Guiding Syracuse students along their path to becoming media entrepreneurs

December 19, 2018

Professor Sean Branagan encourages students to create the jobs they want

Professor Sean Branagan poses on a stage with students at the 2018 South by Southwest conference
Sean Branagan (far left) with the “Entrepreneurial Eight” teams and judges at the 2018 Student Startup Madness finals during the South By Southwest In

Though Sean Branagan ’80 aspired to be a magazine writer when he entered the Newhouse School, he discovered his calling elsewhere—in the fast-evolving field of digital media and interactive marketing. A self-described “instigator, entrepreneur, educator and startup coach,” Branagan brought his love for innovation back to Syracuse University in 2011 when he helped establish the Newhouse Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship. The center offers courses, consulting and connections to encourage students to start digital media ventures and engage Newhouse alumni.

He also launched Student Startup Madness, a national tournament for college student digital media startups, and, over the last two years, worked with student researchers at Newhouse to publish the Media-Nxt Report, which identifies emerging media technology trends and highlights several promising startups in the field.

Outside of Syracuse University, Branagan presents and consults on innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, interactive and technology marketing, and leadership in uncertainty. He also holds board and advisory positions with several early-stage tech companies, as well as some charitable organizations.

Branagan is always hoping to inspire students to dream big and take action. Here, he offers some personal insight and advice.

Professor Sean Branagan talking to students
Sean Branagan with students and guest Sandy Khaund, founder of UPGRADED, during an entrepreneurship roundtable talk Dec. 7 in the Newhouse School’s Dr

Q: When you were a student in Newhouse, you originally thought you wanted to pursue a career in magazine journalism. What set you on a different course? 

A: I joined The Daily Orange my first day on campus and was on the editorial staff in my sophomore year. But they didn’t give me an editor position. I was production manager. I also took a semester in my junior year and did what would be called a co-op these days. I kept the least amount of credits to be a full-time student and took a job as a reporter/photographer and learned that I was probably better at graphics and photography than writing. I think deep-down I realized in my junior year that I may not be the writer I thought I was—though I probably couldn’t fully admit that to myself at the time.

Q: How did your passion for the written word become the foundation for a career in new media technologies, marketing and entrepreneurship?

A: I started a business in design and typesetting, since I knew it from courses at Newhouse and being production manager at the DO. In my typesetting biz, I loved reading about and tinkering with the technology and hacked our system to do things it wasn’t designed to do. (Actually, I was doing a forerunner of HTML). I also did work on the design side. I learned a lot about running a business. But I also realized there’s a lot of storytelling in business, especially with technical and complex businesses. Sadly, after four years with a lot of work and hardly paying myself, my company folded. I learned some hard lessons: The typesetting market was dying, and I didn’t realize it until it was too late. We were being disrupted by new technology, though they didn’t call it that yet. Most of what we did back then is now handled by the PC and Mac. I vowed to never again be at the tail end of a trend.

I did some freelancing work and did better personally ($$) but ended up taking a traditional job in corporate communications, moving into marketing roles, too, with this industrial company. Nothing sexy, but I used my writing skills, got to see a lot of business technology, learn about how business is REALLY run and made great and amazing business contacts. I left there in 1990 with the notion that desktop publishing (which was big) was just the start of a digitalization of communications. I toyed around with BitNet, CompuServe and some forerunners of the internet, and I was starting to see opportunity there. Three years later, I found myself in the right place at the right time. In 1993, the first internet web browser came out and pow! Dot-com began.

Q: What exactly does digital media entrepreneurship mean and what kinds of students do you hope to inspire through your work?

A: Media entrepreneurship is actually bigger than just “digital” … it includes lifestyle and small businesses doing media work—freelancing, independent contracting, agencies, production companies, specialty firms, etc.—and social impact ventures. The kinds of students I see at Newhouse are smart and media-crazed, and I love coaching them one-on-one. I tell them to stop thinking about what BROUGHT them to Newhouse (as I came here to be a writer) and think about the bigger, changing media space and what they OUGHT to do. I want to expose them to new technologies and new ventures in media.

Sean Branagan with Keith Lippert '78
SU alumnus Keith Lippert ’78, partner with Lippert/Heilshorn & Associates Inc., and Sean Branagan at NASDAQ for the IPO for Chicken Soup for the Soul

I bring in a litany of (usually younger) media innovators and entrepreneurs to tell them about what’s really happening and changing. They come from startups, ad agencies, digital consultancies, news media and entertainment companies of all kinds. They talk about trends like direct-to-consumer, brands ACTING like true media companies, new startups disrupting media directly, big tech companies profoundly disrupting the media business landscape, data analytics in all areas of media, new technologies from adjacent industries that will come into media and more. I encourage students to start ventures WHILE IN COLLEGE, since failing here is safer. I encourage them to start being different while they are in college to help them stand out in the job market after college, if they don’t start their own business—since most of them won’t. I encourage them to work for startups right out of college and help them look in new places for jobs where they can innovate and be entrepreneurial.

I especially hope to inspire young women and people of color to consider entrepreneurship. If they want to change the narrative and tenor of media… if they want to tell stories and change the topic and focus… if they want to make #meToo and #BLM and other movements real, MEDIA OWNERSHIP MATTERS. Owning a media company means you shape the culture, you set the tone and voice, YOU make the choices and you and others can benefit from those choices. I’m going to launch an initiative focused on this in the next year. We call it New Voices, New Bosses. So stay tuned for more on this.

Q: You’ve described yourself as an “instigator” and a “creator” and a “commissioner”—unusual titles and descriptions. You obviously gave a lot of thought to who you are and what you do. Why choose those words?

A: It’s kind of a dot-com and startup-world thing. All kinds of titles, roles and terms came from the crazy naming that startups do. Some of the names stuck. I love Instigator most, because my little Irish mom used to call me that. My brother Joe would maybe get in trouble and she would stare at me and say in her Irish brogue: “…And, I know you were the Instigator, Sean.” She was usually right.

Q: What makes you most frustrated with today’s media industry?

A: Lack of innovation. The industry incumbents seem fine with waiting. And they refuse to see that media is becoming a high-tech industry, and we have to start acting like it. Media companies have been hit with a tsunami of digital disruption over the last 20 to 30 years, and the case can be made that no other industry has seen as much disruption—in all phases of the business. They seem proud that they are adopting and adapting, but they need to innovate. Take action. Lead. The internet is everywhere. That’s over. Mobile is everywhere. That’s over. Everything is digital. That’s over. What’s next? I think Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and Voice are the three BIGGIES for the media industry. They will make media executives wish for the good old days of internet disruption.

Students posing near a Student Startup Madness poster
Student Startup Madness finals.

Q: You created Student Startup Madness to inspire the entrepreneurial spirit in students. How do you define an entrepreneur? Is it someone who wants to start a business? Or is it someone with an innovative idea? 

A: I’ve been grappling with this. Officially, an entrepreneur is someone who has taken a risk of losing to win. Usually with a business. I’m trying to redefine entrepreneurship as a skillset for making decisions—and taking action. Especially in uncertainty. I teach Entrepreneurial Thinking every semester, and it provides a broad view of the skills that entrepreneurs use to build something out of nothing. This class is based on the work of Saras Saravathy on Effectuation. Before I get into her five principles, I begin the class by debunking myths of what entrepreneurs and innovators are. They are normal people. They aren’t born to be entrepreneurs. They can’t see things that others can’t see, but they have learned to work a particular way that is especially effective in highly uncertain environments. Then I take students through class exercises to show these approaches, and we have fun doing it. It’s serious play, and we learn to (1) start with your means; (2) only take on affordable loss; (3) leverage contingencies; (4) co-create and partner; and (5) act to create opportunity. These principles and process make entrepreneurship accessible to all. Some people are really good at it. Others find it hard. But it is a process, and it can be learned. I tell them that innovation and entrepreneurship can only happen when we get comfortable being uncomfortable and use this process.

As for Student Startup Madness, my motivation was more tactical and opportunistic. I had been going to SXSW (South by Southwest, the media tech conference and festival) since 2005, and I didn’t see any space for college students. Organizers of the event also saw this and reached out to me to create a national collegiate tournament for high-tech and digital student startups. Every year, we get hundreds of applications from schools all over the country, from August until early December. Matching the March Madness vibe, we announce the top 64 college digital startups in mid-December; then we cut it to 32; and in January, we announce the Entrepreneurial Eight finalists. These eight teams get invited to pitch at SXSW in front of an amazing group of investors, entrepreneurs, technologists and innovators. It is fun and incredible to see how good these college student startups are, and I love helping students build a network of people who can help them succeed.

Sean Branagan taking a selfie outside of the the NASDAQ
Mugging for the camera outside NASDAQ at the IPO for Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment.

Q: What advice do you have for those who are having a hard time adapting to the new vocabulary of the technological world—words like blockchain, haptics, virtuality, augmented reality, etc.?

A: If you plan to live in the future, you need to know some of this. Learn the basics. For example, check out the WIRED series with five levels explaining blockchain, quantum computing and all kinds of new technologies. You don’t need the lingo—well, not much of it, really—but you ought to know the concept. That’s why Newhouse students are great for this world: we need more and better explanations to enhance the storytelling. Techies talking about tech can get confusing and annoying. WIRED does a great job with this because they are tech-savvy communicators. That’s what Newhouse students need to be. And they are!

Q: It seems like the pace of change is quicker than ever, and new technologies are introduced weekly. How do you keep up? 

A: Yes. Actually, it is happening faster and faster. Check out The other side of the chessboard, and you’ll see why we really can’t fathom how fast everything is changing. Seriously. How do I handle it? I get a bunch of specialty (startup and innovation) newsletters, I work with startup founders and other smart people, and basically I hope I stay relevant. I also learn from my students. In my Trendspotting in Digital Media class, I spend the first five weeks giving them a framework for looking at the future. Then I introduce them to a bunch of technologies and trends, and I bring in speakers from different industries and fields. In the end, they start telling me about things I’ve never heard of. That how we got to the Media-Nxt Reports. Students do the research, guided by me and our editor, Professor Aileen Gallagher.

Q: Do you worry that the technologies that are shaping communications these days—from virtual reality to computational image manipulation and synthetic media—will lead to more confusion, lack of clarity and more distrust of all communications? How do you teach students the responsibility that comes with the use of advanced media technologies?

A: I don’t really worry too much about it. I trust in humans. I think all media technologies—the pencil, the printing press, the movie camera, the telephone, the TV—all have been considered evil and destructive. Yes, we have certainly seen negative elements and incidents with each of them. But mostly good has come from them all. People have used technologies and capabilities for good and bad. I think that will continue to happen, and only when we get into the development of these technologies and use them in media can we shape them… and shape them for good. I’m a techno-optimist.