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    Effectuation: How Entrepreneurship Really Works

    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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

    6. 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.

    References

    Team is Everything

    For a software startup, having a good idea is important, but a good team is essential.

    Good ideas are easy to find; I keep a list of interesting business and tech ideas that I constantly update and probably have a couple hundred at the ready.

    What’s hard to find, and is much more important for success, is a good team. What are the ingredients of a good team?

    Go All In: Look for “Crazy Eyes”

    It’s tough to go it alone. While you might succeed nurturing an idea as a side project, your chances of success go up dramatically when you band together with people who complement your skills and are willing to do what it takes to get something to market as quickly as possible.

    I call it “crazy eyes.” You need to be able to look somebody else in the eyes and catch that wild-eyed glint of insane dedication – and truly commit to each other as collaborators. If you can’t find people to take risks with, you probably won’t be able to bring your idea to fruition.

    Proper Casting

    Putting together a good team is all about having the right people in the right roles. First, that means choosing the right people to collaborate with. Second, it means knowing and being honest about the strengths and weaknesses of each individual on your team.

    All too often, I have seen people call themselves CEO that really ought to be “Chief Software Architect.” Or people in operational roles who clearly can’t stand being around other people. While it’s tempting to label yourself and your cofounder as COO and CEO, you need to be honest (and educated) about whether you are really right for these positions.

    When you go to talk to potential investors, they will sniff out this kind of bad casting right away, and they will just assume you have bad judgment. If they think you have bad judgment about a simple thing like properly casting yourself, then they think you will have bad judgment about everything else; they certainly won’t trust you with investment funds.

    Proper casting is a sign of honesty, clarity, and good judgment. It’s key to connecting with investors. Even if you don’t think you need investors, prospective partners and employees pick up on your casting judgment also. Do it right.

    A Good Team Always Survives

    What may seem like a great idea may turn out to be a bad one, or one that needs to be changed to be successful. Maybe it turns out that kids don’t want to play with horses in your 3D virtual world. Maybe instead, 50 year old men want to play war there. A good team figures that out and capitalizes on it. A bad team spends ever greater sums of money trying to embellish the pretty horses and advertise in kids magazines.

    Even in the worst case, a good team that knows its strengths and weaknesses will know how to salvage assets and return value to investors (license the tech to others, etc). A bad team gets mired up in personality conflicts, personal crises, falls apart and becomes toxic to everyone.

    This is why investors will almost always bet on a good team with an unproven idea over a sure-fire idea and a so-so team. Good teams deliver returns no matter what.

    Good Teams Make Markets

    I’ve seen lots of ideas that sound impossible on the surface turned into great businesses through the skills, connections, and experience of their teams. Want to sell WiFi in airports? Sounds impossible, but not if your COO spent 10 years as the director of purchasing for HMS Host. Want to sell an avionics upgrade to the Air Force? Sounds tough, but not if your CEO spent 10 years on contracts at Lockheed.

    What a team brings to an idea is more important than the idea. Good ideas are a dime-a-dozen. Finding the people to make a good idea work is incredibly difficult.

    Stay Calm and Open to Change

    It’s easy for partner relationships to become emotional and strained. Often, partnerships form as a handshake and a promise of 50-50 equity. Operating agreements and buy-sell arrangements often come later, breed resentment, and then become set in stone as people invest increasing amounts of sweat equity.

    Don’t let relationships get in the way of execution. While you may be passionate and emotional about your idea, you should be calm and cool about your relationship with your team members. Remember, it’s all about proper casting. Do whatever it takes to put people into the right roles and immediately address any questions regarding equity, hurt feelings, and the like.

    There’s no better way to turn a good team bad than to let equity and casting issues fester.

    Know a Lot of People

    The best way to insure proper casting is to choose the right teammates to begin with. The best way to do that is to know lots of people with diverse skills. This will keep you from going into business with your college roommate and instead partner with people who have the skills that round out your team.

    Just Say No

    “No” is the most powerful word in business. The pressure to be “moving forward” in our society is intense. But if team is so important and you also believe in your idea, it doesn’t make sense to move forward with the wrong team or the wrong idea. Just say “no.” Instead, wait it out and find the right team, or at least part of the right team before moving forward. Or change your idea.

    Every day I see smart entrepreneurs, under pressure to “move forward,” squandering their time by pursuing an idea with a “halfway there” team. I don’t mean to belittle any entrepreneur’s efforts, and I certainly wouldn’t bet against them. But there’s a difference between doing something just to be doing it (and not really believing in it) and going all-in with people who have what it takes to succeed.

    And yes, many entrepreneurs don’t really believe in what they are doing: if they did, they’d quit their day jobs. Building up and then tearing down a half-baked startup takes time as well as real and emotional capital. Why waste all that? Life is short. Find the right teammates (if you need anyone beyond yourself to begin) and then go all in. Your support network will rally around you.

    What Investors Look For

    You may think investors read your idea first. They don’t. They look at where you live. They look at who your attorney is. They look at your background. They look at your team. Smart investors know that your network says more about you than anything else.

    Once they’ve figured out “who you are,” then they consider your idea and determine if you have any hope in hell of delivering what you’re promising. Investors know ideas are cheap; they see them all the time, and usually have many ideas of their own. What they are looking for is why they should bet on you to deliver on your particular idea. And frankly, they are looking to see if you are delusional!

    If you are realistic about your chances, have spent time building a good team, and have cast your team members in appropriate roles, most investors will look at any plausible idea favorably. It doesn’t hurt if you share some common acquaintances, either; shared social networks and shared values help ensure long term commitment to the investor and the community. This is why angels almost always invest close to home.

    Local Is Best

    It’s both tempting and possible to put together a “virtual” company with folks spread around the world. However, investors see this as a sign of team weakness. It means video conferencing instead of face-to-face meetings. It means slower response times. It means travel costs and weaker relationships. In the end, it lowers your chances of success and is just a pain in the ass.

    In the context of larger established companies, having some remote workers can make lots of sense. But if you’re trying to launch a startup, do it with the people in your own backyard. Can’t find the right people? Keep digging; see below.

    Build Your Network

    The single best thing you can do to as an early stage startup is to build up your network of potential team members. And don’t just collect business cards at networking events. Build real relationships. Figure out what makes people tick. Spend time in environments where you take risks with people and try out new things. They will become your casting pool, now and in the future.

    One of the best ways to do that is to get involved in your local tech community. Here in Baltimore, we have Beehive Baltimore, which lets freelancers and entrepreneurs spend time working together. From Beehive, TEDxMidAtlantic was born. That event brought over 100 amazing entrepreneurial thinkers together in organizing a 500 person, very complex event. Go to events like Ignite Baltimore; listen to the people around you and think about how you can collaborate with them. Grab lunch and beer with people!

    These are just a few observations I have gleaned from my work with Baltimore Angels and with starting and observing many companies over the last 23 years. I welcome your comments!

    What Your “Good Job” Is Costing You

    You’re smart. You went to the right schools and got good grades, and that’s paid off with a nice job with a decent salary, a healthy upside, and some decent perks. Let’s say you make $125,000 per year.

    Now let’s say you quit that job and spend three years founding a technology startup. At first it goes slowly, and things seem desperate. Then you get a break; then you hit it big. At year 5, your startup is worth $3 Million and attracts the attention of a bigger firm. They acquire your company.

    So, if you stay in your job, you make $625,000 guaranteed, but you’re turning down a potential shot at a $3 Million exit. So your job is costing you $2,375,000 over the next 5 years. Worth it?

    Think I’m wrong? What are you building in equity for the shareholders of the firm where you work? If it wasn’t a good deal for those shareholders, would they want you there?

    Think it’s too risky? Sure, a ridiculous number of entrepreneurial enterprises fail, but failure cannot be counted strictly as downside. There is recoverable value in failure.

    Too often people cite general statistics about entrepreneurial failure that include all entrepreneurs everywhere and in every sector; these metrics are all but anecdotal in nature. Be realistic in evaluating your chances. Not being stupid helps (we already established you’re smart), and your position in social networks likely has more to do with success or failure than any other factor (read this book).

    And please don’t counter that I’ve inaccurately accounted for the capital required to create a startup, how “impossible” it is to get funding, and how doomed you might be for whatever reason before you start: startup capital requirements are lower than ever before – you can get started for as little as $10-$50K with a seed of an idea and the right partner.

    Or is it that you’re “too big to fail?” Has your dependence on the lifestyle that The Man has meted out to you eclipsed your willingness to pursue something more valuable? Family, relationships, cars, mortgage payments, kids, restaurants, travel – call them what you will, but these responsibilities often become excuses for inaction.

    Getting started young with entrepreneurial activity is a great way to avoid this trap; young people really have nothing to lose, especially teenagers, and it’s easier than ever for a teen to start something today.

    While it’s perfectly possible to nurture a side project and wait for it to show signs of life before “quitting your day job,” the real opportunity for success comes in becoming a part of a network of entrepreneurs who are willing to take calculated risks together and that requires a full time commitment. Otherwise, you’re making a calculated decision to expose yourself to a much smaller chance of success. Why?

    For every day that you accept payment in exchange for doing your employer’s bidding instead of something you’d rather be doing, you become less likely to take the bold steps necessary to succeed on your own.

    What are you waiting for?