Building a business in a class

Standard

Well what a whirlwind three years it has been since I declared my journalism major. As I am writing this blog, I am finishing my capstone and drinking a coffee. I am also celebrating the freedom of being a second semester senior and relishing in the fact that I will fly home tomorrow with my partner.

Entrepreneurial Media was a useful class, but I think I learned more about my classmates than the actual learning objectives. It was a unique bonding experience to be thrown into a mix of journalism majors and expected to create business plans for companies we invented. The journalism major as a whole doesn’t usually include many classes in how to create a business so the sheer effort it took to build something from the ground up kept us connected.

Since the journalism major has three tracts (public relations, advertising and news) and many of us choose to double major, a few students – myself included – felt that the distribution of talent was uneven. For example, putting two or more PR majors in a group and then judging their presentation against a presentation put together by three news majors might not have resulted in consistent presentations.

That being said the group I worked with was wonderful. Given that we are all involved in the student newspaper we built a business designed to restore the public’s trust in mass media. It was a lofty goal and one that probably could have used some PR gloss and graphic design shine to make it truly sparkle. Nevertheless the three of us were as proud of Tripartisan as we could be.

Our business plan addressed what we felt, as millennials, is lacking in the mainstream media. Ask any millennial and they’ll tell you they’re overworked, underpaid and underemployed. Our consumption of media is limited to what we can enjoy from social media in the few free minutes we have during the week. The media has yet to fully grasp this and thus generally publishes articles attacking our generation rather than working to understand our demographic. Tripartisan embraced the millennial generation’s tendency to question, their need for quick consumption and their overall distrust of anyone telling them they have all the answers. We built Tripartisan for ourselves and for Generation Z.

I certainly learned how to adapt in Entrepreneurial Media and I appreciate the dedication and work my partners put into this project. Our business may never see the light of day but we are incredibly grateful for the freedom to create.

Advertisements

Empathy, writing, and data, oh my

Standard

My superpower is my ability to empathize with those around me. Although many of my colleagues experience sympathy, empathy is defined as the actual understanding and sharing of another person’s feelings (Google Dictionary). Sympathy, on the other hand, is defined as the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune (Google Dictionary).

As a professional my ability to empathize allows me to succeed in all manner of interpersonal situations. For example when a customer calls ranting and raving, although I may be upset by what they are saying, I understand that in the broader picture they are hurting. While working in customer service at Lowe’s, I saw that my ability to rationalize the customer’s fury often diffused the situation.

Empathy

Photo courtesy of freerangestock.com and Jack Moreh

I am by nature a quiet person, which some people take as an invitation to walk all over me. What they don’t often anticipate is that my strength is in my silence. When people are allowed to express their frustration to a receptive ear, they are also more likely to relax when they see the situation being remedied.

The professional workforce depends on people who can communicate effectively and interpret the customers’ desires into action. My other superpower is my ability to incorporate the hard skills I’ve learned from both the political science department and the journalism department. Journalism taught me about competent communication while political science taught me to look for patterns within the world around me.

Although the classes I have taken are wildly different, the skills afforded to me by these classes are irreplaceable. For example, in political science I’ve learned about data interpretation but in journalism I’ve learned how to clearly and concisely communicate the results of my data in a way that makes sense to the general populace and not just other political scientists. Essentially each skillset builds on the other’s, giving me the opportunity to move between the world of academia and the real world with little issue.

In short I am marketable because of both my soft skills and my hard skills. My ability to interpret data and write with clarity connects me to the world of academia, but my ability to empathize with those around me grounds me in the reality. Lacking either skill, I would be far less marketable.

Hats off to you, freelancers

Standard

If I am being truly honest with myself I’ve seen myself in some pretty interesting jobs, war correspondent, photojournalist, political scientist, cop, even a chaplain in the United Methodist Church, but there has always been one line I will not cross: freelancer. Ever since I was a kid all I’ve wanted are reliable working hours. Time that was definitively work and time that was definitively not work.

Most journalists are probably rolling their eyes, saying “boy are you in the wrong line of business,” and they may be right. But I didn’t get into journalism to work myself into an early grave, to miss seeing my family, or to forget about all of my other interests. I got into journalism because I have a passion for truth, for justice and a dedication to telling the stories that are often overlooked.

Freelancer

Many thanks to freerangestock.com and Jack Moreh for this graphic

The chapter depicts freelance work like it is: hard but not impossible. The author gives tips and tricks while talking about the rules of the trade. The rules are sensible: be thorough, not sloppy; communicate; and be reliable. However, those are the keys to success in almost all trades. The idea that you can attract more clients with honey than vinegar is hardly reinventing the wheel.

While I’m probably being too critical about the basic rules, the author does give excellent advice about having a unique selling point. Everyone needs something that makes them stand out in the crowd. I have to thank all of my professors at Creighton for helping me develop my unique selling point over the course of my four years here. Not only have I learned how to market myself, I’ve also learned valuable skills like videography, research, data analysis, and concise writing, which make me a solid candidate for just about anything.

As a freelancer, I wouldn’t have the stability I need to thrive but that doesn’t mean there aren’t advantages for the right person. The ability to set their own hours and be their own boss are probably two of the most enticing selling points for freelancers. Although those most likely to succeed are probably drawn in more by the ability to actualize their deepest desires in the form of a business and to create without corporate obstruction, than the freedom to not work on Wednesdays.

Although the chapter mostly reaffirmed my thoughts on freelance work, I can’t say that I don’t admire the tenacity of people who do freelance. They put themselves on the line for their work, sacrificing everything to live their dreams, and for that they will always have my deepest respect.

Pitching Tripartisan

Standard

Writing an elevator pitch for a company is undoubtedly a difficult experience. I believe in the practice of writing and employing elevator pitches; in fact as a part of my political science capstone I will have to deliver one on my project in front of all of the professors. The difference, however, is this is a project that I have been developing three years and doing the research on by hand.

While I love the idea of Tripartisan, only one student in our group has taken business related classes and thus learning to build a business in the span of 8 weeks is hard. Knowing the kind of research required or what should be included in a market segment is difficult when your training is sparse. Moreover plenty of people spend years developing their pitches and their products, doing trial runs and pivoting as needed. That means students with only a few class periods to prepare an elevator pitch is about as unprepared as they can be.

Business meeting

Image courtesy of freerangestock.com and Jack Moreh

I think the most difficult part was not being able to get feedback from our classmates before we received a final grade. I’ll be honest I hadn’t prepared as much as I’d have liked and I make no excuses for that, it was poor time management on my part. I was lucky in that Catherine was in class early and we used the time to pitch our speeches back and forth. What I think could have really helped the vast majority of students would have been some time to develop our pitches in our groups. Not to the point that we all had the same pitch, word for word; but so we could distill the core essence of our business plan and build from there. While rehearsing with Catherine, I listened to her speech and refined some of my talking points.

I also believe that having smaller groups would benefit a lot of people. I highly doubt many of us are going to be pitching an idea to 20 college students and their professor with any regularity. In fact, most of the pitches we saw (excluding those done at a competition) were done in front of a small group of venture capitalists. Sometimes the fact that the class – especially a big class – is made of people you know and respect makes it difficult to deliver a speech. You know exactly who is going to laugh when, who is checking their Facebook and who has their fingers and toes crossed praying they don’t screw up their speech. It’s comforting and yet oddly alienating; unlike the big competitions, we can’t walk away from this class and tell ourselves we’ll do better next time. We know we’re going to continue to see everyone; that our “sneaky journalist” mistakes are going to follow us into the next class.

The benefits of elevator pitches are amazing. They can land you jobs. They can score you points with your boss when investors show up unannounced at the doorstep. But they are terrifying. They can’t be under-practiced or over-practiced and the judges will hear your sales department voice a mile away. That’s what makes elevator pitches like Band-Aids, sometimes you just have to rip them off and focus on doing better next time.

Kickstarting a crowd-funding campaign

Standard

A Kickstarter pitch is essentially a longer version of the classic elevator speech. When done right, a la the Coolest Cooler, there’s no telling how much support you can receive. When done wrong, a la Mudtails, the paltry response speaks for itself.

Elevator speeches are short and a good Kickstarter, while not mincing words, shouldn’t overwhelm potential donors with information. The Coolest Cooler plays people’s short attention spans against them. Using colorful pictures and videos to break up the text, while succinctly summarizing the pitch in less than four sentences they ensure the greatest impact on their audience. Additionally they hit each of their most attractive features and personalized their pitch to their readers by asking broad but relatable questions.

Mudtails, on the other hand, lost their audience before they made it to the page. The title with its negative word association and the lack of consistency in capitalization screamed its inexperience. Moreover the pitch is five sentences full of business. It propagates what ifs instead of assurances and designs that lack a basic appeal. No one becomes a business expert overnight but the combination of bad decisions on this campaign spelled its doom.

Social networks

Courtesy of freerangestock.com and Jack Moreh

In this day and age, Kickstarters have to be shareable; they have to contain some aspect that makes people want to advertise for you. Coolest Coolers has a video that is professionally shot and full of action. In almost every shot we see the Coolest Cooler being used to address an ongoing, if frivolous, need. The video provides concrete evidence that not only is the Coolest Cooler an awesome campaign; it’s also a functional idea.

Mudtails fails to make advertisers out of its audience. The video, while sentimental to the woman who created it, doesn’t inspire, shock or solve a particular pain point. Plenty of successful crowd-funding campaigns rely on sentimentality to prove their worth but what this campaign fails to create is empathy. It discusses her life and her family but doesn’t tie the product to her family or her life thus far, making the video emotionally potent only to those in her inner circle.

For better or worse these campaigns are illuminating starting points. The Coolest Cooler represents the upper echelon of Kickstarter campaigns while Mudtails demonstrates how difficult it can be to drum up support. Crow-funding can be an excellent way to raise money but it isn’t easy and can often demonstrate bias, which is something not addressed in the blog above, but that has a visible effect on the campaigns that get funded and those that don’t.

Building their dreams: young entrepreneurs success and failure in modern times

Standard

After reading the Business Insider piece on young entrepreneurs and researching their successes and failures, I was reminded of the Parks and Recreation episode that looks into the future of the group. Tom Haverford, the young entrepreneur of the Parks Department, had several of his business ventures fail throughout the show but eventually became successful after using those experiences to create his brand as a motivational speaker. His tenacity even after several hiccups allowed him to reach his end goal, which is a lesson that I think can be gleaned from these real-life young entrepreneurs. They stepped out into the unknown, creating their dreams with no guarantee of success.

Little girl v blackboard

Courtesy of freerangestock.com

When I looked at the businesses initially, the first one I suspected of being doomed to fail was FamilyLeaf. Although the product seemed sweet and well branded, it lacked originality. Facebook has been providing people with the platform to connect with their families by sharing photos and messages for years. In short, Facebook is a giant in the field of social media. Given the platform the founders were trying to create, there simply wasn’t room for a second, if more personal, Facebook.

Another business that was doomed to fail, G3box, I initially thought was a brilliant idea. The idea was centered on building portable medical clinics inside recycled shipping containers. The reason G3box failed is not immediately clear, but logistical problems may have played a large part in the failure of this business. For example, portable medical clinics are fantastic if you can keep them staffed with trained individuals and full of adequate medical supplies. But these items are often difficult to source in impoverished, rural areas. Despite the ingenuity of the idea, G3box is proof that even the greatest ideas can be stopped in their tracks without a plan for practical implementation.

Jossle was a company that surprised me. At first glance I thought it would have failed immediately. Not because the idea lacked originality but because people wear brand names for free more often than not. To me it seemed like advertisers would scoff at the idea of paying college students to wear their brand around campus but I underestimated the need for constancy when pushing brands. It is subtle but continuous and therein lays the genius of Jossle.

Like G3box, I saw an immediate appeal to CentriCycle. It’s simple and elegant and provides a much needed resource to rural communities. Unlike G3box, however, it’s incredibly practical. There is no need for power or specialized technicians to operate the machinery. Simply some trained individuals and a pinch of elbow grease. In short it’s quite easy to understand the success and appeal of a product like CentriCycle.

The risk inherent to entrepreneurship is easily discernible. There is no safe path to becoming a successful startup but there are ways to prevent catastrophic failure. Defining an audience and working with an original idea can greatly ease the risk of failure, while also giving entrepreneurs a way to build their customer base.

Making entrepreneurship safer

Standard

In his article Why the Lean Start Up Changes Everything, Steve Blank addresses the development of a new business model, in which agile design and iterative development build better businesses in a “safer” way. No business model is inherently safe, in fact the statistics on businesses that fail are staggering. Using the lean start up model, however, allows for adaptation in the face of adversity, for pivoting in the face of failure.

Contrary to the idea set forth by Blank that this is a radical shift in set up, for the millennial generation,  this business model is the typical set up. Maybe it is a generational difference, maybe not, but when I was reading about this model it felt like common sense. Of course you’d want to develop in stages with consistent customer feedback; of course you’d continue to adapt according to the business world’s changing needs.

Jump

Photo courtesy of freerangestock.com. Like the child jumping to kick the ball and score a goal in this photo, beginning a business is a big risk with a potentially large payoff.

Facebook, for example, is a example of how businesses should change as needed. Facebook began as the brainchild of several college students but as the website began to take off Mark Zuckerberg, along with his team, built algorithms to cater to an older population that may not be tech-oriented. This allowed generations of people who weren’t able to use MySpace due to a lack of coding skills to engage in social media.

Furthermore, as millennials, my generation remembers the great housing crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession through the eyes of children. We saw adults in our lives lose their jobs and houses around us foreclose, something I think most people overlook when attempting to contextualize our behavior. I think this has led to a more gun-shy group of entrepreneurs who are hesitant to go all in without a safety net. This hypothesis may not seem to connect the variables but the majority of students I know worry about money and the stability of their future, which in turn makes them seek jobs and business opportunities that are likely to remain viable despite the changing economic landscape.

The lean start up model is essentially a business example of evolution. As older, less stable business models go extinct, newer models take their place resulting in a better product for the average consumer.