Ask any Duke student and they can tell you what it is – writing algorithms, coding apps, building websites. They can tell you who’s doing it – kids wearing sweatshirts and sneakers, typing furiously on sleek silver MacBooks. They can tell you where it’s happening – late nights on college campuses, early mornings in sunny California. And they can tell you what it could lead to – an eye-popping IPO, a chance to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.
But while innovation might be the new “it” thing for today’s college students, Professor Kip Frey of Duke argues that students today are missing the point. Too often they put the cart way before the horse – or in this case, invent theoretical companies before designing a product. Frey, a self-described failed movie producer turned lawyer who became an entrepreneur long before Silicon Valley was converted into a TV show, is trying to dispel how innovation isn’t an outcome – it’s a process. As part of the Huang Fellows Science Policy Seminar Series, Professor Frey discussed how many Duke students walk in aspiring to be entrepreneurs without a firm understanding of what it is or why they want to do it. He describes entrepreneurship as less of a profession and more of a mindset; one that doesn’t look for easy projects for the sake of starting something but instead searches for hard problems that are worth solving.
Professor Frey’s talk was grounded in real-world experience building, running, and selling companies in a diverse array of industries. Over the course of his storied investment and management career, Professor Frey has worked with architects of the modern age such as Marc Andreessen and Ted Turner, and helped build cornerstones of 21st century culture, such as Cartoon Network and the MGM Grand Hotel. Today, Professor Frey leads the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I&E) Initiative, drawing from his experiences in the technology, media, and telecommunications sector to help Duke students develop their own answers to the question of entrepreneurship.
While Professor Frey certainly didn’t fit my mental image of an entrepreneur (Steve Jobs in a turtleneck and scenes from The Social Network are the first things that came to mind), that was kind of the point of his talk. There’s more to entrepreneurship than the Silicon Valley archetypes we see in the media. And while there’s no formula for innovation, Professor Frey did leave us with some lasting lessons from his experiences in entrepreneurship:
Real entrepreneurs are described by the problems they’re solving rather than the products they’re selling. Professor Frey offered the story of CNN, the leading news network created by Turner Broadcasting Systems, where he was a senior executive and the associate general counsel in the 1990s. They started CNN because they saw the time constraints on getting news (which was only available during the business day) as a challenge worth solving in the media industry. In response, Turner created a new niche in the market by developing a 24-hour Cable News Network (CNN) that transformed old (television) and new (internet) platforms for news delivery. Using this example, Professor Frey challenged all of us to focus less on replication (e.g., starting the next Facebook, the next Google) and more on transformation by finding problems in need of solutions.
While ideas are required to start companies, relationships are imperative to making them succeed. “My way or the highway” approaches to building businesses might work on TV, but fall flat in real life. Products are brought to the market by people – investors, managers, engineers – and the success of an entrepreneur depends on the strength of their existing relationships with their team and their ability to forge new alliances as they meet new people. However, relationships aren’t built in a day, and instead require constant cultivation over the years. To meet this challenge, Professor Frey maintains three lists of people that he needs to talk to – one for daily contact, one for weekly follow-ups, and one for monthly meetings. It’s a simple approach requiring nothing more than consistency and initiative to yield lifelong dividends in one’s personal and professional life.
The media sensationalizes entrepreneurship today. But fixating on creating the “next big thing” is a fruitless exercise. The common thread in all great innovations is that they’re substantial improvements compared to competitors in their field. Therefore, it’s far more important to focus on building value rather than searching for recognition. Funding and fame will follow products that work – just be “so good that they can’t ignore you.”
Professor Frey ended our conversation by leaving his door open, an invitation for the Huang Fellows to come join him at I&E’s “bullpen” in downtown Durham. In fact, two Huang Fellows from next year’s class will have the opportunity to spend their summers on the diligence team for the Duke Angel Network, working to define “entrepreneurship” within the context of market potential and value. And for the rest of us, Professor Frey is now on all of our “lists” – another connection made at the intersection of science and society.
Kushal is a sophomore studying biology, public policy, and global health. He is pursuing interests in science and society through basic science research in radiation oncology and cardiology as well as through health policy research in accountable care, Medicaid reform, and vaccine R&D. Beyond academics, he serves as Student Body Vice President and Chair of the Honor Council.