Communication Management students team up to launch entrepreneurial online video business

Recent alumnus Steve Gatena and current student Andy McNeil had a great idea for a new business, but didn't know how to turn it into a reality.

After working closely with USC Annenberg Communication Management Master’s degree professors such as Ben Lee, however, Gatena and McNeil put the finishing touches on REP Interactive, an online video production and marketing company that specializes in high-end real estate, which has already achieved tremendous success. The pair has rapidly expanded the business while traveling to places such as Park City, Chicago and Hawaii for video shoots. (The video below was the final piece to their Master's Thesis.)

"It’s not work to us because it’s so fun," Gatena said. "It seems too good to be true."

But it wasn't always fun and travel. Lee said both students have worked countless hours during their time at USC Annenberg to learn the nuances of entrepreneurship. They pored through dozens of books and academic studies about online video while taking full advantage of the one-on-one time they had with Lee during their final capstone courses. It was there that they refined their business plan and strategies.

Gatena and McNeil are two of the many recent examples of entrepreneurial Communication Management students who have used their coursework and connections at USC Annenberg to start their own businesses. There isn't a specific Communication Management class that focuses on entrepreneurship, but Lee said students find a sustained entrepreneurial thread across a range of classes, including Integrated Communication Strategies (CMGT 541), Business Strategies of Communication and Entertainment Firms (CMGT 542), Leading and Communicating Change in Global Organizations (COMM 561), and Economic Impact of Innovation (CMGT 599). Students are able to then use their capstone classes  — Uses of Communication Research (CMGT 540) and Communication Research Practicum (CMGT 597) — to tailor their education in an entrepreneurial way. Lee also recommends that students take other relevant classes in the USC Marshall School of Business to expand their perspectives.

"Entrepreneurship is becoming embedded in Communication Management the same way technological change and globalization have been embedded across Annenberg," Lee said. "The 540 and 597 classes are where the students can exercise their entrepreneurial instincts If the students have a viable concept,  they can study how to make that into a reality."

Gatena, who attended both the Air Force Academy and UC Davis as an undergraduate before coming to USC as a Master's student and football player, convinced McNeil to join him in the Communication Management program. The two knew each other from their days at Davis.

"I said, 'Look, go to Annenberg. It’s a great school and the teachers are unbelievable," Gatena said. "It's something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I've been to fantastic institutions but they don’t compare to USC and Annenberg in the types of practical knowledge and skills you're equipped with.'"

Gatena and McNeil credited Lee with coaching their concept into a full operational business.

"Ben took it upon himself to guide us and be our business coach and professor at the same time," Gatena said. "He pointed us in the right direction and educated us on the research and all the necessary materials we needed that we would’ve never known about."

McNeil said the classes at USC Annenberg have been a fantastic resource for him.

"It has provided more than I ever could’ve expected out of a school," McNeil said. "It’s been a big privilege to go there."

"I feel so indebted to USC and to Annenberg because none of this would’ve ever happened if it wasn’t for my experience there and everything USC has helped me out with," Gatena said. "USC Annenberg does a great job of teaching students how to convert theory into practical application.”

Lee said he wants to continue to mentor Gatena and McNeil to help them build good habits for sustained success.

"I want them to be aware of challenges they face while giving them the tools and resources to do well," Lee said.

Gatena called that an understatement.

"Most grad school projects stop at an essay, and we built a company," Gatena said. "Everything we’ve done is a result of the hard work and all of the painstaking hours we put in at USC. If it wasn’t for Ben Lee, I’d probably be applying for a job somewhere and living at my parents’ house. Luckily, I had this opportunity and now we’re able to create jobs — and we always look at hiring from USC."

Lee emphasized that that the credit belongs to Gatena and McNeil for their initiative and energy, and also to the Annenberg faculty who continue to build the Communication Management program.

“My work is representative of my colleagues’ – especially Daniela Baroffio’s and Mathew Curtis'. We all want our students to succeed," Lee said.

REP Interactive on Twitter