who’s willing to work, and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs. After all, innovation is what America has always been about. Most new jobs are created in start-ups and small businesses. So let’s pass an agenda that helps them succeed. Tear down regulations that prevent aspiring entrepreneurs from getting the financing to grow.

I’m excited for the new year and new student entrepreneurs. And despite my opening words in both classes, I think the students are excited too. For some students, I’m turning on the lights to the idea of starting a venture. To others, I’m directing and adjusting those lights. But for some of these students – like Reis was, huddled in his dorm and dreaming of a bright future – my job is to get out of the way before I get run over.

The ideas are growing, the teams are forming and the action is to follow. These are the New American Entrepreneurs.

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