It's easy to run a company in an up market. OK, sort of easy. But a down market is something else again, and what a roller-coaster year the past year was, said six entrepreneurs in a panel discussion at the 2002 Dynamic Women in Business conference. Despite serious problems such as funding gaps and layoffs, though, only one person among the six panelists had retreated to a traditional consultancy in 2001. The rest—who started everything from a women-centric financial services group to a natural products company that grew from a candle business—said that they had entrepreneurship in their bones and were prepared to ride out the storm.
Starting a business did look like a cinch until recently. According to panel moderator Lynda M. Applegate, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in new businesses, entrepreneurs during the 1990s reminded her of her then- five-year-old son's soccer team. As Applegate related with a fond smile, "You put the ball on the field and they all jumped on it. They fought their teammates; they fought each other. They looked like a rugby scrum and all of a sudden when the ball shot out, everybody would run to it over there and jump on it." Now, she said, thanks to expert coaching, the kids have learned to communicate, coordinate, pass the ball off to their teammates and get it back. Good businesses that want to grow know how to do a version of the same thing, she said. Entrepreneurs bring passion, intelligence, persistence, fun, humanity, and courage.
Many people may say that career paths should be straight and perfectly planned, Applegate added. "Forget it! The best careers are those that kind of weave and bend."
Out The Window
The best ideas for new products and services often come from frustration with the existing supply, agreed the panelists. Entrepreneurship, in part, is the skill of connecting different patterns in order to create a product or service that's more useful and convenient, said Stephani Khurana (HBS MBA '96), CEO of Surebridge, a firm specializing in high tech enterprise applications. Randi Altschul, a prolific inventor and the founder of Dieceland Technologies Corporation, which licenses and develops her inventions, said she got the idea for a disposable cell phone while driving her car. The reception was so terrible on her normal cell phone that she was seized by the urge to pitch it out the window. Good ideas take on a life on their own, she said, and inspiration is a natural process that can't really be stoked.
The best careers are those that kind of weave and bend.
— Lynda Applegate
Entrepreneurs have to know how to make tough decisions all the time, the panelists said. Andrea Silbert (HBS MBA '92), founder of a nonprofit called the Center for Women and Enterprise, which offers services and funding assistance to women entrepreneurs, said it's important to be realistic and analytical. "Don't go with your gut without doing analysis," she advised. Another entrepreneur took a different tack and credited her own decision-making prowess to the power of yoga. Roxanne Quimby, who started Burt's Bees, Inc., a personal care products firm, in her Maine kitchen, told the group that when faced with a hard decision not long ago she rolled out her yoga mat and practiced her favorite pose, the so-called "downward dog." Twenty minutes later her mind was made up, she said with a grin.
"Decision-making involves fear and disappointment and loss," Quimby said. "It seems logical to analyze costs to make decisions. But it's not all about a cost/benefit comparison...It's change and it's new and you can't know everything about that. It's the future, so at some point you do rely on something beyond analysis," in her experience on women's intuition, she said.
Entrepreneurs are notorious for getting too wrapped up in their work at the expense of their life outside the business, panelists agreed. They credited their families and friends for keeping them balanced. Jennifer Openshaw, founder of Women's Financial Network, a financial services company, said entrepreneurs tend to bind their sense of self to the business and all its ups and downs. Taking some time away with a loved one, she said, will not only be personally beneficial but will also "lead you to the best ideas for your businesses."
How should entrepreneurs go forward, recession or no? Women on the panel had plenty of tips for the audience, from "do your homework" to "be ready mentally and financially." But perhaps Altschul and Quimby best summed up the combination of innate mental toughness, persistence and passion that being an entrepreneur demands. "Go with your gut. Never let the bastards get you down," counseled Dieceland head Altschul.
And Quimby of Burt's Bees? "Follow your bliss."