(Note: I wrote this initially for PR Week magazine. What follows is slightly updated.)
A cliche of business holds that good ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s hard work and investment capital that turn them into businesses. As with most cliches, this one has a solid foundation of truth.
But something has changed, and it has profound meaning for the future of media and communications, including journalism, entertainment and PR. Digital technologies are dramatically reducing the cost of entree for creating new products and services, and, in the case of digital media, those costs can be close to zero.
This is one reason that communications of all kinds are being disrupted for business, in both methods and models. Traditional media-related enterprises, including journalism and advertising, are feeling the effects earlier than most, but everyone is vulnerable.
Still, one person’s vulnerability – in a world of low-cost experimentation – is another’s opportunity.
Clay Shirky, a New York University scholar and writer, points out that a person holding a good idea “doesn’t have to convince anyone else to let them try it – there are few institutional barriers between thought and action.” (Do not miss Clay’s new book, Here Comes Everybody — by far the best recent book explaining how the Net’s collaborative potential is coming true.)
As a result, the research and development that the news industry should have done years ago is now being done in a highly distributed way. While some is being done by people inside media companies, most is not – and increasingly it won’t be. It will take place in universities, in corporate labs, in garages, at kitchen tables.
So while the old career ladders are disappearing, there may never have been a better time to become an entrepreneur in media. But there has also never been a greater need to instill entrepreneurial thinking in the next generation of media people.
This is one reason why I’ve just embarked on a new project, creating and running a new Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Our goals are simple: to help students understand the value of intelligent risk-taking; and to help them create new kinds of products and services in the media sphere. (I have two PR majors in our initial class. I’m glad, because the PR business has just as much a need to think entrepreneurially as any other.)
Much of what’s happening, happily, is made to order for the university environment. Universities provide time to think, research, build and iterate, and to do this with others who are on the same mission.
At the same time, semesters have start times and end times. The students also have other work to do besides our course and independent study projects. Entrepreneurship is about many things -and focus is one.
In the end, most of these projects will “fail” – fail, that is, in the traditional sense of the word. This is just like the real world of startups.
But the people who work on them will learn enormously valuable lessons. They will find themselves becoming more valuable to future employers – and they will understand even better the virtues to be found in taking intelligent risks. Maybe there are lessons here for businesses, too.