Day 1: A visit from Skillcrush CEO Adda Birnir

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Another stimulating and information-packed session during the first day of classes today. Probably the most useful portion for me was a visit from one of last year’s fellows, Adda Birnir, CEO and founder of Skillcrush, which is a tech site for beginners. A few general points that I found useful:

  • Your investor is investing in you (because the idea will change over time), and vice versa — pick investors whose business models you believe in.
  • It’s tempting to want to try and skip ahead, but things happen naturally when they do, and you have to trust the process.

Hearing her perspective also resonated with me because of the similarities between Skillcrush and my current concept. So it would probably be helpful at this point to explain a little bit about what I’d like to do. The idea is to develop a sports website for the casual sports fan: the person trying to keep up with office water cooler talk; a foreigner trying to learn more about American sports; and yes, a girl trying to impress a guy. (Fun fact: 111 million people watched the Super Bowl last year, but the average viewership for a regular season NFL game was only 17.5 million.)

At a broad level, it’s similar to what Skillcrush is trying to do — boil down what can be a complex subject to “beginners” in layman’s terms. And also provide a service that serves a predominantly female audience. Adda says they don’t explicitly single out women in the marketing and distribution process, but the tone of the newsletter and website design have a distinctively feminine feel. It seems like having a particular demographic in mind is helpful to maintain a focus, but not marketing it as “tech for women” keeps things broad enough and doesn’t shut men out. I think theSkimm does a good job of this also.

It was also somewhat reassuring to hear that even after considerable success — Adda was profiled in Columbia Journalism Review’s 20 women to watch — she’s still not sure about the viability of Skillcrush as a business model. So it takes a lot of time, and that’s ok… and regardless of what happens, you can still have fun, learn a lot and provide a pretty useful service in the process!

A few other encouraging points from the discussion Jeremy led in the morning that I appreciated:

  • One of the objectives of the program is to “inject new energy into the journalism world” and catalyze innovation (in addition to actually “making stuff”).
  • “If you can’t be first, create a new category,” the idea being to try to find a way to add value/stand out in some way. The example given was that if you can’t be Charles Lindbergh, be Amelia Earhart.
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Orientation: Launch, crash, burn, re-launch

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And so ends the orientation week of the Tow-Knight’s Entrepreneurial Journalism program. There was a lot to take in, but the most salient point for me was this: Entrepreneurship is more about the creative process and learning to adapt rather than trying to execute on one targeted idea.

A little background: The Tow-Knight’s Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism has a 15-week certificate program that helps participants develop new-media business ideas. We work on our individual projects, take classes, attend networking events and do an apprenticeship with an existing start-up. Oh, and  keep blogs to reflect on the experience! This is where I’ll post weekly updates on the trials and tribulations throughout the program.

At 27, I think I am the youngest of the 13 fellows. Which I love. It’s very motivating, and I gather I’ll learn a lot — everyone has such unique backgrounds and adds different perspectives to the conversation.

We took trips to various NYC start-ups (NewsCred, Sawhorse Media, BuzzFeed and Nest) and, as I mentioned, the most important takeaway for me was the reminder to not get so caught up in the end goal for my own project (more on that later) and kind of just enjoy the ride. Hearing about the experiences of other start-ups was a great way to keep things in perspective. For example, the Shorty Awards for social media originally started out as a side project for Sawhorse but ended up being what took off for the company. And who knew Twitter would take off in the way that it did when it was first getting started?

While at Sawhorse, I found myself jotting down two lists in my notepad. On the left, “risk,” “uncertainty,” “fear of failure.” On the right, “adapt,” “calculated risk,” “pivot,” and “launch, crash, burn, re-launch.” I kind of did so in a stream-of-consciousness way without a specific purpose, but I guess the idea was that the first column lists obstacles and doubts, and the second lists counterpoints to keep in mind.

Another useful lesson from the visits: Don’t get caught up in the pursuit of perfection. There’s a lot of value in experimentation, and there’s a limit to what you can learn without just going out and giving something a try.

A few related links:

  • NYT article from last May when I was first toying with the idea of jumping into the start-up world: “When you make an investment, you are betting on the team more than the idea,” he said. “If the idea is wrong, but the team is right, they will figure it out.”
  • A Forbes article from one of NewsCred’s founder: “Irrational Optimism: An Essential Trait for Entrepreneurs.”