James Bond, Entrepreneur

As Commander James Bond celebrates 50 years on Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the movies — and cable stations across the grid provide the fireworks with wall-to-wall 007 orgies — it’s a good time to celebrate the lessons Bond can teach entrepreneurs.

Even though Bond drew a paycheck — undoubtedly funneled through some nondescript entity — from MI6, he was in fact an entrepreneur.

Dispatched to some dangerous — and predictably warm and coastal — foreign clime with little more than some gruff orders from M and a few gadgets from Q (the latest Bonds have been notably gadget-shy, as befits Daniel Craig’s brutally lean take on the character) he was expected to figure out the situation on the ground and improvise a
response on his own.

Hence his “license to kill.” When he needed to liquidate a bad guy, he couldn’t wait around for the home office to clear it.

Herewith, then, are seven lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the legendary secret agent:

1. Fail fast: The producers of the Bond franchise themselves provided this lesson. When George Lazenby quit the role as his wooden portrayal of Bond in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” bombed with critics, they moved swiftly on to Roger Moore. Whatever you think of Moore’s fizzy Bond Lite — and I thought it stunk — he played the role seven times, just as many as Connery did. A big flop led to a big success.

2. Embrace new technology: This is practically the unspoken philosophy of the entire series up until Craig, Examples abound, but who can forget Bond escaping an assassin via then-nascent jetpack tech in the pre-title sequence of 1965’s “Thunderball”?

3. But sometimes old technology can do the job: In last year’s “Skyfall,” Craig’s Bond lures villain Raoul Silva to his family’s abandoned estate (the Skyfall of the title) on the moors in Scotland, there to greet him with improvised booby traps and vintage shotguns. When Albert Finney’s gamekeeper empties both barrels into a Silva flunky while saying “Welcome to Scotland” it provides one of the film’s few applause lines. Though he is badly outweaponed, Bond prevails (not so Skyfall, though).

4. Fake it ’til you make it: Pierce Brosnan’s Bond obviously has no idea how to pilot the T-55 tank he steals in “Goldeneye” (1995) — an apt metaphor for first-time entrepreneurs contending with unfamiliar forces and technologies. But he sticks with it, acts like he knows what he’s doing, and in time he’s flattened half of St. Petersburg and nailed a few stooges in the process.

5. Sometimes you have to destroy what you love to win: In “Skyfall,” Bond leaves his beloved — and priceless — Aston-Martin DB5 outside his childhood home as bait for Silva. Bond loses the car (happily for car nuts like me, the film version was made by a 3D printer) but wins the skirmish. Lesson: Don’t get so attached to a business model or anything else that you can’t pivot if circumstances require.

6. Choose you partners well: Bond’s friend CIA agent Felix Leiter is one of the film series’ most enduring characters, having been played by eight different actors. He’s always had Bond’s back. Make sure your partners have yours.

7. Whatever happens, maintain your sense of humor: Bond’s wisecracks as a laser beam inches toward his crotch so rattles the villain Goldfinger in the 1964 film of the same name that he sputters: “Choose your next witticism wisely, Mr. Bond. It may be your last!” Bond stayed cool. Guess who lived to have a Martini, shaken not stirred, later that night?

A massive opportunity for universities in the era of the MOOC …and one danger.

As the world of higher ed buzzes about the explosive growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with equal parts fascination and terror, it’s important to cast a hard eye on what MOOC’s have accomplished so far, what they haven’t accomplished, and what they may never accomplish. And what opportunities that may provide for brick-and-mortar universities in the age of online education.

It’s true that MOOCs have enrolled hundreds of thousands of students for college-level courses lasting as long as a semester. Notice I said enrolled. Because counterbalancing all the crowing about enrollment sizes is the vast, rarely-mentioned-in-the-same-breath number of dropouts, approaching 80 to 85 percent in some cases.

(Size may not be all that it’s cracked up to be — in terms of MOOC’s, anyway. Coursera had to call off its MOOC on — wait for it — “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.” last weekend when the demands of the 41,000 students participating crashed the course platform.)

Even allowing for the low barriers to enrollment in MOOCs and the concomitantly low level of commitment to a course in which the student has no financial investment — most MOOC’s are being offered for free at this point — this is the kind of dropout rate that would drive your average university president to mount the campanile for a swan dive.

The low level of commitment endemic to today’s online courses raises an important question, and that is one of outcomes. Surely there are many students who learn, and learn well, for the simple intellectual pleasure of it. Others require incentives of various kinds, ranging from “Dad’s gonna kill me if I flunk this course,” to “I paid a lot to come here and I’m going to get my money’s worth,” to learn effectively. Even when students satisfy MOOC course requirements — and we’ll get to that issue in a moment — it’s certainly worth asking whether their outcomes are equivalent to those of their peers in conventional classrooms.

The fact that most MOOCs are free undoubtedly drives their massiveness. But, as every first-week entrepreneurial-journalism student knows, free is not a business model over the long run –someone always pays. And this raises two more questions: What happens to enrollments when or if this someone winds up being the student? (Less-than-massive, not-so-open online courses, anyone?) And which MOOC platforms of the many now in operation will survive the shakeout?

Finally, the issue of accreditation and certification looms large for MOOCs. Who, precisely, is going to certify to schools, employers and other evaluators that the online coursework has been rigorous to an agreed-upon standard, and that it has been completed legitimately and satisfactorily? Who has the credibility and the standing to accomplish this? Coursera? Open Badges? Pathbrite? Not at this point, certainly.

The point of the argument isn’t to deny the importance and inevitability of widespread online learning — that would be like the newspaper executives who kept debating the potential impact of the web until it disrupted them right into the unemployment line. Obviously, large-scale online learning is here to stay — and that’s a good thing.

The point is the stunning opportunity this provides for universities, especially specialty schools such as CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to student motivation. They already retain the tech savvy necessary to make the platform work. Unlike most MOOC platforms, grad schools actually create educational content — they’ve already hired the talent necessary to produce it. They already have infrastructure for marketing, billing, recruitment and the like in place. And who better to certify and accredit online learning achievement than a school whose business is already based on it?

In other words, who are you going to trust: the City University of New York … or Coursera?

The danger for universities in all of this, of course, is the same one always faced by businesses staring down the barrel of disruption: That they’ll fail to see that the new medium requires a new paradigm. That merely shoveling the old educational tools of syllabi and office hours and lectures and recitations onto the web won’t do the job over the long run, no more than newspapers’ early shovelware forestalled their day of reckoning with digital.

The era of the MOOC provides a lot of opportunity for existing educational institutions. But, as in most things, the best opportunities will go to those unafraid to be bold.

Bad news for Poynter and API but good news for…?

News of a $3.8-million annual loss at the Poynter Foundation — which runs the venerable journalism-training outfit the Poynter Institute — was bad news indeed for those vested in providing continuing education for journalists.

And coming as it did on the heels of the demise of the once-storied American Press Institute — which fired its staff and closed its offices last March while touting an alleged “merger” with the National Newspaper Association — it felt like more of the chronic vertigo brought on by the death spiral of old media.

And maybe it is. API — which when I was coming up in the ’70s and ’80s was regarded as the gold standard of mid-career training for journalists — was largely dependent on the hefty course fees paid by news organizations on behalf of reporters and editors whose work was deemed worthy of investing in or rewarding. At the Poynter Foundation, the old-media dependency is even more direct: It relies not only on tuition fees, grants and fund-raisers, but on regular support from the newspaper it owns, the Tampa Bay Times.

Apparently, 2011 was no better for the Tampa Bay Times than it was for most mid-market papers. According to saintpetersblog.com, the newspaper provided no funding to the foundation during that year, the last for which records are available. Thus, at least in part, the loss.

And bear in mind that all of this has occurred at a time when the impact of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) — which bids to disrupt education as dramatically as digital has disrupted old media — has only barely begun to be felt.

But, as the emergence of thousands of small news startups shows, one sector’s crisis is another’s opportunity. Could the crisis that killed API and wounded Poynter prove a boon for a lean startup, unencumbered by legacy costs or institutional infrastructure, providing mid-career training for journalists?

Or could the same circumstances afford an opportunity for a graduate school of journalism — independent of legacy-media funding and able to leverage an existing educational infrastructure — to move into the void?