A Profile of Elliot McGucken, Ph.D.
Author and Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Elliot McGucken has an artful way of teaching entrepreneurship to artists. He
explains the entrepreneurial process, for instance, by comparing it to the
classic "hero's journey" in myths and epics. Typically, in the first stage of
the story, the hero embarks on a quest that requires "separation" or "departure"
from the familiar world (here McGucken finds strong parallels to the decision to
start a company) . . . and after many twists, the journey ends with the hero's
"return" (the exit strategy).
"Every aspect of classical story, including antagonists, mentors, reversals
of fortune, and the seizing of the sword from the stone, may be found in the
realm of entrepreneurship," McGucken claims. And there's more. The college
course he designed—open to students in any major, working in any of the visual,
literary, or performing arts—mixes classical concepts with cutting-edge
practical advice, such as how to use open-source digital rights management to
keep the ogres from snatching your profits.
"Ideals Are Real"
The course is called Artistic Entrepreneurship and Technology (AE&T) 101.
First offered this past spring at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill, with support from the Kauffman Campuses Initiative, it has drawn rave
reviews from students. The core message of AE&T 101 is that "ideals are
real," and in fact are practical: that you don't have to choose between being a
starving artist or selling out. By starting a venture of your own that combines
high artistic standards with sound business principles, you can "rock your
dreams," McGucken tells students; he says that in the arts, as in business,
pursuing "fundamental value" pays off.
McGucken began his career in science. In the late 1990s, he was a promising
young physics researcher with a faculty position at Davidson College. But he
wrote on the side and had long loved classical literature, from the Greeks to
the great novelists. Feeling that these got too little attention nowadays he
launched a Web site, jollyroger.com, to host online forums about the "Great
Books" and to offer his own commentary. And lo, the quest drew eyeballs. Before
long, he says, "the advertising income from jollyroger was more than I was
making from my professorship."
By the 2005–06 academic year, McGucken was involved with several more
arts-related Internet ventures while teaching physics part-time at UNC at Chapel
Hill. There the Kauffman Campuses mission to teach entrepreneurship in all
fields inspired his creation of the AE&T course, which immediately had the
look of an idea whose time had come: More than 110 students applied for forty
Taking Steps to Success
Those chosen included undergrads from the liberal and fine arts, plus
artistically oriented computer-science students, masters of business
administration, and a law student. They combined their skills on projects,
actually starting arts ventures or moving them along. Some showed up with
ventures well under way, like Will Hackney, a freshman with over a dozen local
bands signed to a record label he'd started in high school. Pierce Freelon, an
African-American Studies major and member of a hip-hop duo called Language Arts,
was branching into ventures ranging from a Web site on "blackademics" to the
design of a hip-hop curriculum for K–12 schools.
|By starting a venture of your own that combines high artistic standards with sound business principles, you can "rock your dreams," McGucken tells students.|
And some were talented artists who hadn't yet turned entrepreneurial. Hannah
Sink, a student filmmaker who had shot two documentaries in Thailand with grant
funding, recalls: "I just had the idea that one day, maybe in fifteen or twenty
years, I'd like to start my own production company. What I learned is that I can
start taking the steps now. So for me this course was about homing in on a
desire I already had, and learning the tangible things: forming an LLC,
protecting your rights, using technology." During the course, Sink and a
colleague, Hope Blaylock, started Continuous Take Productions. The firm is still
embryonic but the main thing, says Sink, is that "this is real. We know where we
are in the process. If and when we take the next steps, we know what we have to
Elliot McGucken, meanwhile, has carried AE&T 101 over to Pepperdine
University, where he's a visiting professor for 2006–2007. Replication and
expansion of the course has thus begun, and McGucken has a larger reason for
hoping the effort will grow. He sees much of today's cultural industry as being
in a "decadent state," with big media firms giving us low-grade movies, books,
and other products even in the face of declining revenues. "When you put the
bottom line above high ideals, both suffer," he says. But a new wave of
artist/entrepreneurs—armed with the skills to assert artistic control by
starting and controlling businesses—could help turn things around. "There's an
opportunity," McGucken says, "for a cultural renaissance."
This essay is an excerpt from the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2007
. To view a table of contents for the 2009 edition, or to order a printed copy of the publication, please visit our 2009 Thoughtbook page