Are entrepreneurs born risk-takers? Is there something about their personalities that predisposes them to take risks that others can’t stomach? Can entrepreneurship be taught?
According to entrepreneurship researcher Saras Sarasvathy, entrepreneurs aren’t different from anyone else; they simply adopt a different approach to problem solving.
Dr. Sarasvathy suggests that entrepreneurs actually create their own odds of success by taking incremental steps that move them closer to their goals. After being an entrepreneur for over 25 years and studying the behavior of many others, I think she’s right. She calls this incremental approach “effectuation” because it takes advantage of the compounding effects that the entrepreneur causes by their own actions.
Here are 6 key points to understand about Dr. Sarasvathy’s theory of effectuation:
- Entrepreneurs start with what they have and who they are. What do you know a lot about? What early or deeply personal experiences have affected you? What connections do you have? Leverage these assets to do something and then see what comes of it. This first step leads to additional opportunity, and sometimes these opportunities are very big and unpredictable. Action attracts others, and those others enhance opportunity and the odds of success.
- Entrepreneurs limit risk by understanding what they can afford to lose at each step. True entrepreneurs never take very much risk at once. Typically the calculation goes something like this, “I think it would be worth investing $50,000 in exploring this opportunity. If I lose it, I can survive. What’s the worst that can happen?” There are two likely outcomes of that reasoning: either the experiment is successful, in which case the investment is rewarded and leads to other follow-on opportunities, or the experiment is not successful, which most likely also will lead to other follow-on opportunities. Either way, new opportunities typically emerge because action attracts others.
- Entrepreneurs create their own market opportunity. When Burt Rutan set out to build Spaceship One, it was not because he perceived that there was a big market for expensive one-off spacecraft that was going unmet. He started with what he knew how to do and an affordable risk. When Pierre Omidyar started Ebay, he didn’t anticipate it would become a multibillion dollar company. Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page tried to sell Google for $1M, but were instead forced to see it through and become multibillionaires. The market for a company is often not clear at the moment of founding. Entrepreneurs find their way to the market by the creative, iterative leverage of what and who they know.
- Entrepreneurs trust people. The best entrepreneurs internalize the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” To uncover large opportunities, it’s often necessary to coordinate the interests of many. The best entrepreneurs involve more people in the effectuation process, because more people means more assets, which often has a non-linear impact on the eventual outcome. In fact, Sarasvathy argues that a degree of calculated “over-trust” and “intelligent altruism” is a rational strategy for uncovering large multiplayer opportunities that would otherwise be hidden or impossible to achieve.
- Effectual thinking can be taught. Because entrepreneurship is just an application of effectual logic and not the result of innate personality traits, it can be taught. We do not accept the notion that “scientists are born, not made,” and even while we might believe that some people are more disposed to scientific work than others, we do not accept the notion that people cannot be taught to think scientifically. It is similarly possible to teach people effectual thinking. Tellingly, in communities where effectual thinking is common (Silicon Valley, for one), people who had not previously displayed effectual tendencies are often motivated to adopt the pattern once they see it can be effective at problem solving or in generating wealth. Effectual thinking may not only be teachable; it may be contagious in the right circumstances.
- Failure increases the odds of individual success. While the success rate of a typical individual venture might be quite low, an entrepreneur that sustains a failure is more likely to succeed in later rounds. Failure teaches the entrepreneur about affordable risk, suggests boundaries for over-trust behaviors, and offers hints about how to maximize opportunity. We should never stigmatize failure, but instead understand that it is part of the effectual process.
Pop Business Books
It is fashionable to tell people stories about Purple Cows, Tipping Points, Outliers, Whuffie, Crushing It, and practicing a Four Hour Workweek. However, these books all have their roots in effectual thinking. Do something. Utilize what you really know to stand out and be different. Work with others to uncover the opportunity you want to find. If books like this can motivate people to act, they’re probably a good thing. But I find they can be crazy-making because they don’t offer the intellectual underpinnings to explain why (or how) these approaches might actually work. They’re most often shaming you into action, and in the end they’re giving you a fish, instead of teaching you how.
Effectuation and Social Networks
The internet (in general) and social networks (like Twitter and Facebook, in particular) are platforms for effectuation. They allow entrepreneurs to find the people who will, at each successive stage, help to contribute to the success of their enterprise. These could be customers, partners, or investors. Any platform that allows like-minded individuals to find each other is an accelerant to the effectuation process. In fact, the like-mindedness of these stakeholders is more important than the roles that they play. What is the difference between a company and a customer when both are stakeholders in the product? Who is paying whom for what and when is a detail that needs tended to, but without finding the people who will participate in the conversation that maximizes the utility of the product, maximizing revenue will never be a consideration.
The Myth of the Visionary Entrepreneur
We give a lot of credit to successful entrepreneurs. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson are some of the most admired people in the world. In some ways that credit is deserved (though one could argue that civil servants and humanitarians are worthy of even more praise). However, we assign them too much credit, or at the very least we assign them credit for the wrong insights.
These people did not anticipate the circumstances of their success, and did not set out to attain the particular achievements for which they are most well known. Rather, these people are all master effectuators. They took action early. They involved others. They took many successive steps that moved them closer to their passions. They suffered failures. And perhaps most importantly, they are alive to tell about it.
There are many unsung heroes and master effectuators who have had great success but whose stories have ended less well. And we don’t hear as much about them. The final outcome should not diminish their achievement.
You do not need to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, or even have an idea right now, to be an effectual entrepreneur. Start now and take the journey. You will be glad you did.