A Year in Review: Adventures in Start to Finish Filmmaking

I cannot believe how quickly the past year has flown by. Just over a year ago, my business partner Maria Springer and I graduated from the University of Oxford with our MBAs. We felt that the staid, old, complex film industry, especially documentaries, needed further disruption, beyond what Netflix and Amazon were already doing.

Armed with the LEAN principles we were taught in our technology and operations course at Oxford, we set out to make films at record speeds on record low budgets. And, as we learned in business school, it gets faster to make a film every time you do it. You will learn tricks left and right.

It took over 5.5 years from the time I landed in Perugia, Italy to start doing research for AMANDA KNOX until the film was released on Netflix. For our first OBSERVATORY project, EUROTRUMP, it took 9 months from the time we conceived the project until it aired on television on VICELAND in the Netherlands and Belgium and on the Dutch national broadcaster. This is a substantial improvement but there is more work to be done. If not for minor mess-ups along the way, we could’ve had this film ready three months earlier. But we will live and we will learn. We will make process improvements, And we will help others along the way.

Here are the key lessons we learned from making EUROTRUMP in 9 months:

1. Run simultaneous processes: At its simplest level, this means if you are shooting a film you should also be gearing up to sell that film at the same time. This means start making trailers for your film while you are shooting it. It might be a pain, but as they say, “Show don’t tell.”

2 . No deal is a deal until it is a deal. The BBC gave us a contract for this project a few months in. We thought we were set. We thought all was good. Then, the executive we dealt with over there went on vacation and all hell seemingly broke loose inside their headquarters. Our project became too controversial for them. And ultimately it was dropped. This was BY FAR the most stressful month for us over the past year. We didn’t know this rule at the time, so we started coasting, thinking the BBC was a done deal and all was good. It didn’t happen that way.

3. ALWAYS BE CLOSING. As an independent filmmaker, your job is to sell as much as it is to create. If you don’t sell your project, nobody will see it. And then you’ll have an audience of 1.

4. If you make something for $100,000 and sell it for $200,000 you’ve made a profit. If you make something for $600,000 and sell it for $200,000 you’re very deep in the hole. This sounds logical, but too often I see filmmakers who want to raise loads of money, especially for non-fiction projects. If I can make a film for well less than $100,000, then you can too.

5. Hire slow, fire fast. During the past year, we’ve had hundreds of personnel working for us on different projects at OBSERVATORY. It’s been a major ride. I’m grateful that so many of the people who have helped us out are super competent at their jobs. However, we have also had to get rid of a number of people throughout the year, including interns, producers, and edit staff. It is painful when a bad apple, intentionally or unintentionally, ruins the whole bunch. There were many moments when I blamed myself or other people for someone’s incompetence. (For example, if you start fighting with someone you previously worked well with, you have to look around you.) I hate to say this because it lacks scientific proof, but at some point, you have to GO WITH YOUR GUT. If you feel that a person is hurting your team or your efforts to move your project forward, you’ve got to get rid of them. This is the most difficult but also the most necessary part of being a manager. Once you are rid of your burden, you will immediately feel free. Having nobody working for you is better than having someone work for you who is incompetent and will waste all of your time.

More observations coming soon…

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It’s been a long, long time

Hello Blog World,

I realized I haven’t posted in about a year. It’s been a busy one. I’ve been in Oxford, working on my MBA at the University of Oxford and that is now nearly finished. It has been an exhilarating and amazing experience every single day to live in this beautiful city. One reason that I haven’t written much here is that I have been blogging about my experiences on a regular basis at the Financial Times.

On a professional front, I’m proud to report that Skillbridge was sold to TopTal in April. It was a great experience to grow a company from almost nothing into something much bigger. And I was able to work with super talented people along the way. I’m gonna miss that.

My other big announcement is that a film that I have worked on for over 5 years has now come to fruition. Catch AMANDA KNOX on Netflix as a Netflix Original starting September 30. And if you’re in Toronto earlier in September, come check it out at the Toronto Film Festival where it will be premiering. It is so gratifying when hard work pays off.

I’m also happy to report that my passion for healthy living is still in order. I was lucky enough to have the Green Templeton College gym in my backyard this year, eliminating my need for ClassPass. I feel as good as I ever have.

As much as this is a time of endings for me (Oxford, Skillbridge, Amanda Knox), I am excited about many new beginnings. I don’t know where the world will take me next, but I’ll be sure to update you as soon as I find out.

Talk soon,

Stephen

 

How to Quit Your Job and Live the Dream

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Reinvention is one of America’s most overused terms.

But reinvention defines some of the best things that have come out of America in the past decade. Yes, celebrities have reinvented themselves: Betty White, Jon Stewart, and Ellen DeGeneres, to name a few. But the rest of us, plebeians, also have the ability to reinvent ourselves, and it has never been so easy.

The most inspirational and functional guide for personal reinvention is certainly James Altschuler’s Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Reinventing Yourself that he published in Tech Crunch in October. His words are inspiring and the message is clear: A lot of hard work combined with laser focus and you can become one of the best in whatever your chosen field is.

Lately, I’ve been feeling the burden of tech, as it seems like America truly has start-up fever. When even our prisons are hosting start-up accelerators — and this isn’t to say that prisons aren’t strong markets themselves for start-ups — we either are in the midst of a very serious start-up bubble, or are enabling anyone to live the American dream (or some mix of the two.)

But what if you didn’t want to create a tech start-up? What if you wanted to get your hands dirty in something like product manufacturing? What does that really take?

My friend Michael Paratore quit his job at a law firm to become, in his words, a “peddler.” Yes, being a peddler doesn’t sound as lucrative as legal work, but Michael wanted to seize his opportunity that came when he accompanied his wife Michelle on a trip to India.

Paratore once found himself wandering around Bombay’s backstreets. It was there that he met a shoe peddler who would change his life. Michael discovered what he describes as the world’s most comfortable shoes, and he decided that he should manufacture and sell them in America — and around the world.

And now, one year after his journey began, Michael’s dream has come true.

His Mohinder’s Kickstarter launched, and I happily bought a pair for $50, knowing that they’ll probably the first ethically made pair of footwear I’ve ever owned. Mohinder’s will also likely help the Indian village cooperative comprised of second and third generation shoe-making artisans who manufacture his products. (The cooperative was set up by an Indian NGO that uses a micro-credit style model to ensure artisans are paid fairly and can “break the cycle of poverty” while helping the artisans build valuable business and entrepreneurial skills.)

Whether you need a few hundred grand to create the “first open sensor for health and fitness” on IndieGoGo, or $34,000 to create a funky and eco-friendly YogoMat (I’m still waiting for mine because of production problems), the internet democracy has enabled entrepreneurs to reinvent themselves. I don’t know if the guy who invented the open sensor was a garbage man, a science teacher, or had a PhD in physics before he launched his crowdfunding campaign. I don’t know if the guy who invented the YogoMat has ever done yoga in his life! C’est la vie. I, and millions of others, are helping people to reinvent themselves every single day.

We should all feel lucky that we live in a society where reinvention is completely acceptable. A hundred years ago, you wouldn’t find many people — unless they had just committed some sort of heinous crime — attempting to reinvent themselves. Now, it’s as easy as putting in some hard work and putting up your wares on a crowdfunding site.

If there’s an interest, then, BAM! You’re in business.

Guy Fieri Times Square Restaurant Review: Here Is The Grade I Give It After I Tried It Myself

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After reading Pete Wells’ marvelously entertaining New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, the eponymously named Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, I wanted to experience the place myself, simply to judge whether Wells was too harsh, or whether this dining experience was truly as poor as Wells claimed.

So I launched a campaign early this week to convince my five-person team at work to join me at Guy’s for a Friday lunch to remember. Much like my pre-Sandy obliviousness to the practice of folks who traffic in disaster porn, I was ignorant that ironic dining was already a hipster pastime. But an ironic dining outing, much like wearing tight pants when cycling long distances, is a hipster concession that we all must make for the good of mankind.

Our motley, open-minded crew (all dudes, as it happens) made the three-block trip to Manhattan’s armpit, better known as Times Square. Mind you, when I worked for MTV in Times Square, I had daily panic attacks that I’d die by terror or tourist trampling on my route between the subway and the office, yet neither situation came to fruition, and this was just my neurotic self at work. Typically, I painstakingly try to avoid going from my Bryant Park office those couple of northwestern blocks, unless there’s a Tony Award-winning Broadway show being performed, or if there is no other possible way for me to get to some Hell’s Kitchen destination. Also of note: Other than a trip to the Olive Garden 10 years ago when I was in high school, I have proudly avoided all Times Square restaurants. (Restaurant Row on 46th is as close as I’ll get to the area, or Shake Shack on 8th Avenue when some lowbrow accomplishment must be celebrated.)

Unfortunately, as in wine tasting, the nose goes a long way when delivering initial impressions. And the foyer to Guy’s smelled pungently like some type of food-based staleness. This wasn’t a false sense for those looking to criticize. It was very real. As real as the pigeon shit that nailed me last week. All of us prayed that it wouldn’t be our individual choice of food that would give off this odor. With that, we ignored the kitschy gift shop (trying to use the word kitsch only once in this article is an accomplishment!), and 30 seconds after our 11:45 a.m. arrival, we were promptly seated.

Choosing iced tea to drink put me in a bit of a quandary. This was because it was served neat (without ice), though there was a lemon. That said, the drink, which would more appropriately be recognized as “room temperature tea,” was served unsweetened, which was a pleasant surprise from a restaurateur whose sole purpose in life appears to be to make me die younger. (Tasting note: Interestingly, the tap water did come with ice.)

For starters, I tried the $14.50 sashimi tacos with raw ahi tuna, mango jicama salsa, wasabi, and sweet soy. What the four mini tacos lacked in size, they made up for in crispiness. That said, their insides were heavy on the salsa, ultra-light on the tuna, and heavy on sweet soy (which might as well be known as teriyaki or hoisin!).

Faring better were the nachos that Wells skewered (no pun intended) by writing, “How did nachos, one of the hardest dishes in the American canon to mess up, turn out so deeply unlovable? Why augment tortilla chips with fried lasagna noodles that taste like nothing except oil?” In fact, our group shared and universally loved these nachos. My only criticism was that the meat on them tasted a little funky, perhaps like the “cold gray clots of ground turkey” that Wells recalled. However, as a most-of-the-time pescetarian, I’m not in the best position to judge.

Regarding the calamari, Wells wrote, “How, for example, did Rhode Island’s supremely unhealthy and awesomely good fried calamari — dressed with garlic butter and pickled hot peppers — end up in your restaurant as a plate of pale, unsalted squid rings next to a dish of sweet mayonnaise with a distant rumor of spice?”

My colleagues described the squid, in Zagatarian terms, as “OK,” and “it’s hard to mess up fried food” but it “didn’t really have any flavor.” So perhaps, again, Wells’ critique was warranted.

Onward to the entrees! While there isn’t much diet-friendly fare on the menu, I ordered the shrimp, with caramelized red onions, bell peppers, green apples, and crispy noodles topped with “Guy’s signature sangria glaze.” Yes, the shrimp were sweet. Yes, the jumbo shrimp were set atop a mound of rice (which was, oddly enough never mentioned in the food’s description). But perhaps these shrimp were too sweet. And it’s not worth $24.95, when a similar dish could be purchased at a run-of-the-mill Mexican or Chinese restaurant for half the price. But again, this seems to be the de facto Times Square tourist tax at work.

Our group’s vegetarian-in-chief went for the whole grain penne with fresh mozzerella, cremini mushrooms, onions, and a garlic cream sauce. Though he’s too polite to grumble publicly, he told me upon return to the office that he “feels sick,” citing that the entree, awash in its cream sauce, was horrid.

The pulled pork trio (three sliders, with bacon and coleslaw on top), paired with fries and fried onions didn’t fair much better. Our tester, a notable Bushwickian with a sophisticated palate, found them unmemorably mediocre. The same went for the “Big Dipper,” a steak sandwich, that is meant to be dipped in a watery “beef jus” gravy.

Now, when my hungriest colleague ordered the $31.50 steak diane, I knew he would have high expectations, as this is the most expensive menu item. Though it was served medium-rare as promised, the steak was smothered in the “brandy pan sauce” intended to accompany it. The sauce to steak ratio was approximately 3:1, making for a calorie-laden experience that was quite off-putting to my somewhat-health-conscious colleague.

We didn’t stick around for dessert.

While Wells discusses some ignorance, for us, the staff was nothing other than incredibly kind and helpful throughout. (A close friend of mine is the GM of another Times Square restaurant, and he always complains about how difficult it is to attract and retain decent staff … most of whom are actor types who are running off to auditions before, after, and occasionally during shifts.)

Regardless of how Fieri tries to position it, Guy’s is certainly a member of the TGI Fridays-Chili’s-Applebees-Ruby Tuesday casual dining family, and one shouldn’t be expecting Le Bernadin when walking into a place that has plastic American flags of the Betsy Ross variety, cans of cheap beer, and cast-iron moose heads lining the walls. But was Wells’ review over the top? In some ways he was fair, yet in other ways he was brutal. But it appears that Guy’s is already making changes: A well-dressed restaurant-consultant type did ask us some questions about our meal after we finished (and then took it upon himself to refill our untended-to empty beverages).

At the end of the meal, perhaps because of the five pounds I put on, I forgot my bag under the table. But I scarcely made it to the door before a kind busboy returned it to me, avoiding a potential disaster. That kind of attention to detail is appreciated, and once the chefs get their acts together, Guy’s will become the middle-grade American restaurant it is destined to be.

32 Mantras to Live by Post College

I originally published this post on PolicyMic.com:

I recently read a fascinating and controversial blog post by a millennial who defended her (our!) generation from verbal attacks that Baby Boomers and other older folks use to discredit us. The irony is that these people, who are currently in positions of power … and, by many accounts, have screwed up pretty much everything (the economy, the environment, education, etc.) for future generations, are the cause of many millennial problems. This post inspired me to create a list of what I’ve learned since I graduated college in 2007, because when I look back at my own worldview at that time, I realize that I knew nothing about the way the “real world” operates. The point here is that there is still so much time to do amazing things, yet there’s got to be a focus in so many aspects of life:

1. This is just the beginning

You needn’t have changed the world yet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. Think of all the people who made their best accomplishments when they were 40, 50, 60, etc. (Betty White!!!!!!)

2. You’re not in college anymore, so don’t live like it

Do you really need to go to bed at 4 a.m. and then wake up still hung-over at 4 p.m.? Nope. You just missed a beautiful Sunday. Do you really need 19 drinks when splitting a bottle of wine will do? Nope! Do you really need to play beer pong in lieu of having interesting conversations? Nope!

3. Don’t eat garbage

Pay the extra couple of bucks to eat good food. Cut the fries for salad, but be totally wary of any dressing other than olive oil and vinegar! I’ve eliminated 99% of my meat consumption after reading “Eating Animals.” And I’ve noticed that my former bald spot has disappeared, which I attribute to the lack of antibiotics in my body. Stock your fridge with fresh vegetables and your cabinet with healthy snacks (Caveat: my mom recently gave me some sort of health bar that was made of corn and sugar, so read the labels or use the Fooducate app when shopping). Have it delivered if you don’t live near a grocery store.

4. Throw enough rolls of toilet paper at the wall, eventually one will stick


Don’t apply to one graduate school and think you’ll get in because you’re totally awesome. Maybe you are totally awesome, but chances are 50 other people are too. Don’t apply to one job because it’s like totally perfect for you. Believe me, there’s someone else out there who’s taking a pay cut and a lower position to get that job too.

5. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail


Why do things half ass? Don’t think you’ll get a job if you don’t know every little detail about the company where you’re interviewing. Don’t think your startup will be a success if you don’t know all about the technical aspects, marketing, advertising, branding, competition, and even the day-to-day secretarial work!

6. Your dream job at 21 might not be your dream job at 26

At 21, all I wanted to do was be a screenwriter and write movies. And now, having written quite a bit, now I think I’d dread sitting alone in an office all day, not having human interaction, and having my work changed 496 times before it appears on screen in a form that is totally different from what I created. I’m still writing, but I’ve had way more fun creating journalism, advertisements, blogs, and comedy than I’d likely have in a traditional screenwriter position.

7. Your major kind of matters … if you want to go to school at all

I went to college before the recession, and I was frequently told, “You’re a smart kid, you can major in whatever you want.” So I studied English and history. And while the former is pretty useful for me, in today’s economy, I would suggest that you study something you are passionate about that will also lead to potential opportunities. If you can’t decide on a major, you probably shouldn’t be in school at all. If you can’t afford school, why get into debt? Get a job while you figure out what you’re passionate about. Take a gap year to work or intern in fields that potentially interest you. Having lived in Europe, where people typically work before embarking on their studies, I believe there is a greater sense of contentment that people are making the right choices rather than choosing majors based on having the fewest additional requirements, as I likely did.

8. Not everyone lives like they do in America


In Denmark, cycling to work is the norm. In India, many people prefer to drink water warm rather than ice water. In Spain, most people still take a daily siesta. It’s important to realize that the sheltered life you lived in America is not the norm: Not everyone owns a house, not everyone has a car, not everyone goes to summer camp, and not everyone has access to extra-curricular activities. Take the time to learn about other cultures, because there may be significant ways that you can improve your own quality of life.

9. Leave America … for a while


I am appalled that so few Americans have passports. (Only about one-third of the population, a historical record high, but still shockingly low!) Use the internet to plan a cheap trip. Do you really need another beach vacation? No, have an active vacation exploring a new place. And use Couchsurfing.org so you can actually meet locals! I recently ran into a guy from my high school who never left America but on a whim bought tickets to India for himself and his girlfriend when he saw a great deal. A three week trip totally changed his life. Jet Blue flies to Colombia for the same price as it costs to go to California. And tons of airlines fly to Panama for cheap … but if you go to any of these places, promise me you won’t stay at some isolated resort!

10. Stop being insular

I don’t care if you were in the Long Island Jewish sorority or the Indian-computer scientist a cappella group in college. Meet other people. Hang out with them. Learn from them. They will be better and more interesting than the people you already know. And as a result, your whole world-view will change.

11. You get jobs by knowing people 


It’s true. Sending out hundreds of résumés is usually a waste. Pound the pavement in creative ways. Informational interviews? Sure. Telling everyone you know that you need a job? Yes, don’t be ashamed. Contacting someone you met only once who work at an interesting company? Of course you should! Because if you don’t do all of the above, believe me, someone else most certainly is!

12. Take care of your body

I moisturize my face. And it makes me look younger. I use very few products, but I invest in the ones that make a difference.

13. You don’t need a lot to be happy

Cook a freaking meal yourself. It’s therapeutic. Walk in nature. It’s free. Explore an ethnic neighborhood. You will most certainly discover something.

14. Stop looking at what other people are doing

You are not Mark Zuckerberg. So what? Your dad is not a senator? So what? Yes, it sucks that you did not think of Facebook in 2003, or that you were not born into a gilded family with all of the connections of modern royalty. Wake up in the morning and be happy that you’re alive and plan something interesting to do that day, rather than rotting in front of your television or on the internet.

15. Do unpaid things but don’t be someone’s lackey

Write an awesome article for your personal blog, or become a blogger for a site that produces content that interests you. It will get you more attention than picking up a Starbucks latte for Mr. Middle Manager. (One day, I swear, I’d like to see some American kids grow a pair and start an Interns Union that spreads virally!)

16. Make it better for the next generation


We were most certainly screwed by the greedy, narrow-minded dingbats in Congress and at every other level of government. Now is the time to elect the next generation of leaders and use technology to our advantage! (Let’s make sure our next crop of leaders come from our generation!)

17. Have sex


Or if there’s nobody around, masturbate. You never have an excuse not to have pleasure. If you’re reading this, you ostensibly have internet access. That means you’re three-fourths of the way there for the latter. As for the former, the internet makes that part really easy too. Just use protection so you don’t get HIV or HPV.

18. Turn off sometimes

I’ve been actively shutting off all of my electronics after work and on weekends. And it feels great. Don’t worry. If there’s an emergency, you probably can’t do much about it anyway. This gives me time to think about doing productive things like thinking up this list and thinking of new awesome ideas, projects, and businesses.

19. Don’t buy crap

Why do you need clutter? Why do you need nine pairs of jeans? Why do you need 14 pairs of shoes? Live simply. It’s easier. That said, spend good money on products that will last rather than spending multiple times on junk. <—A uniquely American problem.

20. See doctors sparingly

Preventative medicine and staying healthy goes a long way. Look for natural treatments before you fill your body with pharmaceuticals. Eat lots of raw garlic if you ever feel sick. Works for me every time.

21. Work on a project you care about 

For me, journalism, in all of its forms, is my way to try to make a difference, even if I’m not getting paid. Maybe it’s volunteering at a hospital. Maybe it’s creating a non-profit. The world needs more good ideas.

22. Learn that you’re not always in charge 

While independence is awesome, existing organizations sometime have it right. Be humble by helping others with their ideas rather than working on your own! It will teach you quite a bit about getting more done with a team than you would on your own.

23. Don’t get stepped on by authority

Just because someone wears a uniform doesn’t mean they’re right. (And I’m not just talking about rent-a-cops and meter maids!) Stopped and frisked? Issued a citation for an offense you didn’t commit? Fight it in the courts and you’ll learn way more than you would by paying even the most trivial fine! (Yes, I have been wrongly cited for parking legally in front of my own apartment and I have another interesting story that I will discuss in a future post, but for now, listen to these examples of injustice!)

24. Find mentors

Good mentors don’t come along every day, so when you do find a person willing to share their knowledge and wisdom with you, thank them, cook them dinner, and provide them with a never-ending flow of red wine so they continue talking. Cultivate mentors so it’s not even a question that they’ll be there for you when you need them.

25. Find mentees

If you’re smart, don’t just tell me, show someone else why you’re so awesome. It may be your mentee who’s working with you/for you that makes an idea a reality, or even crazier, a mentee could one day be the person you’re working for, on the next big thing.

26. Back up your data (regularly!)

Jesus! I never want to meet another person who has their hard drive wiped out without backing it up. (Hello cloud storage!)And one more addendum: Do not keep liquids on the same surface as any of your technology. You should know by now that this stuff isn’t covered by warranties.

27. It takes hard work to do anything 

Sure, there were those few employees at Instagram who worked there for about four days before the company was bought for $1 billion by Facebook, and that 18-year-old kid from Brooklyn who won the $1,000 a week for life lottery game, but these people are the rare exceptions. It feels a lot better to be working for a goal, rather than waiting for something that to fall into your lap that will likely never even happen. That said, don’t be that person who is in the office working on nothing until 10 p.m. just to look like you’re busy. You oftentimes get your best ideas from talking with others or being outside of the office.

28. Save money

Do you really need to take a taxi 20 blocks? Walk! (Or take public transportation). Invest in a bicycle! Do you really need that second $40 bottle of wine with dinner? Leave the restaurant and buy the same bottle for $10 at the store! Do you really need a third winter jacket?,,,Don’t get into debt. Do you want to wake up every morning thinking, “50% of what I earn today goes to some douchey bank?” Nope, you don’t. Nothing is free, especially not money. So wake up and smell the real world!

29. Love people … or pets … or both

Take the time to love people. It’s much more important than watching a TV show, or a sporting event. Do good things for those you care about, and you will find immediate rewards. Be passionate. (And if you do love pets, remember, loving people is also really important…and most people don’t care how cute your dog is.)

30. Get lots of sleep


Yes, Ariana Huffington has said this before me, but I agree wholeheartedly. Not only should you sleep well, but sleep in appropriate conditions, such as in a very, very, dark place or with an eye mask.

31. Take risks now

When you’ve got a wife or husband, and kids who will go hungry if you don’t feed them, and a mortgage to pay, you will be much more risk averse. Since you probably don’t have these things now, start that company, take that trip, try that new sport, take that language class, and indulge in that passion project!

32. Paraphrasing George Orwell, break any of these rules sooner than doing anything outright barbarous.

PS -I am not a self-help guru, but now I’m starting to think it wouldn’t be so bad if I was!

 

Is there a startup accelerator bubble or is the startup accelerator model simply a nascent and fast-growing industry?

As a Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Fellow at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, I am one of 16 lucky new media entrepreneurs who have access to world class mentors, financial opportunities, industry leaders, venture capitalists and like-minded thinkers. It is difficult to classify the program as a seed accelerator (because no seed funding is provided from the get-go), an incubator (because of the aforementioned relationships and opportunities that go beyond free office space), or an intrapreneurship for in-house academic experiment (because we have no obligations to continue our relationship with the university after the program ends).

What I had not considered before embarking on this adventure was that a major benefit of having the Tow-Knight Center housed at CUNY is that all intellectual property that my colleagues and I create is our own. We don’t have to fork over any percentage of future revenues that we may derive from our forthcoming ventures to the institution or our advisers. I consider us lucky and rare to have this combination of resources without the potential of buyer’s remorse if a project grew but some equity was already distributed.

This morning, I read an interesting INC article that provides an insider’s look into TechStars, the popular and fast-growing startup accelerator. While TechStars and YCombinator are generally considered the Harvard and Princeton equivalents of the accelerator world, I wonder whether the rest of the pack, essentially startups themselves, has equal value. While I enjoyed the INC piece, I was disappointed to learn that some TechStars applicants are accepted because of their relationships with the organization’s leaders, despite having severely underdeveloped or non-existent products. But on the other hand, I recognize that this is the way the world works. In private business, democracy has a very limited role. And merit may have even less. In the startup world, a frequently heard maxim is that venture capitalists invest in personalities and founders, not companies.

With seed accelerators proliferating all over the world, one wonders if the talent pool at each individual accelerator will become severely diluted. Though it is impossible to gain data about the success of companies grown from seed accelerators that have not yet had the opportunity to flourish or flop, one can surmise that more startup accelerators will mean fewer success stories from each specific program. When YCombinator had less competition, it meant that they got their pick of the litter. Nowadays, founders may not want to schlep to Silicon Valley if they are confident that they can still make it in their home cities or countries.

Jed Christiansen, a London-based American who works at Google, keeps track of seed accelerators through a spreadsheet on his personal blog. He defines seed accelerators as follows:

The following are required to be a “seed accelerator”

  1. Open application process; anyone with an idea can apply
  2. Accelerator invests in companies, typically in exchange for equity, at pre-seed or seed stage
  3. Cohorts or ‘classes’ of startups; not an on-demand resource
  4. Programme of support for the cohorts, including events and company mentoring
  5. Focus on teams, and not individual mentoring

Examples of what isn’t a seed accelerator:

  1. Programme where the startup pays for mentoring
  2. Incubator where the startup pays (discounted) rent in return for equity and/or discounted business services
  3. Programme where applications are restricted to certain groups (like students from a particular university)

Because of the rapid growth of seed accelerators, now would be an ideal time for someone (an academic, perhaps, hint, hint) to create a more comprehensive database that keeps track of the success to failure ratio at each of these accelerators. I can already guess that firms that are only given $20K in seed funding in exchange for 7% of their company won’t have the same advantages that firms who are given $100k for an equal stake. In this sense, it will also be important for entrepreneurs to report back on any seed accelerators that are disorganized, don’t deliver on what they promise, or steal intellectual property — all issues that I foresee arising in the near future.

At the end of the day, one must think about Facebook, YouTube, Google, and countless other uber-scalable companies that weren’t working within any set of rules at a seed accelerator when they launched. Investors flocked to them when their products had true growth potential and superb execution.

While some people wonder, what comes first —  the chicken or the egg —  I wonder what comes first — the seed or the flower that creates its own seeds to spread.

The US Senate passed the JOBS Act: How this legislation can improve the quality of American journalism

I recently blogged about the many benefits that I hope will come to America with the passage of the JOBS Act. Now that the US Senate has passed the JOBS Act, the bill has gone back to the House of Representatives for final approval before President Obama signs it into law. Despite my skepticism about the ability of Congress to pass any legislation in this toxic and partisan political climate, I am pleasantly surprised that it looks like the JOBS Act should go through with bipartisan support.

My general thesis is that if the “people” can now invest in new ventures, then they will be more apt to use products and services that cater to small groups/communities, and more likely to shun products, services, and information that comes from large corporations that are geared for the masses. Of course, it may take a couple of years to see these effects, but I am hopeful that fragmentation can create diversity in spheres of life where Americans now have too few choices.

While other commentators have focused on the overall benefits and drawbacks for investors, businesses, regulators, and consumers, I will list potential ways that the new crowdfunding legislation can influence and disrupt journalism. My theories on winners and losers from the JOBS Act:

1. Communities can rally around creating publications that they control, rather than leaving sub-par newspapers in the hands of publishers motivated by the bottom line rather than creating high quality community content. Watch out Patch and legacy publishers! The potential to revive local journalism in places that are currently without local news sources is the most promising development that I see. But legacy media organizations should be on guard, because disruption born out of frustration may be just around the corner.

2. Niche publications will be able to get off the ground more easily. If a fragmented community of  1,000 people — I’m thinking an online community for this example — who were spread throughout America, wanted to hire one person to work to create content, they could hypothetically each donate $30 to a venture that could create a niche publication with a professional or semi-professional journalist/curator at the helm.

3. Television networks and cable channels should be scared because YouTube is already slicing up the market. Enthusiasts of various types of content that don’t achieve the critical masses needed for channels that cater to advertisers may now have their opportunity to band together to create more desirable programming…and make it profitable.

4. Television news should be a prime target for entrepreneurs at the local and national levels, as it has remained virtually unchanged for such a long time. I foresee new formats developing, and I believe the crowd will control how they develop.

5. Crowdfunded radio stations may destroy the traditional for-profit ones. Watch out ClearChannel. Look out for an indy radio explosion…most likely based on the Internet.

6. Lone bloggers and journalists with strong personal brands — or with the ability to build strong personal brands — will now be able to have investors rally behind them. This may create a major revolution for sole proprietors, ending the struggles that freelancers face in terms of tax burdens. Another advantage is that talented people may now be more willing to go off on their own rather than remain with corporations that underutilize talented journalists’ skills and abilities.