Entrepreneurship Alumnus Takes Advantage of Opportunities

When Michael Smith ‘12 was a student at Syracuse University, the entrepreneurship culture wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it is now. The now integral Blackstone LaunchPad didn’t formally exist at Syracuse. And while entrepreneurship on campus was more underground then, Syracuse University was always a safe environment to experiment, Smith shares.

Around the same time that Smith graduated with a dual degree in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises (EEE) from Martin J. Whitman School of Management and advertising from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University launched the Kauffman Entrepreneurship Engagement Fellowship.

The program was created as a way to combat a major problem that many large universities have, Smith says, “Students build great relationships and projects on campus, but all of that is lost when they leave after four years.” This fellowship focuses on research and offers the opportunity for students to stay in the Syracuse area for a year to gain 24 credits to research an area of interest – whether that is through starting a business or working in the community.

Smith has always loved entrepreneurship and had already developed strong relationships with Whitman faculty, so after some encouragement from George Burman, the former dean of the Whitman School, he decided to apply and was selected as a fellow.

Through the fellowship, Smith was simultaneously able to earn a master’s in entrepreneurship and start a company, Centscere. Centscere — which was founded by Smith and two other Syracuse alumni, Frank Taylor and Ian Dickerson — encouraged people to give back, by tying donations to social media posts. Every time a user would tweet or post to Facebook, they would automatically donate a small amount of change.

Gaining investments of about $200,000, the trio ran Centscere out of The Tech Garden in downtown Syracuse. They worked with the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship and almost every tech group on campus, Smith shares. And the M.S. in entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises that he was earning at the same time was the perfect counterpart to the startup.

If Smith was learning about human resource restrictions in class, he could immediately go apply everything that was covered to his business. “I like to say my experience starting a business taught me as much as grad school did,” Smith shares. “They’re kind of a yin and yang. It’s a really nice compliment.”

Centscere had a few hundred users, when due to certain regulations of its host platform, Facebook, it had to be shut down. But Smith has no regrets. Since then he’s helped a client sell a business and has shut down two more. The knowledge he’s gained from starting and shutting down these businesses is something people don’t gain until they’re in their 30s and 40s, Smith says.

“If you’re doing innovative things, by definition, most of them will fail,” Smith shares. “But I think college and post-college are the times to do this stuff. This is the time to experiment.”

The summer after his junior year of undergrad, Smith was able to intern with an entrepreneur, with the help of professor John Torrens. He was involved in the Panasci Business Plan Competition and came back as a judge after graduating.

Currently, Smith is a management associate at Applico, a company that builds digital marketplaces and platforms for corporations. He still has a separate “nights and weekends” project — Scrappy Capital, a venture fund he founded along with a Newhouse professor and another Syracuse University alum. But being an entrepreneur doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start your own business, Smith says. You can also be an entrepreneur within an organization by creating a new tool or service for an existing company.

“I wish I was the type of person to only do one thing and focus on one thing,” Smith shares. “But my brain doesn’t work that way.”

Learn more about Whitman alumni in the latest alumni profiles.

Sandhya Iyer