Last week, I was invited to participate in a workshop at my alma mater, Davidson College. They recently launched an interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship Initiative, and had brought in the foremost expert on the intersection of innovation and education, Tony Wagner, to facilitate discussion with students, faculty, and alumni about what the Initiative might mean and become.
A few things about the initiative are absolutely correct, but a number of major challenges still face the school and program.
To be sure, Davidson is coming from a more privileged place to begin with than other institutions, with strong foundations in leadership development, an impressive endowment, and an open and honest culture that is difficult to replicate. It’s a selective enough place to know that the vast majority of students will go on to have successful careers, even if they’re not completely prepared for the workforce on graduation day. As such, the term “vocation” can be kept off-campus, and the decision to make the Entrepreneurship Initiative interdisciplinary (rather than creating a new major) is a good one.
They’ve already set up an internship program, a venture fund, a maker and innovation space, a scholarship, and a post for an Entrepreneur In Residence. All of these vehicles will prove incredibly valuable for students with a desire to pursue an idea as a business.
However, the biggest challenges remain in communication and changing the way students view entrepreneurship.
Davidson students are known for being workhorses. The school has more rigorous workloads than anyone outside of top military academies, and most students balance school work with Division 1 athletics, community service, or any number of extracurriculars. Many students come in groomed for such rigor, having been top of their classes at top high schools from around the world.
While this work ethic is crucial, the current context for it is troublesome when contrasted with the sorts of attributes that help entrepreneurs succeed. The biggest issue at hand is the fear of failure, which is something every entrepreneur has to overcome. In an academic setting, taking risks very rarely yields positive results, and anything less than perfection will hinder a student from achieving their goals — how many Davidson students got an F on anything in high school? In order to get students taking big entrepreneurial leaps, Davidson will either need to innovate in the realm of measuring academic success (no GPA? different grading criteria?), or communicate to students that academic success is measured differently (which also requires educating students on work-world success metrics).
That said, I think there may be lower hanging fruit, too. In the workshop, we were asked to associate words with the question “What is entrepreneurship?” The majority of the terms thrown out painted the same picture the media paints of entrepreneurs: self-assured risk takers who come up with crazy ideas and make billions of dollars from them. While some of that is true to some extent some of the time, I think entrepreneurship, especially as it applies to a college program, is far broader.
In my small workshop group (one student, one recent grad, the current EIR, and me), we decided Entrepreneurship is a framework that involves asking hard questions, setting a course, and creating spaces and vehicles for others to help push towards a shared goal. Nothing in that definition necessitates starting a company or taking enormous, potentially life-altering risks. It’s very possible to be entrepreneurial within existing organizations (even as big and old of organizations as 3M), and it’s very possible to be entrepreneurial without pursuing large sums of money.
A few other words came up that could be terrifying for Davidson students, but shouldn’t be. The big ones were “failure” and “execution.” San Francisco is the only city in the country where “failure” is not only embraced, but celebrated (see FailCon), yet all of America has a long history of entrepreneurship. Everyone fails several times daily, but our success (and happiness) is generally more contingent upon how we recover from that failure than the failure itself. Thus, communication should focus on “iteration” rather than failure. Similarly, “execution” is merely a fancy term for doing successful work — it could be replaced by any number of terms, and it’s something Davidson students are highly capable of.
On a whole, the Entrepreneurship Initiative has created and will continue to create great opportunities for Davidson students, but its challenges lie outside of logistics and in communication. I’m hopeful for its future, and for the future of Davidson, and extremely humbled to have been asked to participate in its formative discussions.
2 months ago - Permalink
There are worse things to wake up to than a Twitter message from one of your favorite bands, especially when it’s an idea for a hilarious and easily buildable website.
I was lucky enough to wake up to such a message yesterday from Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr:
@tywhite someone needs to make a site called “InstaGrampa” where every pic gets auto doctored to make the subject look geriatric— Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr (@dalejrjrmusic) September 3, 2013
While the band’s representatives could neither confirm nor deny a rumor that the idea was conceived after a leisurely wake-n-bake (okay, I just made that up), I thought it seemed like a reasonable idea and set about building it.
3 months ago - Permalink
I wrote a post the other day about the Myth of Discovery, and at the end I mentioned I have similar feelings about social. While I’ve held them for a while, I realized Andy is the only person whose ear I’ve bent about it. It would probably be a more shocking view a couple years back when I first made the realization, but I’m posting it now in case it still merits discussion. And because Hunter asked nicely ;)
In the last decade or so, no word has been thrown around tech circles than “social.” As we’re now seeing a burst of “Uber for ______” startups (some of which could be more legit, since they’re applying economic pressures to inefficient markets), so too have we seen hundreds of companies try to ride Facebook’s coattails and “make _______ social.”
Simply making something social is not a valid foundation for a startup business.
Much like discovery, social is a feature. It’s actually more of a layer, which should be built into most every consumer product these days (in some fashion, at least; because hey, we’re connected, so why not?). It may even bring you a whole bunch of new users, but it’s not sustainable in and of itself as a value proposition.
The motto for startups that I keep repeating is “add value or die.” Social does not add value, it multiplies the value you add. Add real value, then multiply it using social.
Now, this may seem obvious to some of you, but we’re still categorizing apps as “social.” The App Store has a “Social Networking” category, and Google Play has a “Social” category.
Tell me: have you ever gone looking for an app because it’s “social”? Have you said, “Hmm, I want to be social today. Is there an app for that?” My guess is no.
Ok, so let’s look at the top list of what these stores categorize as social and see what they really mean:
- Facebook: Identity. They can (and probably soon will) sell ads anywhere you’re connected, which is probably almost any app on your phone. Why? Because they offer identity as a service. Their own apps just happen to be the biggest client of that service.
- Tumblr: Creative expression & inspiration. As they say: “Follow the world’s creators.” They haven’t *really* proven how much that’s worth yet, but it’s clearly worth enough to get Yahoo!’s attention.
- Twitter: World’s biggest comment platform and/or personal news feed. You can comment on anything, and Twitter targets ads based on that. Check out their TV ad system. Just reading news? Ok, then get ads like you would on any other news network.
- Skype: Telephony. No longer requiring physical land-lines to make connections, Skype makes money when people call each other all over the world. And it’s cheaper for you.
- Pinterest: Collections. First and foremost, it’s a personal utility. They wouldn’t exist if it weren’t. Social becomes a multiplying factor on engagement, but it’s not the core.
- Foursquare: Connections to your physical surroundings. These guys realized (arguably a little too late, but I still have hope) that their early focus on social (making it a social game with leaderboards and such) was actually damaging their core business proposition.
- Kickstarter: Really? I love Kickstarter too much to even comment here.
- LinkedIn: Recruiting tool. If it was social, they’d focus on having you network with other folks through LinkedIn. Instead, they plead with you *not* to connect with folks if you don’t know them. They make their money by making it exceptionally difficult to find anyone in your extended networks unless you pay up.
And on and on. I would’ve expected more messaging apps in there, which, like Skype, are really about communication (something that people have been monetizing for centuries).
Point is, social is not your business. It may help, perhaps significantly, perhaps to a point where your business couldn’t exist (or thrive) without it. But it is not a business in and of itself.
Worth noting: The myth of social is particularly dangerous in media businesses. See Turntable.fm (“making listening social”) for a high profile example of a business that applied social really well to get growth, but never added real value to back it up, and thus collapsed. There were plenty more that never got as far as they did.
3 months ago - Permalink
Discovery as a scalable, tech-driven service is a wonderful dream. It’s one I’ve had several times over the years. But in the end it’s just that: a dream.
Everyone wants to believe they can build a better way to make sense of the ridiculous amount of content online, and a lot of people have built some really cool ways.
But there’s something different about how discovery happens online, and it’s tied to the core infrastructure of the Internet: links. Links make it easy to direct people to content from anywhere; meaning, infinite contexts can be places around a link.
Because of the freedom links offer, we’re always capable of better discovery experiences outside of a static app context — we can find contexts that resonate with us better, be it a real-world conversation, a blog, Twitter, or really anything else. I’m more likely to trust a song a good friend sent me than if that very same song were recommended to me by an app.
It’s also difficult for apps that are predicated on helping you discover content to deliver that small shock of surprise that ripples through our brain when we find something new we like — if we’re expecting to find something new, that shock isn’t there, and we’re less likely to be irrationally giddy with excitement for the newness.
This is not to say that apps can’t effectively drive discovery, it just can’t be their core value. A lot of apps and sites that appear to be successful and predicated on discovery are actually about community — a group of folks who enjoy similar content and/or similar ways of accessing content. The Hype Machine is a huge community of music fans, who have proven they love dubstep remixes of indie pop songs by constantly voting them up. Reddit is a community that surfaces much of the viral content online, but the product is just about connecting people in conversation.
That connection it’s what successful discovery ultimately looks like as a feature set. Rdio and Spotify connect you to what your friends are listening to, and even give some more context (like whether they’re playing an album or playlist), but ultimately allow you to take that last step to “discovery,” allowing for that little shock in your brain. And discovery isn’t their core value; access is. Successful “discovery” is really a set of features that help drive engagement.
At first I had taken issue with Hunter Walk’s post on video discovery apps not being a venture scale business, but now I whole-heartedly agree. Does that mean I’m leaving the video game? Hell no. But I’m shifting focus to driving value through functionality, and rethinking discovery features as a means to get out of the user’s way of using the product successfully, rather than getting in the way. I would encourage anyone working on a “discovery” product to do the same.
PS - I believe a similar story to be true of “Social,” but that’s a post for another day ;)
3 months ago - Permalink