By Brett Orzechowski and David Tomczyk
HAMDEN, Conn. — A movement continues across college campuses to simulate "real-life" situations that are equal parts emotional, professional, practical and educational. My colleague and I set out to do just that. We took a generation raised on technology and combined it with one of the most difficult industries to monetize — media. While launching a website is now simple, making money off any digital platform is not.
We established the Media Innovation Collaborative to promote creativity and critical thinking between the Schools of Communications and Business at Quinnipiac University. After a crash course on crumbling traditional business models, we posed a challenge — create a sustainable, profitable media business in 12 weeks.
On the surface, our students were simply creating media-based businesses, but that misses the emphasis we placed on application. Our students wrestled with purpose. They viewed interactive media (social or otherwise) as tools their generation grew up with for basic communication. Now, there were dollar signs attached. Their perception of media changed and now focuses on means of distribution, community and monetization.
When we (me, a journalist pulled from industry, and my colleague, Dr. David Tomczyk, a former NASA employee and successful globetrotting entrepreneurial theorist) created this interdisciplinary pilot, we did not want to revolutionize academic thinking. We just wanted to create an environment that mirrors the pace required to innovate in the current and future marketplaces. We also wanted to attract some of the brightest students on campus — and the project did.
Through internships and widespread industry pontification, these students heard stories of fractured media institutions and bankrupt web-based businesses. The forecasted apocalypse in these industries did not interest them.
They wanted to create and saw opportunities everywhere. They wondered if the world needed another photo-sharing platform. They realized the importance of finding a niche.
Our students now grasp the concept of collaboration. They were resourceful and possessed vastly different skill sets but needed to understand how to work with others. Most thought entrepreneurship had to be done alone to do it "right" — now they understand the fundamentals of collaboration to find success. Moreover, they realize that technology is the great equalizer — that five employees can now match 500.
The students were more than willing to take risks, just not on their own. If they were to jump — sometimes the most difficult action of a would-be entrepreneur — they were only doing so with other students. For many, this was their first time taking risks. We helped them break the conditioning of years of schooling.
They competed for prize money and a grade in the pilot (the top two teams received As, next two Bs, and so on) but ultimately this mattered little to some of the most competitive and grade-driven students. Two factors drove them — fear of failure and the realization that the other teams in the pilot were developing a product superior to theirs. This drove them to learn on their own and from each other, Communication students teaching Business students and vice versa. Some students had never experienced failure, but they learned that it is an intrinsic part of the process of entrepreneurship — not accepting failure leads to not starting a business.
In mid-July, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quoted Reid Garrett Hoffman, LinkedIn's founder, in a well discussed column looking at creative energy and what this means for jobs and the competitive nature of this country. No career is a sure thing. Differentiate or become irrelevant. The column, as a whole, was filled with sage advice. Advice our students applied.
If our pilot, which is now developing into an incubator, helps students realize their ambitious plans (a common trait among their generation), then it is serving its purpose. Our students understand the nuances of the local, national and global marketplace and realize that jobs their parents once held may no longer exist. They understand competition. They know how to create a business that meets consumer needs.
We are not receiving considerable grant money like larger universities across the country for this pilot. We emphasize working with free tools and reaching into your own skill set while drawing on your own network and resources. They understand the art of bootstrapping. As one colleague eloquently puts it, "they're going native."
One of our teams claimed the top prize at the Connecticut state business plan competition, beating 100 other start-ups. Their product? Interactive tablet apps about current events for children. They are in discussions with angel investors. Another team won our school's competition with a website for bidding for quality investigative journalism. They found that their ideas have such low overhead that they do not need any financial help. They struggle with the idea of outside funding. They savor independence.
We accelerated the creative process and our students answered. They discovered their entrepreneurial gene. They have ideas — great ideas — and can make them real.
And all it took was 12 weeks.
Brett Orzechowski is an Instructor of Journalism and Dr. David Tomczyk is an Assistant Professor of Management at Quinnipiac University. Brett.Orzechowski@quinnipiac.eduÂ David.Tomczyk@quinnipiac.edu