Before a hang glider can feel comfortable hurling himself off the edge of a cliff, he needs to make absolutely certain that he is securely strapped into a safety harness strong enough to support his weight. Likewise, before an entrepreneur makes the decision to walk away from his job, drop out of his degree program, or walk off the edge of any financial cliff, he must make sure he will be supported by an adequate financial safety net.
By safety net I mean a network of people who promise to support the entrepreneur in the event that he needs their assistance. A well-crafted safety net includes venture capitalists who say they are likely to invest, skilled workers who say they are likely to come on board as employees, and potential customers who say they are likely to buy the product or service.
A few months after the hang-gliding excursion, I am sitting in a cafe in Kendall Square, asking Vanu Bose how he made the decision to start the software radio company known as Vanu, Inc. I am trying to get Bose to agree that before a person can feel comfortable making the decision to leave his job and start a new business, he needs to make sure that his safety net is strong enough to support his weight. But Bose does not think you can say "entrepreneurship" and "safety" in the same sentence.
"During the first few years of a high-tech start-up, there's no such thing as a safety net," Bose tells me. "You don't want to create a veneer that everything is okay, because if you've hired smart people, they'll sec through it. You have to acknowledge the problems, explain what you're going to do, and challenge people to have a positive outlook. But if you think about it too much, you'll never do it.
"I know a lot of people who think that they will start businesses but never do. They are kind of standing on the edge of the cliff looking down. They think there might be something really good down there, or it might just be jagged rocks and they'll get wrecked. And so they line up on the cliff with a whole bunch of their buddies, and they're all sort of going, 'Well. I'll jump if you jump.' Nobody wants to jump, because it is a highly risky thing and there is a very high probability that you will fail."
I remind Bose that although he might talk about the importance of not overanalyzing the situation and simply going ahead and taking the leap, he actually did spend a great deal of time preparing himself to become an entrepreneur. He watched his father, Amar, start the stereo-equipment company that bears the family name. And in the process of eating a normal family dinner, he learned a great deal about entrepreneurship. For example, if Bose ever asked his father about a business decision, "it was never just an answer; it was always this complete lesson on all of the things he had considered doing," Bose reflects. "My dad would explain why he made this decision, what would have happened if he had made another decision, and what were the risks. I didn't think of it as a learning experience at the time, but clearly a lot of my philosophy comes from that."
The technical training that Bose undertook before deciding to start Vanu, Inc. involved a Ph.D. dissertation in exactly the same field in which he is working to grow his company. And in the process of being a good Ph.D candidate-sharing his research in the form of white papers - Bose developed quite a reputation. "Software radio isn't a big area," Bose says, "and we were the de facto experts. Because of the papers we had written, both Raytheon and Boeing called us up and said, 'Hey, we want to learn about software radio."'
Within a few months of starting his company, Bose was able to sign a contract with Boeing, which gave him an opportunity to have in-depth discussions with potential customers. And Bose's reputation has given him a leg up in other areas as well. "I have never called a venture capitalist, they have all called us," he admits. "We're in a very fortunate position."
If an entrepreneur has spent his entire life learning about the process of starting a new high-tech company and if he is recognized as the dc facto expert in his particular field, it might be okay to wake up one morning and make the decision to jump off the entrepreneurial cliff. But even with a prefabricated safety net of the kind that Bose apparently stumbled into, he still found it necessary to add a few links to his network of business contacts.
After deciding to start Vanu, Inc., Bose spent some time at the Muddy Charles Pub, talking to entrepreneurs who had themselves started companies from scratch. And Bose says that this "preformation of the company phase" was extremely important. "You don't have it all," Bose says. "Nobody has it all. But it really comes down to having faith in yourself."
Internet entrepreneur Rosaline Gulati agrees. "Part of your safety net is your ability to believe in yourself," she says. "You have to believe that if things fail, you'll be able to get up and do it again. Then it doesn't matter if your business fails-you'll move on."
Tags: Career & Money
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