If there was one word not to forget from the panel discussion (Jan 19th) on entrepreneurship at The Columbia School of Journalism, it was “pivot.” Pivot, not physically, but by adjusting your initial plans when starting a company.
“Pivot, don’t travel,” said one of the panelists, Joe Marchese, who is the Founder and CEO of SocialVibe, a website that allows individuals to make a positive impact for the charity of their choice by completing branded activities online. “When you travel, it’s over. When you pivot, you’re still committed [to the idea].”
The panel discussion was moderated by Dean Sree Sreenivasan, himself an entrepreneur by way of his leadership role in developing DNAinfo.com, a local Manhattan news website. The panel featured Jeff Klein ’79, a former LA Times senior executive and also the founder of a business-to-business company, 101communications, which he sold in 2006.
Klein, who filled the role of seasoned entrepreneur, opened the talk by laying out two important elements that all entrepreneurs should know: 1) Be willing to accept failure and rejection, and 2) Realize that your venture will always cost more than you think.
Triple Your Investment
The latter advice was echoed by Sheldon Gilbert, Founder and CEO of Proclivity Systems, an e-commerce company that helps retailers better target their online customers.
“Whatever you need, triple it,” Gilbert said. That applies to all anticipated costs and the time you expect to meet a particular goal.
Another central topic was the role of friends in creating a company. Marchese encouraged the crowd of mostly journalism students to hire friends when starting a company, most importantly because “you’ll have really tough times in the beginning,” but also because it’s less expensive than hiring someone you don’t know.
But Gilbert cautioned against bringing friends on board, unless you know they are very committed to the idea.
“One could fall in love with someone in Madagascar,” he said. And then you may be stuck with a potential battle over who has more equity in the company. Gilbert hit home the importance of commitment.
“This idea has to consume you,” he said.
And he noted that some investors have asked him if he has a wife or children.
Get Your Product to Market
Also on the panel was Steve Spurgat, Founder and CEO of VYOU, a conversational-video startup, which allows users to respond to questions via video.
Spurgat responded to a question from the audience about protecting your ideas as a startup. He says he doesn’t protect his ideas or his software, and instead, he advocated “to get your product to market as soon as possible.” Granted, VYOU could still be imitated by Facebook before it has the chance to take off, but at least now more than 100 journalists can vouch that they first heard about this brand of video chat from Spurgat. Also, Dean Sreenivasan said that the school soon plans to use the technology in its admissions process. He wrote a review of VYOU prior to yesterday’s event: http:/bit.ly/dnavyou
The other panelists included: Carla Holtze, the co-founder of WingTips Interactive (WingTipIt.com), a clothing-oriented social commerce business that hasn’t officially launched, but will very soon; Clay Donahue, Founder and CEO of TasteoftheTimes.com, a food blog aggregation and social-platform start-up, which hasn’t yet launched; and, Melanie Burford, a Columbia School of Journalism adjunct professor and photojournalist, and one of the founders of PrimeCollective.com, a global collective of photojournalists, which is just a week old.
For Burford, establishing the collective was less of about profit and more about creating a community of other photojournalists to share with and support.
Towards the end, Sreenivasan alluded to two companies founded and run by current Columbia J-schoolers, The Fab Empire, a website that covers mostly nightlife in four U.S. cities, and Hodinkee, which publishes reviews of luxury watches.
“Pivot” for Success
Klein closed the discussion with the word of the evening, “pivot,” by citing from a Harvard Business School study concluding that 97% of startups that survive had to change course slightly along the way. It seems that whether you plan to start your own company, or pursue a career in the ever-changing field of journalism, you must be able to pivot.
Other key tips for entrepreneurs that came from last night’s panel:
1. You must be your own salesperson. “You are Chief Sales Officer,” said Sheldon Gilbert.
2. People will tell you about your idea: “I’ve heard of a company like that.” Well, if you’ve never heard of it, they’re clearly not doing a good job. Others might say, “Facebook is probably working on that.” Not necessarily, Marchese said. Large companies become slow and inefficient. Tell people like these to “shut up,” Marchese said.
3. Don’t worry about people stealing your idea, just work hard on executing it.
4. Your ability to execute your idea is most important, sometimes more important than the idea.
5. You better be passionate about your idea, and willing to stick with it when everyone else drops out.
7. PIVOT! – Be willing to adjust your initial idea.
Todd Stone is a freelance journalist and a student at the Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Inc.com, AdAge.com and has published a number of stories on Intellectual Property issues. He is also a stand-up comedian by night, performing as part of a duo, “Stone and Stone,” with his twin brother.
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