It’s Better Not To Know What You’re Doing When Launching A Startup.

VCU Brandcenter, named by leading professionals as the top creative ad school in the US

Named in Creativity Magazine’s poll of professionals as the top creative ad school in the US.

The first startup I launched was the VCU Brandcenter in 1995. I’d spent four years on the research and marketing plan behind it. After trying to get new computers for the School Of Mass Communication’s computer lab in 1992, I learned that you had to compete in a grant process to gain funds, a 25-page grant document was the minimal requirement.

Each year, the University asked professors to compete for its one million dollars of state grant money.  Oh, and you had to compete against the combined University and medical campuses. I figured that I didn’t stand much chance against those professors/doctors needing computers for important medical research.  In the end, I was successful.  A year later, given my goal to launch a leading-edge advertising school, I knew that it  had to have its own budget for its constant need for technology upgrades.  It couldn’t be dependant on competitive grant money for annual updates.

This noted, I designed a grad school plan that based its operational budget on higher tuition fees then the campus norm. Again because I was naïve, I designed a self-supporting budget. It covered a building, faculty and staff payrolls, marketing expenses, equipment, communications… in short, anything that a freestanding private school or business would include in its startup and ongoing budget.  These items are not part of a normal department or school’s budget. They’re supplied by the university.

Based on my idea, the University was to put up the starting costs of $250,000. This money would be paid back over five years at $50,000 per year. (and it was) At the end of five years, the University would have invested nothing and have gained a self-supporting school with a national reputation adding luster to the overall campus.

Luckily, when I started work on this startup plan, I’d only been teaching for a year. This naivety was important because it meant that I didn’t understand how universities worked. Rather, I treated the project like I was still operating in the business world. I’d spent 15 years working in sharp ad agencies.  About half of the time, was spent in upper management positions at both Siddall (then called Siddall, Matus & Coughter) and at The Martin Agency, one of the top firms in the US.  In these positions, I’d learned how to properly research niche markets and build marketing and business plans.

I sent my initial business plan to just three people, my dean, the provost (the person who runs a university) and the president (the person who sets the vision and raises funds for a university). They were the people who could say yes. I later learned that this was very unusual to 100 percent odd. Generally, ideas work from the bottom to the top in universities with approvals at every step of the way.

For my startup it meant going before the faculty in the School of Mass Communications and gaining their approval. The director of the school would have had to also approve of this plan. Then the plan would have gone to the faculty of the College of Humanities and Sciences and its dean. Approval there would have sent it before the university’s Faculty Senate for study and approval. From there, it would have gone to the provost. She would have brought in the deans in the School of the Arts and the School of Business since my plan called for faculty from their Schools to teach a couple of classes.

Given the true democratic way that universities run, new ideas are slow to be approved and then only after a lot of study from people who love to study things. Because public universities aren’t for-profit institutions, there’s little rush. Breaks for the holidays and summer slow things even further. Faculties often meet only once a month.

Thank goodness, I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to go to just these three people at the top.  Had I known how colleges work, I would have used the traditional approval channels and there probably still wouldn’t be an approved school like this one because it was innovative and didn’t conform to anything else on the campus.

Well, the president and provost reviewed the plan over a two-week period and called me. During that time, they’d shared the plan with the deans in the School of the Arts, the School of Business, along with my dean in the College of Humanities and Sciences. My dean was supportive while the other two did what they could to kill it.

The dean in the School of the Arts was famous on campus for his lack of interest in working with others across the University who were outside of his School. Additionally, he said that they had a Master’s in Graphic Design. It would have to compete for students with the Brandcenter.  This wasn’t the case though his fears were based on the fact that one of the three tracks in my school was for people interested in becoming advertising art directors.

The dean in the School of Business was planning on launching a new Executive Fast-Track MBA program in the fall of ’96. He worried that my planned track for business-side account managers and planners would compete with his new program, a program yet to be launched.  Neither one of these deans understood the school’s niche and assumed it would hurt their programs.  Thankfully, the president was a very creative thinker and understood that this school wasn’t going to hurt anything on campus since it was unlike anything on campus.  He loved the idea of combining expertise across marketing in the School of Business with design in the School of the Arts, and advertising from the School of Mass Communications.  I didn’t know it at the time but he saw my idea as the first of may such schools and centers on campus, all combining different skill sets to create innovation in a wide spectrum of areas.

Dr. Gene Trani, this wonderful innovative President, and Dr. Grace Harris, a first-rate thinker and the Provost, asked to meet with only me  to discuss my plan in the President’s office. I was a bit worried that my dean wouldn’t be there since I knew he was supportive so I asked the President about his initial reaction to the business plan.  The President replied,

“We want to meet with only you because a person can’t see the stars when the moon shines too brightly.”

referring to the deans and their infighting.  When I got there, he said that they’d both read the full 45 page plan and were impressed with it.  He cut to the chase quickly,

“What you’re asking for is a loan, right?” I was surprised and said, “No, I won’t own this school. The University will own it.” He looked me squarely in the eye and asked again, “What you’re asking for is a loan, right?” I paused and thought about it for a few seconds.  Then I said, “Yes, I’m asking for a loan.” His eyes kind of twinkled and he said, “OK, I’ll give you one, let’s shake on the deal.” When I shook his hand, he said, “Don’t tell anyone but I’m a retail guy in disguise.”

This financing agreement, made with a twinkle in the eye and a firm handshake, started me off on the road to developing my initial startup, a first-rate graduate ad school now known as the VCU Brandcenter.