Finding Entrepreneurial Success

By Kathleen Haley and Ruth Li

June 18, 2013

Newhouse students and alumni discuss life in the startup lane

When launching a startup, it’s the sweat that matters the most. “The reality of success in entrepreneurship is: it’s hard work—and knowing that your idea is only one little piece of a recipe,” says Sean Branagan, director of Newhouse’s Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship. “It’s really more about sweat than it is about your idea.”

The “a-ha” moment is more of a “slow burn”—sharing the idea with other people, building on it and putting it in the marketplace where it can be shaped further, says Branagan, who has founded lifestyle businesses, small businesses and high-tech companies. “That’s where the idea turns into something of higher value, and the execution makes it possible.”

Many Newhouse School alumni have had both the idea and the endurance to see it through. For example, Larry Kramer ’72, current publisher of USA TODAY and chair of the Newhouse Advisory Board, pioneered online and interactive information when he founded, and Dennis Crowley ’98 has drawn in millions of users through his location-based social networking site, Foursquare.

At Newhouse, Branagan and other members of the faculty—including the Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair for Journalism Innovation Dan Pacheco, a digital journalist with 18 years of experience in news and information startups—are helping student entrepreneurs build their ideas into reality. Pacheco teaches Creating the Next News Startup and operates Journovation Central, a website covering innovation in journalism.

As part of his work with the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Branagan teaches courses in New Media Entrepreneurship, which helps students launch their businesses by the end of the semester; Trend-Spotting in Digital Media; and three 1-credit introductory courses on entrepreneurial thinking, the five types of startups and Lean Digital Media Startups, focused on high-growth ventures. Branagan also coaches students in pursuing their businesses and connects them with resources on and off campus.

Here, several Newhouse entrepreneurs—both student and alumni—explain the challenges and rewards of being an entrepreneur and offer some seasoned advice.

Maxwell Antonucci

Maxwell Antonucci ’15, a newspaper and online journalism major, wanted to see a better website that would help people understand world news, so he created one: Mainlines. The news feed website covers national and international events in what he calls “plain, simple English.”

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Mainlines?
A: I got the idea when I took the COM 107 class [at Newhouse]. There were current event quizzes and a lot of my classmates had a difficult time keeping up with news. There are so many things going on in the world that people open up the newspapers and may feel overwhelmed. The website is an easy starting point for people to understand.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: All the experience that I got. I know a lot of startups are going to fail; even the most successful people in the business can fail. But it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad business. Because the failure just helps you figure out how to succeed next time. I learned from the mistakes I made, and I know I won’t make them again.

Q: What do you see for the future of your concept?
A: I need to work more on the business model of the website. We will get our revenue avenue from advertising and subscriptions. I will also focus on more interactive media, like info-graphics and digital graphics, because visual media is more appealing to the audience and sticks in their minds.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for you to run the website?
A: For most digital startups in general, the biggest challenge is to realize that the startup is not about what you want, but it is about what everyone else wants. You need to work hard for yourself, but work even harder for people who are going to the website.

Q: What would you tell other people who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: I recommend that they take some entrepreneurship and marketing classes. And, be able to accept new ideas. So listen to the professors and they will fill in the gaps for you.—RL

Dee Cater

Memories matter a lot to Dee Cater ’12. Cater, who earned a bachelor’s degree in advertising design and a master’s in advertising, created a way to preserve all of life’s best moments in an automatic online platform, Scrapsule. The scrapbook time capsule, which she co-founded with Heather Rinder ’12, connects to users’ social media accounts; navigates pictures by topic, hash tags and keywords; and organizes memories for users in real time.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Scrapsule?
A: I came up with this idea in December 2011, when I took an entrepreneurship class with Sean Branagan. And the startup was officially started in October 2012. I started the business because I really like to use scrapbooks to collect photos, but it takes too long and I don’t have a lot of time. So I hoped there was a program that would do the work for me.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: Everything we’ve done so far is a big achievement. The biggest one may be the day that we launched the website. Before we launched, there was a lot of hard work over the summer—it was a time we learned about ourselves and the business.

Q: What do you see for the future of your business?
A: Right now the site has about 40 users, and I hope we can get as many people as possible to know about Scrapsule, collect their memories and get involved, through promotions on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. We want Scrapsule to become the number one resource for digital memories and anything related to memories.

Q: What advice would you give to others who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: Talk to people about your business idea and find contacts who can help you. It will help you to know where to start. There are a lot of places on campus where you can get help and find resources, such as IDEA [the Raymond von Dran Innovation and Disruptive Entrepreneurship Accelerator, a partnership between Syracuse University and The Tech Garden, a venture incubator in Syracuse].—RL

Hillary E. Cutter

Hillary E. Cutter ’00 was working in television video production when the new realm of online digital content began to open limitless possibilities. She followed her instinct to carve out her own niche and it worked. Cutter Productions creates high-concept film, video and digital content in collaboration with advertising agencies, television networks and corporations. The Manhattan-based company, which pulls together a specific directorial and production team for each project, has brought concepts to life for such agencies as Digitas, Ogilvy and McCann Worldgroup, and top brands, including ABC, Gerber and MTV.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for Cutter?
A: When I first entered the industry in 2000, we were just producing for television. By 2005, with the advent of YouTube and digital media, there was a new platform for advertisers. Commercial broadcast and film production companies were challenged to produce content for the digital space that offers the same quality and effectiveness as traditional broadcast campaigns but at a lower price point. I knew digital media was a new space to go after, and it was an amazing opportunity for me to merge all my experience in live-event production, theater, post-production, live-action and visual effects. I was young, hungry and surrounding myself with creative filmmakers who were really good at their art.

Between my experience, the talent pool and knowing what agencies were looking for as far as a strong, efficient team, I was able to pitch for business at a lower cost and provide an effective service company for advertising and marketing departments to partner with.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: For me the most rewarding part is nurturing talent. I’ve created a company and a brand that encourages and supports creative talent to work on their craft and develop their skills as writers, directors, and content developers—on internal projects and independent projects, such as feature films or TV pilots they are developing. I love working with my team to craft their ideas for client pitches and watching them bring their stories to life.

Q: What do you see for the future of your business in the industry?
A: The advertising and entertainment industries are morphing into one large industry—we see product placement in movies and a lot of branded entertainment. So it’s a really exciting time in the development world because advertisers and studios are so hungry for content. If you can prove you are a successful content creator and you know how to pitch your brand and business, the opportunities are infinite.

Q: What advice would you give others who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: I would advise potential entrepreneurs to think about who their ideal client would be and how they would pitch that product or service to the client or customer. When I first entered the industry and wanted to create a service company for advertisers, I knew there was a need for a lower cost but highly effective and efficient team who could execute video. I found a niche market and a gap in the industry that needed to be filled and I knew who I was going to pitch to so I could fulfill that need.—KH

Eric Frankel

Eric Frankel ’79 was a president at the multi-billion-dollar entertainment company Warner Bros. when he saw the need to challenge himself in a different way. In 2009, Frankel co-founded StarGreetz, a digital media company that developed a platform to enable celebrities, brands and companies to directly engage customers and fans through personalized video messages.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for StarGreetz?
A: Like many, or even most startups, we’ve pivoted from our original concept to what we do now—although what we do now is based on our original concept.

When we first came up with the concept for StarGreetz, there were a growing number of products—ringtones, ringbacks, ecards, einvitations—with rather flat one-dimensional offerings. We believed that if we offered personalized celebrity ring tones, ringbacks, ecards, einvitations and voicemail, we’d have a “home run” on our hands. So we invented a proprietary personalization platform that allowed us to produce and deploy these products.

Although we were selling thousands of these products per week, we realized what we’d really built was a unique platform that read data and dynamically created personalized video messages that could be deployed on the Internet or mobile technology via email, websites, Facebook, Twitter and video ads, among other applications.

At the same time, I felt we lived in a world where nearly everything was becoming personalized and customized: from sneakers to music playlists, TV and digital newspapers. One of the only exceptions: the $500 billion advertising business, which is a static print or one-size-fits-all video messaging industry.

So we decided to “rent” our platform to brands and agencies to empower them to have a personal relationship with customers by engaging them with relevant, one-on-one personalized video messages that engage and activate many times greater than current print and video ads.

The new direction is working extremely well. In a short period of time, we’ve been retained by major brands, including YouTube, ABC, American Idol, The CW, Dell, Disney, Guthy-Renker, HBO, Intel, Kraft, Paramount Citrus, PBS/Sprout, Quaker, Sprint and Toyota.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: After being president at one of the largest entertainment media firms in the world, it’s very rewarding to come up with a concept, raise money to fund it, build it, and see the world’s largest brands and agencies embrace it and generate results that are 5 to 10 times greater than their previous way of talking to customers.

Q: What do you see for the future of the business?
A: More and more brands and agencies are hiring StarGreetz to talk to their customers with personalized, relevant video messages.

Q: What would you tell other people who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: Follow your dreams but assume it will be harder, take longer and cost more than you anticipate. In the end, the emotional and financial rewards can make it all worthwhile.—KH 

Demir Gonenc

Demir Gonenc ’14 had his light bulb moment three years ago while sitting in a movie theater: Why can’t we put a traditional ad agency online? Having worked at an advertising agency at the age of 14, Gonenc decided to start his own venture, Komolog, an online company that creates project management systems for small- and medium-size companies. Clients can create teams, assign work and see the process online.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for Komolog?
A: Most small companies don’t have management software to manage projects, payroll and other administrative tasks, because it is very expensive. But it is a new age and people need these tools to manage their business. Most systems in the market are very complicated and not user-friendly, so we created a management platform online that’s easy to use for small- and medium-sized companies.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: It is magic when you have an idea, develop it, and then make such a complex system work. And people appreciate it. When I worked at ad agencies, I saw the problems and I came up with a solution to solve them. It is not about making profits, but about solving problems.

Q: What’s your biggest challenge?
A: It is hard to balance school and my business sometimes. The lifestyle is the biggest difficulty for me. Sometimes I sleep on an office bench for two hours, take an exam and go back to the office again.

Q: What do you see for the future of your business?
A: We will raise more funding and launch the site. The next step will be to move to a new location and employ more people.

Q: What would you tell others who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: Many people say this but the most important thing is to never give up. There are many times you just feel that it is not happening. Never let bad things take you down with them. Be ready. Your social life may go down but it works out quite well when your dream comes true.—RL

Alexander Kline

Having gotten involved in social media at the age of 14 and been named to Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list in January, Alexander Kline ’16 is already a legend in people’s eyes. Kline runs a basketball-recruiting site, The Recruit Scoop, for high school players and college teams nationwide. The website establishes social connections between college coaches and players through social media.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Recruit Scoop?
A: I really enjoy basketball, but I am not very good at playing it. Since it is fast-paced, it is very enjoyable to watch, and it’s also really easy to identify what players can and cannot do for the sport. So I wanted to connect with coaches and help them to recruit players. I also use the website as a platform to help high school players gain media exposure, scholarship offers and opportunities that they may not able to get otherwise.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part of being an entrepreneur?
A: I am glad that I am able to connect so many players with coaches and help them to get into good schools and get scholarships. For example, some talented players may not be able to afford college, and I can help them to get a free ride.

Q: What was it like to be named to Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list?
A: It was surreal; I would never have expected to be on the list. It is an approval of my work and it says to me that, “You are doing well so far and just keep going.”

Q: What do you see in your future?
A: The goal right now is to get through the next four years of college and see what opportunities will present in the following years. I definitely love the field I am in but I wouldn’t mind to do something else.

Q: What would you tell other people who have ideas to pursue?
A: You need to be creative and persistent—and have thick skin–and it can get you far. We live in a world where having a great idea that is different from the most can get you millions of dollars. If you think something great, why not go for it.—RL

Bobby Lee

Bobby Lee G’13, a graduate student in new media management, combines both a background in finance and a strong passion for media communications in a unique venture. He has taught personal financial skills for the past five years on his video blog, 2 Minute Finance. The vlog not only provides him a platform to share his professional knowledge, but it also has opened doors to a different career and networking opportunities.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for your website?
A: Most people my age don’t know how to manage their money, and there are only a handful of finance tutorial videos out there. Within finance and media, there was a niche that very few were willing to fill. I also have a strong drive to be an entrepreneur and self-supporting. People within our generation are very interested in solving problems and many become entrepreneurs—I wanted to own a piece of that pie.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: You can create a media property without going through traditional media entities. With the Internet, as a form of democratized media, anyone with an Internet connection and a good idea has the potential to be successful.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge?
A: Funding. The biggest support that you can get is within your own network and within yourself. A lot of ventures take a long time to get the point when you can ask investors for funding. 2 Minute Finance was completely self-funded and, in turn, had to work within a very tight budget.

Q: What do you see for the future of your website?
A: The future of my business is to continue on the same path I am right now—seeking out new partnerships and to create more content for a wider audience.

Q: What would you tell other people who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: Stick with your idea and get as much out of it. It takes thousands of bad ideas before you find a good idea. I feel a lot of people my age are afraid to take a risk, and they think about their student loans, want to find a corporate job and get settled. But I think now is the time to experiment and try out new ideas.

Camille Malkiewicz

Every month, subscribers are expecting stylish, fun craft kits from Craftistas mailed to their homes. Each box has instructions and materials for making accessories, home décor or specialty cards. It wraps up Camille Malkiewicz’s love for crafts and her dream as an entrepreneur. With the hope of making crafts convenient to everyone, Malkiewicz ’12 started Craftistas in November 2012.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for your business?
A: When I was younger, I was really crafty. I grew up in a creative household and my mum likes to do crafts all the time. When I was in college, I saw so many blogs about cute crafts, but I was busy with school and didn’t really have the time and money to do it. I really wanted to have a service for people like me, who want to create trendy, cute crafts.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: I consider every single achievement as a big achievement. But it is only an achievement for two minutes, after that, I just feel, “OK, what’s next?” Right now, I have got some really awesome blogger reviews. I also did a whole video series about crafts on, and it was on the homepage. It gives me a sense that I am actually a craft expert now.

Q: What do you see for the future of Craftistas?
A: I will expand the business, not just the subscription service. It will be fantastic if I can distribute them to craft stores or Wal-Mart. Right now, I need to focus on the website and try to get more customers. Eventually, I want to sell the craft kits directly on the website so you don’t need to subscribe.

Q: Crafting is a very creative and personal thing. How do you adjust the kits for that?
A: It is difficult since every customer is an individual. I don’t want to tell them what exactly they should do. I like to leave a bit of space with their creativity and let them make their own projects. That is why it has been very well received.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?
A: You have new challenges every single day when you try to make an idea into a business. The biggest one is to get customers. Most entrepreneurs think if they have good ideas and customers will definitely come. But it is not the case.

Q: What would you tell other people who think they might have an idea to pursue?
A: One of my favorite brands is Nike, and it is so cliché to say, “just do it,” because it is overused. But it is so true when it comes to entrepreneurship. There are more days when you want to quit than when you want to continue. Just fight and be hungry. When you are young, it is the best time to start a business, because you have nothing to lose.—RL

Erik Matlick

In the world of Madison Logic’s founder and CEO Erik Matlick ’92, data is king. The Manhattan-based company uses sophisticated data-driven applications to understand consumers’ behavior and help generate sales leads for marketers and advertisers. Madison Logic’s clients run media campaigns—banner ads, text links or email marketing—on the company’s platform and purchase data from the company. Matlick started Madison Logic after launching two other successful startups: IndustryBrains, a site-specific, pay-per-click ad network, and MediaBrains, a buyer’s guide platform for business publishers.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for Madison Logic?
A: After selling IndustryBrains in 2005, I looked at the publishing/media industry, and I discovered that lead generation advertising was a fast-growing component of the media mix. It already made up 10 percent of the market. However, similar to the display business in the early 90s, there were no industry standards for ad serving—the technology behind the scenes—until DoubleClick paved the way. We saw this as an opportunity to create the industry’s first “ad serving” platform for lead generation. This included serving the ads, inventory management, lead processing, lead delivery and reporting. Today we have 450-plus publishing companies licensing this platform and 600 advertisers purchasing media.

Q: What has been the most rewarding part about following your idea?
A: It’s like watching your child grow up. Every day we learn and grow. We take feedback from the market or ideas from our team and build great innovative products. Coming to work every day and collaborating with smart people who are passionate about innovation is a true reward for any entrepreneur. The cherry on top: turning your ideas into profit.

Q: What do you see for the future of the business and data analysis/lead generation?
A: Data. Specifically, the usage of behavioral intent data for advertising, nurturing and analytics. As an industry, we are still just scratching the surface of our potential. One of the fastest growing segments, marketing automation, has grown from $100 million to almost a billion-dollar industry in just three years. That is proof that marketers want both data and automation to nurture potential customers.

Q: What advice would you give other people who might have an entrepreneurial idea to pursue?
A: I meet with entrepreneurs and invest in startups frequently. One of the biggest mistakes I come across is over-funding a business during the funding stage. Once you accept funding, you have set your business’ valuation. If that valuation is too high and you have raised too much money, you can never go back. This forces too many companies into an exit strategy that they will never achieve. I would always suggest starting with a smaller amount, even if the valuation is lower. This will give you more options when it’s time for a second round of funding or an exit.

My second tip is to surround yourself with employees as dedicated as you are. Learn how to hire the best, and, more importantly, learn how to get out of their way and allow them to succeed in their specific areas of expertise.—KH

Sam Smith

Advertising graduate student Samuel Smith ’08, G’13 has worked as a web developer, copywriter and project planner—building a foundation for two entrepreneurial ventures. He founded a digital advertising agency, Smith and Team, and an addressable advertising startup, Segments.

Q: How did you come up with the concept for Smith and Team?
A: I graduated with an undergraduate degree in psychology and philosophy. I realized that you can’t actually find a job with a philosophy degree, but what you can do is to write well. So I started out as a copywriter. From copywriting, I started to expand my business to advertising strategies and website development. I started Smith and Team as an independent agency in 2007. We put together digital platforms, made sales materials and conducted marketing for our clients who are mainly in the mobile and tech industry. We know digital and interactive media through our bones, which makes us stand out from other ad agencies.

Q: What is the concept behind Segments?
A: Segments is a platform that drives dynamic, addressable advertising, like landing pages, emails, display ads and rich media. We seamlessly deliver highly personalized ads to users on any of these channels. This means that there’s no more guessing about which advertisement to deliver to the customer. We have provided a quantifiable, algorithmic solution that increases the efficiency of advertising budgets.

Q: What’s the most rewarding part about being an entrepreneur?
A: It is about being able to have a platform where I can innovate my new ideas and new solutions. I can dream up something and say to a client, “Hey, let’s test this to see if it works.”

Q: What are your future plans?
A: After I graduate, I want to work at an advertising agency to learn the business. I want to have a job that pays a salary, and to get more experience in the business. Freedom is good, but health insurance is good too.

Q: What would you tell other people who have ideas to pursue?
A: I want to impart to them how important it is to have something that you or no one else has ever seen. It is about inventing the future, not about predicting it.—RL