Mentor Spotlight: Greg Thomson
Greg Thomson is an attorney and strategic advisor based in Ithaca, New York and New York City, with over 20 years of experience in digital media, entertainment and technology, and serves as Strategic Advisor to Cornell’s Center for Technology Licensing. He received an MBA from Columbia Business School, a JD from Yale Law School, and a BA from Yale College.
Thomson has led business development for venture-financed startup companies including the S.R. Guggenheim Foundation’s digital media company and Sports Museums of America, as well as holding a senior business development position at NBCi in San Francisco. He began his post-MBA career as a communications /media/technology strategy consultant with PwC’s Strategy& in New York.
As a media industry lawyer and executive, Thomson led business affairs for LA-based Quincy Jones Productions, served as VP of Partnerships for Discovery Communications, and has represented clients including Dr. Dre, Youssou N’Dour, and the Estate of Gil Scott-Heron. He has also served as an entertainment economics expert witness in major entertainment industry litigation, including on behalf of the City of Los Angeles in the federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by heirs of slain rapper Notorious B.I.G.
Thomson’s ongoing private law practice work includes intellectual property and software licensing, venture financing, private placements, film financing transactions, media mergers and acquisitions, corporate sponsorships and endorsements, literary rights acquisitions, distribution agreements, and a wide variety of digital media, technology, and music, television and film industry transactions.
We chatted with Thomson recently to discuss his experience as an entrepreneurship instructor and mentor for the National Science Foundation’s Upstate New York I-Corps Node.
What prompted you to begin mentoring for the I-Corps program?
I’m starting to teach I-Corps regional courses, and the best way to learn how to teach something is to do it. Being an I-Corps mentor gave me a deep understanding of the customer discovery process my students will all go through. As somebody who spent most of my career advising entrepreneurs and creative people—as transactional lawyer and strategy consultant in media, technology, and entertainment, or internally at a company—I know the importance of correctly identifying your customer and meeting their actual needs. Formalization of that process is often not given the fully structured approach that it really needs—instead entrepreneurs often rely on hunches. In creative-driven fields, some entrepreneurs are rewarded for acting on hunches and instincts; the failure rate in the “hunch-driven” approach is much higher than it needs to be. I-Corps adds that structure and a systematic way of obtaining data through firsthand collection of data.
Of the teams you’ve mentored, are there any success stories that come to mind? Where are these teams now?
I worked with my first I-Corps team, Vida, this summer. This was a different I-Corps experience because it was entirely virtual, due to the pandemic. Vida has developed an AI-driven tool for asynchronous learning. The tool tracks and measures individual performance of team members and allows team leaders to adjust team activities, assignments, and workflow to maximize productivity and learning. The Entrepreneurial Lead is a PhD candidate who developed the AI and has been exploring its commercialization potential in the Cornell Engineering Commercialization Fellowship. He completed his six-month fellowship in November and is investigating a market opportunity with instructors and administrators in independent K-12 schools in the U.S. He is currently looking to raise money to support further market research and refinement of the technology.
Sometimes during the customer discovery process, teams discover a different path to take with their innovation. What is the most interesting pivot you have observed during your time as an I-Corps instructor/mentor?
Vida, the team I mentored in summer 2020, has a tech that improves performance of teams and helps measure individual performance of team members. An initial hypothesis was that college sports teams would be an ideal initial target market, because effective teamwork is an essential element of college team sports. The Vida team sought to focus on head coaches and college athletic directors as the key decision makers in the customer acquisition process. In speaking with coaches however, the team learned that NCAA rules prohibit monitoring of team members in certain ways, and that coaches were not really looking for Vida’s kind of technology solution.
Meanwhile, due to the pandemic, educators were being forced to make a near-universal switch to remote learning, and were looking for ways to improve the efficacy of remote learning and asynchronous (self-led) learning activities. The team discovered that grade 6-12 educators and administrators are a broad segment who showed interest in Vida’s solutions. Educators and principals for independent K-12 schools in particular, emerged as target market, because they could purchase and adopt more freely and quickly when compared to public school districts. The Vida team also learned that selling into school systems of all types is complex, requiring buy-in from multiple customer segments internally (including school headmasters, technology managers, teachers, teacher unions, and students). As of this past summer, the Vida team found that public school principals and superintendents were mainly focused on ensuring Internet and equipment access for all students, balancing teacher and teachers unions’ concerns, and on making sure their schools were offering sufficient online education content; all of this took priority over content quality and efficacy. By contrast, independent schools reported far fewer problems with student access, and were more ready to focus on improving education quality and efficacy. Plus, independent schools are generally able to make purchasing decisions more quickly than even smaller, well-funded public school districtss.
What advice do you have for new entrepreneurs?
Find your way to I-Corps. Use it as an opportunity to do target market and customer segment research, and to get substantive feedback from experienced entrepreneurs. Get an empirically grounded understanding of what those markets actually want before you start spending substantial investor resources. You will come away with a much more sophisticated understanding of the market that you will have to sell to in order to succeed.
What important lesson have YOU learned from being an I-Corps instructor/mentor?
Understanding the fact that different roles in an organization have different needs and value propositions is so important.
Helping teams recognize and avoid confirmation bias and leading questions is the most important thing a mentor can do, so they do not just validate their own beliefs.
Sales is not often taught at university level and yet it is fundamental part of company strategy and direction. I-Corps is not about sales per se, and teams don’t talk about their technology, but it gives researchers critical insights into the underlying process of understanding who views a product or service as valuable enough to pay for. This knowledge makes a huge (night and day) difference for potential startup success, and for a future company’s ability to successfully sell its products or services.