Reducing the Cost of Entry

April 28th, 2008 by cgergen

There is never a better time to be a life entrepreneur.  Every day there is a new idea or article sparking this conviction.  Right now, for example, I’m sitting on a train to NYC and just read an article in Fast Company about the company Ning.  The cover story  outlines Ning’s “viral expansion loop” business model.  Essentially, it has created a platform that allows users to create their own mini social networks and then invite other users to join.  Deeply passionate about your local minor league baseball team and want to connect with others who share this passion?  Then create your own site using Ning.  Ning monetizes this growth by placing very targeted ads on each of the newly created sites (called Ning nets).  And grow it has.  As of this reading, the company is reporting more than 230,000 Ning nets – up from 60,000 a year ago.

 

Viral expansion is not new – just think about free email provider Hotmail which exploded to 30 million users in just 30 months.  But what makes Ning notable (besides being co-founded by Marc Andreesen from Netscape fame), is that this concept accelerates our ability to build highly personalized platforms based on our interests and passions.  Importantly, it also DRAMATICALLY reduces our cost of entry.

 

Have a dream of starting a charter school in your community?  Want to gauge interest in a new public school by other members in your community?  Want to connect with others who have done the same?  Rather than sketching out the idea in a static document and then reaching out piece-meal to neighbors through email and flyers – you can now build a site dedicated to this concept and then invite others to join.  They, in turn, can invite others to join the conversation and a community is born.  Rather than being restricted to your immediate network of friends – the viral nature of this concept allows you to rapidly create a diverse network of people who become invested in the idea and want to help it succeed.  The positive network effect is born and what started as a distant dream can quickly become a reachable reality.

 

Sites like Ning can’t provide you a clear sense of who you are and where you want to go – the foundation of the entrepreneurial life path.  But once you start figuring this out and waking up to the vast amount of opportunities on the horizon, there has never been a better time to create a shared vision of an exciting new future and making it happen.

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Creating an Extraordinary Career Path

April 21st, 2008 by gvanourek

Lately we’ve been giving talks to students on college campuses.  The question arises: what does life entrepreneurship offer students as they plot their career paths?

Let’s start with the common traps that students fall into as they set out on their first jobs.  First, they walk a path that others have chosen.  Whether it’s to obtain their parents’ approval, gain the acceptance or admiration of their peers, or please a mentor, they set valiantly off on someone else’s career path and only later come to realize that it may not be right for them.  Sometimes years or decades down the road, they stop and wonder: How did I get here?  Why did I choose this path? 

Second, they stick with the first path they came upon.  They commit too soon.  They start telling all their family and friends about their respectable decision for a career path and then all of a sudden, they’re locked.  According to the late Peter Drucker, “The probability that the first choice you make is right for you is roughly one in a million.  If you decide that your first choice was the right one, chances are you are just plain lazy.”  Yet, some people dutifully continue marching down that path. 

Why is that?  To begin with, the switching costs are high.  We earn salary increases and promotions.  We develop expertise and a network.  We are needed in our roles and appreciated for our contributions.  Most importantly, we adopt the persona of our work, with our whole identity sometimes subsumed by what we happen to be doing (even if it’s the wrong thing).  

Third, we postpone happiness.  The common view one generation back was that work was something you did until around age 65, or earlier if you’re lucky, and then you retire and enjoy life.  So we sacrifice today to obtain happiness tomorrow.  Or we just take this brutal job today with these brutal hours “for our family” with the comforting notion that it’s only temporary and that we’ll pay our dues now and start doing what we want in five years, or ten, or…. The problem is that we get into the habit of postponing happiness and those glory days never appear.

These are common traps, but what to do about them?  What is needed is a psychological holding environment for career experimentation and change, recognizing that our path is likely to be winding and cutting ourselves a break for not having all the answers out of the gates. 

Sure we must choose wisely—and for the right reasons.  But when you’re twenty and in college and lacking much professional experience (if you have any at all), that’s hard to do.  So let’s posit that most of us won’t hit the jackpot and figure it all out right up front.  And that our career path—and life path—will be winding.  One of the themes we heard from the people we interviewed—all successful business and social entrepreneurs or leaders—was that their path made more sense looking back than it did looking forward.  Many were surprised by where their path took them.  None ended up in the exact position he or she envisioned way back when. 

That argues for building flexibility into our planning and thinking.  That’s what I mean by the right psychological holding environment.  We need to make decisions based on an elegant combination of what our head dictates makes sense and what our heart reveals to feel right.  Most important, I think, is the latter.  We need to evaluate with brutal honesty how things are working out—after giving it a fair shake—and listen to our gut without having overcommitted by adopting that work persona and subsuming our identity to the current job or our current role.  Does this feel right?  Am I leveraging my strengths and deploying my passions? Am I making meaningful contributions?  Through an iterative process of action and reflection—with a heavy dose of searching conversations with loved ones, friends, and mentors—we can begin to find our direction in life, the wide swath on the horizon that we can steer toward and feel like we are on a true path. 

Second, we must “own” our career path.  That begins with planning with our whole lives in mind, as Aristotle urged us to do, and discovering our core identity: What are our values?  What do we want in our relationships?  What will our legacy be?  News flash: career planning = life planning = career planning = life planning.  Our work and life must be integrated pursuits, grounded in a solid core identity that fits with who we really are and what direction we want to head with our lives—a choice that is ours to make (or delegate or duck). 

Owning it also means “managing up,” if we happen to have a boss, and specifying clearly what we’re hoping to do and learn, as well as remaining “switched on” to opportunities for advancement and growth.  That also means evaluating and tweaking our career path in an ongoing process.

If we are contemplating a career change, sometimes we fall victim to the assumption that we can think it through perfectly.  New research is indicating that we should instead “craft experiments,” taking action in small ways to gain valuable exposure to fields of interest before jumping in head-first.  When we’re ready, though, we must be willing to jump off the train we’re on in order to find a truer path.

Sometimes plotting an extraordinary career path means allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.  Allowing ourselves to not have all the answers.  To go down a path and discover that it was a road to nowhere.  To take risks and be unconventional.  To listen to our inner muse.  It’s more art than science.  It’s a messy process.  But the price of not getting our hands dirty this way is too often a life of regret, a career path that’s respectable but not remarkable, productive but not true.  Which will you choose?

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Last Lecture

April 11th, 2008 by gvanourek

Recently Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, posted a video of his last lecture online, along with an accompanying article.  Check it out here—and also here for an abbreviated version of his lecture. 

What makes it especially poignant is that he was told last year that he is dying of pancreatic cancer and had only months to live.  The lecture is actually a “message in a bottle” to his children.  As a father of a young daughter, I get where he’s coming from.  Here are a few gems from his remarkable missive:

  • Dream Big: “Give yourself permission to dream. Fuel your kids’ dreams too.”
  • Dare to Take a Risk: “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted. And it can be the most valuable thing you have to offer.”
  • Always Have Fun: “I came to an early realization. Each of us must make a decision…. Am I a fun-loving Tigger or a sad-sack Eeyore? It’s clear where I stand.”
  • Ask for What You Want: “Ask. More often than you’d suspect, the answer you’ll get is, ‘Sure.’”
  • Look for the Best in Everybody: “I got this advice from Jon Snoddy, my hero at Disney Imagineering. ‘If you wait long enough,’ he said, ‘people will surprise and impress you…. In the end, people will show you their good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.’”
  • Make Time for What Matters: “Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think.”
  • Let Kids Be Themselves: “Because I’ve been so vocal about my childhood dreams, people have asked me about the dreams I have for my own kids. As a professor, I’ve seen how disruptive it can be for parents to have specific dreams for their children…. Kids, don’t try to figure out what I wanted you to become. I want you to become what you want to become.”

When I was in college myself, I took a class called “Theories of the Good Life.”  In it, we not only surveyed what the great sages and civilizations have said about what it means to lead “the good life,” we also learned from poets, novelists, and people on their deathbeds about what it means to really live.  It was a potent reminder of the importance of making the best use of the lives that we’ve been given, and of thinking about our purpose in life and the legacy we hope to leave behind. 

What will your last lecture be?

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Preparing to Live to 100

April 6th, 2008 by cgergen

Over the last few months, I have come to really enjoy reading the blog of Ben Casnocha.  Frequently insightful and thought-provoking, it’s a great view of life from a young guy making a big splash.  Today he had a real doozy of a column that I want to pass along.

Titled The Centenarian Strategy: Life / Career Issues When You Will Live to 100, Ben draws upon a 1996 Rutgers University commencement speech by David Mahoney, then chairman of the Dana Foundation – a brain research organization.

The commencement speech’s  premise is that members of Generation X and Y (and beyond) have a relatively strong chance of living to 100.  And that our “fourth quarter” is going to be an active one.  So, rather than working like a dog and preparing for “retirement” at 60 – we are far better served to “create a strategy for a lifetime of alertness that lasts a whole century.”

I encourage you check out Ben’s blog to get his take on this provocative speech but I wanted to share the top five ideas from Mahoney’s talk (and link them into our corroborative research from Life Entrepreneurs):

1. Diversify your career from the very beginning. 

In his talk, Mahoney advocates for creating a vocation (i.e. career) as well an avocation (a creative pursuit outside of your formal work).  This, he suggests, gives us more options down the line.

“Stop thinking of jobs in series, one after the other; instead, think of careers in parallel. That means planning your vocation along with your avocation, and keep them as separate as possible. If you want to go into business, plan an avocation of music or art; if you are inclined toward the law or the media, diversify into education or landscaping. If you want to be a poet, think about politics on the side, and study it seriously….a real avocation is a subtext to a career, and a part of your working week to pursue with a certain dedication. Why? Not only because it gives balance to your second quarter, but because it positions you for the time that will come, in the third or fourth quarter, to switch gears.” 

In a world where the majority of us will have multiple careers in an ever-changing world, this advice is right on.  Among many of the Life Entrepreneurs we interviewed, they pursued multiple passion and pursuits.  Billy Shore poured his heart into addressing global famine while he was managing Gary Hart’s presidential campaign.  When that blew up, he turned his avocation into his full-time job, launching Share our Strength,which has since become one of the largest anti-hunger organizations in the world.

2. Take advantage of your opportunity to wind up a millionaire.

Part of creating a long and fruitful entrepreneurial life is being resourceful and determining your long-term needs.  This includes your financial needs.  This requires setting goals and being strategic.  Mahoney encourages taking advantage of some of the investment vehicles we have at our disposal – as well being an aggressive saver: 

“Financial independence will take a lot of pressure off that fourth quarter and make it something to look forward to… To the centenarian, credit-card living is out, leveraged saving is in. Use your tax leverage to make your savings grow exponentially. In this savings race, the tortoise beats the hare; by taking full advantage of the plans out there now, and more sure to come in the next decade, you need not be a rocket scientist to become a millionaire – in real terms – by your fourth quarter. Especially if you’re part of a two-income family.” 

Speaking of which…

3. Invest in your family dimension.

“As life gets longer, young people are getting married later. Fine; that deliberation about a big choice should ultimately reverse the divorce rate. But make a commitment early in your second quarter; the smartest thing you can do in diversifying your life is to stop playing the field.  The wave of the future, in the Centenarian Strategy, is to frame your life in traditional family settings. Do your market research in singlehood, choose for the long term and then commit to marriage; have kids; avoid divorce; raise your likelihood of having grandchildren. Following this course, you can expect at least a couple of great-grandchildren to enjoy, to work with, and to help as you approach the century mark. If you plan properly now to protect your wallet and your intellect, you can be a family asset, not a liability, later; and your family, with all the headaches, will enrich your life.”

The Life Entrepreneur develops a vision for every aspect of his or her life.  Family is an incredibly important dimension of this.  Mahoney’s advice strikes a chord – and provides a an important reminder about where a long-term family plan fits into the larger scheme of things.

4. Pace yourself: it’s a small world and a long life.

For the Centenarian and the Life Entrepreneur, life is a journey.  It has many chapters and there are several important things to keep in mind: 1) Take time for reflection and pay close attention to your authentic self and discovering your core identity (especially purpose and values), 2) stay switched on to opportunities and pursue your passions proactively and strategically, 3) actively maintain a healthy support network, 4) have the courage to try, and 5) remember to have fun along the way.

Along these lines, Mahoney’s advice to the Rutgers grads rings true (particularly the last line):

The centenarian thinks about success differently, with a longer view. He or she measures success in getting to personal satisfaction, which does not always mean getting to the top of the heap. Making money is important, never derogate building an estate that you and your progeny can use. But developing long-term loyalties in all the strands of your career and avocation and hobbies and recreation pays off in that satisfaction. Those loyalties also make life easier later; you can get things done across the different strands, helping someone in your avocation who has helped you in your career.  Ask yourself along the way: Whose approval is important to you? Whose is not? The Centenarians do not stop to smell the flowers; they carry the flower along.”

5. Plan for at least one thoroughgoing discombobulation in your life.

Life happens.  It has its highs – and as Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas write in their book Geeks & Geezers – it has its crucible moments: moments in life when we are exposed to an extreme challenge (a death, an illness, a significant setback, etc.).  How we react to these moments can help shape who we ultimately become.  Throughout our book, we saw consistently how entrepreneurial leaders became stronger through adversity – or were able to seize upon new, life-changing opportunities through something we call “purposeful spontaneity.”  The key is to recognize that we can’t predict a lot of life, but we can be prepared for it.

In his closing, Mahoney shared,

“Success, or a resounding setback, in one career can lead to success, of another kind, in the parallel career. That, in a nutshell, is how to cope with a challenge no graduating class has ever had – the challenge of a life with an active fourth quarter. Medical science will give most of you the body to blow out a hundred candles on your birthday cake, and the brain scientists will give you the life of your mind. That active memory will be their gift to you…. You will be able, in the poet’s words, to enjoy ‘the last of life, for which the first was made.’ It’s up to you to make sure you have a varied life that’s worth remembering.”

And so – as we look to the future it is worth gazing at the distant horizon.  For we may just get there – and all the better if our journey has been as rich as it has been long.

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Making the Jump

April 3rd, 2008 by cgergen

Figuring out when to make a jump out of a job (or career) is tough, but Ford Motor Company just sweetened the pot.

In an effort to entice workers to leave a company that was once a bastion of stable middle-class wages, Ford Motor Company is trying to lure thousands of workers to take a buy-out.   This includes college tuition plans for entire families or a cash payment of up to $140,000 (one of the most generous offers in the history of the auto industry).

As part of the effort, Ford distributed a feature-length DVD to each of its 54,000 hourly workers titled “Connecting with Your Future.”  In it, they encourage workers to take “the opportunity to try something new.”  According to a recent New York Times article, the DVD features multiple clips of former Ford workers who have started their own businesses or set out on their own after taking buyouts. 

One worker, Dale Beck, took a $100,000 buyout in 2006 and opened his own Little Caesars outlet in St. Louis, explaining: “I went from making cars to making pizzas, and it’s turned out pretty well for me.”

As workers like Dale contemplate their futures after Ford, they might be well served to ask a few important questions:

  • What’s important to me? (What are my values and passions?)
  • What are my needs (financial, emotional, social, etc.)?
  • What are my strengths? (What value can I add?)
  • Where are there opportunities that align with my values, fulfill my needs, and leverage my strengths?
  • How can I seize those opportunities?  (Who do I know, who do I need to know, how can I get in the door?)
  • What’s my game plan to make it happen?

In other words, what is my entrepreneurial life plan?

Stories like Dale’s are only likely to increase as we navigate today’s world of uncertainty, take bold leaps, and try to land on our feet.  That jump can be terrifying.  But, ultimately, if the appropriate tools and training resources are available, and the right questions are asked and answered in a supportive context, a brighter future can await for people willing to make the leap of faith.

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