When Dan Gillmor was planning a five-day media entrepreneurship training program for journalism educators, he didn’t want participants to leave with merely a solid foundation in entrepreneurship principles and a new vocabulary of industry terms.

Click the image for the full series. Original photo by Paul Goyette and used here with Creative Commons.

Click the image for the full series. Original photo by Paul Goyette via Flickr.

In addition to learning about entrepreneurship, he wanted the participants to experience firsthand the emotional rollercoaster of the entrepreneurial process – the dizzying highs of coming up with an idea that just might become the next Twitter or Tumblr and the decimating lows that come when a seemingly brilliant notion crashes into a brick wall of reality.

As one of 15 participants who took part in the 3rd annual Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University Jan. 5-9, I can testify that Gillmor succeeded. My fellow participants and I quickly got caught up in entrepreneurial fervor – or was it entrepreneurial fever?

Perhaps the best thing about the institute was the experience of conceiving an idea for a media startup, formulating a strategy for financing it, putting together a presentation to sell it and then pitching it to Gillmor and my fellow fellows. The pitch process not only gave me a taste of what it must be like to start a business, but also what my students will go through when I teach a course next semester in journalism entrepreneurship.

“The pitch is terrific practice for an element of a career that will be increasingly useful: selling and public speaking,” Gillmor said in an email interview after the institute. “All founders are constantly selling what they do to investors, customers and just about anyone who’ll listen. But this isn’t only for startup founders. In a world where we have to imagine our careers as startups, we all need
these skills.”

The Mission

The intense and invigorating week started with introductions, a Sunday night dinner in the spacious atrium of the Cronkite School and a mission: We would each spend the week developing a pitch for a digital media business.

The rules:

  • The venture needed to have a realistic source of funding – we couldn’t rely strictly on advertising revenue or grant money to sustain it.
  • The product must have a digital component.
  • We had to follow our passion. “If you’re doing a startup and you don’t love what you’re doing, I can guarantee it will fail,” said Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury News technology columnist and founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Cronkite School. “It’s incredibly difficult and incredibly fun.”

    Dan Gillmor leads a discussion at the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute.

    Dan Gillmor leads a discussion at the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute.

Gillmor is an entrepreneur himself. He left the Mercury News in 2005 to work on Bayosphere, a citizen journalism startup designed to “make it easier for the public to report and publish on the Internet.” Though Gillmor said the business “failed miserably” after only a few months, he describes it as one of his “best learning experiences.” His next project, a travel and “social atlas” called Dopplr, was bought in 2009 by Nokia, which shuttered the venture late last year.

The Lean Startup

Gillmor is a big proponent of the “lean startup,’’ a concept in product development conceived by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. “The most common way to start a software company is you put up a minimum viable product and see if people want it,” Gillmor said. “If it’s not working you change it, or pivot.”

This concept, which is increasingly the model in Silicon Valley, grows out of a technological environment that makes it almost ridiculously cheap to start a business. The open-source movement, Gillmor explained, has produced an infinite number of free tools that have made it easy to start a digital business, lowering the barrier to entry.

Budding entrepreneurs can develop sites with WordPress; learn basic programming from Codecademy; create wireframes, or simple mockups, in Balsamiq; and set up a simple online payment mechanism through PayPal.

“You can get going with almost no financial investment, using free tools,” Gillmor said. “You can get a long, long way even if you don’t know programming with stuff that’s off the shelf and free.”

The Minimum Viable Product

The next step is to create a minimum viable product – the simplest product you can build easily and cheaply – and start testing it. A core component of this approach is the “build-measure-learn” feedback loop. You build a product, you test it, you learn and then you rebuild based on what you’ve learned.

“Build-measure-learn; this is the cycle that drives innovation,” said Mark Briggs, a serial entrepreneur and author of “Entrepreneurial Journalism: How to Build What’s Next for News” who spoke at the institute.

Once you’ve done some market research and testing, some rethinking and pivoting, it’s time to pitch your idea to investors or, in the case of institute fellows, to Gillmor and our classmates.

The Pitch

Gillmor explained that a good pitch needs to simply and clearly answer these questions:

  • Market — Who wants this?
  • Features — What are you going to do for the people who want or need it?
  • Mockup — What will it look like?
  • Sustainability — How will you attract users/customers and create recurring revenues?
  • Risks — What is the competition and what things could go wrong?
  • Team — Why are you and your co-founder(s), if any, the right people to do this?

He instructed us to keep our pitches tight and focused.

Journalism educators Sean Mussenden of the University of Maryland and Emily Withrow of Northwestern University share a joke at the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute

Journalism educators Sean Mussenden of the University of Maryland and Emily Withrow of Northwestern University share a joke at the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute

The night before Pitch Day, many of us stayed up into the wee hours researching our markets, designing spiffy websites or mockups, fine-tuning our Powerpoints and timing our presentations. We each would have just three minutes to make our case.

In the morning some of us looked like college students who had pulled an all-nighter. Well, maybe not looked like, but felt like. We also felt like entrepreneurs. As one by one my colleagues walked up to give their presentations, the excitement in the room was palpable. We couldn’t help but wonder: Which of these ventures would become the next startup sensation? Which would attract angel investors or venture capital? Which would be acquired by Google or Yahoo? Who in this room might, in a couple of years, end up a millionaire?

I don’t want to reveal too many details about the startups my colleagues pitched – several of them are serious about launching these ventures – but they included tools to organize communities in crisis and facilitate microphilanthropy, clever takeoffs on online rating services like Angie’s List and Yelp, and portals to connect specific communities to health or social services.

While Gillmor and the other investors, educators and entrepreneurs who presented during the institute filled our minds with concepts and examples, the greatest lessons we fellows learned came not from the listening but from the doing – from conceptualizing an idea, fine-tuning it and pitching it.

“I learned that being able to distill your entire business idea down to a pitch and then condense that even further down to a three-minute presentation really requires you to discipline yourself to only think about the absolute most important parts,” institute fellow Kiesha Easley of Benedict College in South Carolina wrote in an email interview after the institute.  “We joked about it — but creating the pitch was, indeed, an exercise in creating a minimum viable product and required the same skill set that would be needed for a lean startup.”


Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She has directed summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia, the Institute for Education in International Media, and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.