Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Innovate. Effectuate. Overcoming the Challenges of Launching a Business

Hi All!  Please see below for a GUEST BLOGGER from the Entrepreneurial Ventures Club (EVC).  Written by Darden FY Scott Caras on the recent Darden Entrepreneurship Conference that took place last week.

Darden’s annual Entrepreneurship Conference wrapped up Friday evening after two days dedicated to exploring the topics of innovation and effectuation in entrepreneurship.

The conference kicked off Thursday afternoon with the Darden Concept Competition.  Students presented a variety of business ideas ranging from original technology platforms to innovative consumer products.  The competition provided an opportunity for MBA students to share ideas and seek feedback from experienced entrepreneurs.  The discussions continued into the evening at the event’s kick-off reception and dinner.  Among other highlights from the evening, participants had the opportunity to hear Greg Fairchild, the Executive Director of the Tayloe Murphy Center, share the inspiring story of Solid Stone Fabrics, recipient of the Tayloe Murphy Resilience Award which recognizes businesses that succeed in communities facing tough economic conditions.

Friday’s schedule was packed full of opportunities to listen to successful entrepreneurs share their stories and attend workshops led by world-renown academics on the concepts of innovation and effectuation.  The event’s speakers included experienced entrepreneurs, investors and academics, each of whom provided a unique perspective on entrepreneurship.  Although a wide variety of topics were presented, three primary themes emerged.

First, it doesn’t require a blockbuster idea to start a business—think about everyday challenges and consider solutions to address them.  Seek opportunities to improve products and services that already exist.  Professor Saras Sarasvathy compared developing a concept to playing scrabble—if you add a letter to the end of a word that has already been played, you still get credit for the whole word.

Sean Eidson, CEO and founder of TRUE linkswear, shared the story of launching his golf footwear business.  During a round of golf, Eidson saw a golfer wearing the “five finger” shoes that have recently become popular among runners.  He realized that most golf shoes aren’t particularly comfortable and began sharing his hypothesis with other golfers.  Before he knew it, he had developed a concept for a new golf shoe that was built on a “barefoot” premise.  Less than a year after launching the product, the company has already sold tens of thousands of pairs worldwide.

The second theme that emerged from the conference addressed a common barrier faced by many would-be entrepreneurs—one of the primary reasons individuals don’t pursue an idea is that they lack the capital required to launch a business.  Many of the conference’s speakers reiterated that limited capital is rarely a challenge that cannot be overcome.   Adam Healey and Charles Seilheimer spoke about raising the money to start their business, hotelicopter.  The two partners pooled their savings and scrapped together enough cash to develop a prototype of their innovative hotel search platform.  The functioning prototype enabled them to share the idea with individuals in the travel industry and raise the capital required to fully develop and launch the product.  Healey and Seilheimer didn’t allow limited financial resources to be a barrier to developing their idea, and today hotelicopter has become one of the premier hotel search platforms on the internet.

Professor Frank Genovese discussed the opportunity to buy an existing business and how to overcome the challenges of financing the transaction.  While acquiring a business certainly requires a personal investment, he advised that when the right type of business is identified (in particular, one with a lot of assets) and a good deal is negotiated, financing is often readily available.  Although very different from starting a business from scratch, buying an existing business offers another opportunity to pursue an entrepreneurial career.

The final theme emerging from the conference’s many stories was the importance of sharing early stage business concepts with others.  In her workshop on effectuation, Saras Sarasvathy illustrated this concept using examples from her research.  She explained that most successful entrepreneurs use feedback from others to strengthen their ideas.  She encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to build a network of stakeholders who are willing to provide feedback that will make their idea stronger, and ask them to make a true commitment to the business by investing in it financially—very quickly you will be able to tell if others actually believe the concept will be successful.

The founders of hotelicopter reiterated the idea that even after a concept has been transformed into a successful business, one shouldn’t be afraid to mend or even recreate it.  Healey discussed hiring the first CTO of hotelicopter, Colin Steele, who was hired to manage the development of the company’s product.   However, instead of improving company’s established hotel search platform, Steele’s first initiative was to rebuild the product from scratch.  Although the founders were doubtful at the time, they acknowledge that hotelicopter would not have the successful product it does today if they hadn’t allowed Steele to recreate the initial platform.

Darden’s Entrepreneurship Conference provided opportunities to develop one’s knowledge of entrepreneurship and learn the tactical steps required to launch a business.  More importantly, however, the event was both educational and inspirational, bringing together experienced and aspiring entrepreneurs, academics and investors to collaborate and share ideas about innovation and effectuation.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Slice of Heaven

My friend Caroline calls me a "slice of heaven-er."  At first, I didn't understand the title, but quickly realized that she classifies me as part of the group of our classmates that consider Charlottesville to be a "Slice of Heaven."

Last Saturday I had the fortunate misfortune of flying into Charlottesville airport on a on a small propeller plane from Philadelphia.  After being stuck in Philadelphia on an unexpected layover for 7.5 hours, I was tired and the only thing I wanted was to get home, go to bed, and put an end to my crummy day.  I spent most of the plane ride angrily flipping pages of my magazine (I had long since given up trying to read cases) and sighing deeply in frustration.  As we get closer to Charlottesville, though, I happened to look out of airplane window - and saw one of the most breathtaking views I have seen in my life.  Our plane was flying just low enough that for the last 20 minutes of the flight, all I could see were lush treestops and Fall colors in every direction.  The Blue Ridge Mountains were in the background, and the landscape below me was red, orange, pink, yellow, and every shade in between.  The sun was just beginning to set, casting shadows over the trees and mountains, and the sun rays made the whole scene even more picturesque. 

A week later, I still can't verbalize how beautiful the view was - but the mental image still pops into my mind daily and has forced me stop each day to take a deep breath and look around.  Knowing from my other friends in business school, no matter where you are in school or what year you are in, Fall in b-school is busy, stressful, frantic, and chaotic from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed.  Fall at Darden has been no exception, but the one thing unique to our experience here is Charlottesville.  With everything you could possibly need at your fingertips (...this is where my non-"Slice of Heaven-er" friends may disagree) - and the middle of such amazing natural beauty - Charlottesville makes the whole business school experience a little more manageable.  No matter what is happening with academics, recruiting, and life - five minutes outside, taking in the beautiful views, is enough to inspire and energize just about anyone :)

For the last week, I decided to take a few pictures of my daily view to share.  Nothing compared to the view from the plane, but some snapshots of Fall! 

Afternoon in Flagler Couryard - check out how blue the sky is!

View of the fountain on the backside of Flagler Courtyard

View from my Ivy apartment

The walk to school...

At least the learning team rooms have good views as well...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Welcome to the Best Year of My Life

After a weekend of rain in Charlottesville, the sun is shining, the wind is gently blowing, and I am sitting on my balcony watching the little spurts of activity in Ivy Gardens as people start their Sunday errands.  It feels good to enjoy a peaceful morning, and as I sit here, I can’t help but realize that this is going to be the best year of my life.

I imagine before I write much more I should apologize for being a black hole these last few months.  Spring and summer somehow flew by, and between wrapping up first year, traveling, and completing my summer internship, everything feels like a blur.  I had an great summer (I was working for a consulting firm in New York City), and despite finishing my internship only a few weeks ago, the summer already seems like a distant memory.  Perhaps it was some time away from Darden, or another glimpse into the “real world” but I cannot describe how good it feels to be back in the groove of business school life. 
As a Second Year, I am a pro at navigating Darden - I know the systems, I know people, and I know how to manage my day.  I am not stressed about my capacity to handle the work and extracurricular load.  I am engrossed in my classes and energized by my leadership roles.  My day-to-day life is significantly different from last year:  I went to the gym every day this week.  I cooked at lunches and dinners at home multiple times (and no, that doesn’t include defrosting frozen meals!).  I read my cases outside in the fresh air and took time to soak in the beauty of Charlottesville.  I have caught up with friends and classmates, but instead of discussions about recruiting or gossiping about a dramatic situation in our most recent class, I have had deeper conversations about life, values, and goals.  I have even had time to play some golf.

Oddly enough – the reasons above are not the reasons why I think this is going to be the best year of my life.  While it is nice to have control over my schedule (really nice, actually), the more incredible thing about this year is that for the first time in a very long time, I have to ask myself some very hard questions and start laying a foundation for the rest of my life.  I don’t get the luxury of walking down a prescribed path or knowing my next step.  Instead, I have to explore unchartered territory and figure out my own path.  I have to get to the core of who I am and what I fundamentally want out of my life, and make decisions that will require me to be true to that authentic self.  I have to realize that what got me this far in my life and career, may not be what gets me to the next level of my personal and professional leadership; and so I have to look deep inside of myself and start breaking down the habits and patterns of behavior that have been instilled in me for years.  I imagine a lot of this seems nebulous, but the point is – for me, my second year in business school is going to be about being purposeful and getting to the bottom of some rather difficult questions, designing and developing my own criteria for success, and really, truly learning.  So while this is going to be the best year of my life, I seems it will also be one of the hardest years at times.  Either way - I am excited :)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring at Darden!

I have to apologize for being delinquent in my blog updating for the last few weeks. It has been a busy, but exceedingly fun month! I have to do another list of my favorite things since I last updated (in chronological order) to catch you all up on life at Darden:

8) Dinner at Dean Bruner’s House! - As part of my special topics seminar, Dean Bruner invited our class of 15 people over to his home for class…and wow does the Dean makes a mean vegetarian chili!

7) Dinner at Luann Lynch’s House – Luann is absolutely one of my favorite Darden professors and had a few of my sectionmates and I over for dinner in early April. We had a fabulous meal, played board games with Luann’s 14-year old twin sons, and laughed so hard at dinner that we were falling off of our chairs! Only at Darden can you have such a close personal relationship with your professors!

6) BGiA – Building Goodness in April finally arrived this last weekend! After months of preparation from my classmates, hundreds of my classmates participated in Build Day. My neck still hurts from painting the ceilings of our house, but I could not have asked for a more meaningful way to make a tangible difference, or spend quality time with incredible classmates.

5) Holi! – Holi is the Indian festival of colors that celebrates the Harvest season. Last weekend, the Darden South Asian Society hosted Holi in the courtyard of the Ivy Gardens apartment complex – and it was out of control. If you have never been to/heard of Holi – it is a sight to be seen – people running around with powdered paint smearing it all over your hair, face, and clothes…enjoying the good weather and good company!

4) NAWMBA Strategy Session – I am so excited about the NAWMBA (Darden Chapter of the National Association Women MBAs) board for next year – these ladies rock my socks off and the energy and programming we are going to have next year will be awesome J Get ready, prospectives!
3) Darden Days – this weekend was Darden Days, the annual admitted student weekend at Darden. I was asked to speak on a panel and as I gave advice and recounted my last year, I realized how far my classmates and I have come in one year – it feels surreal to be a few weeks from ending my first year at Darden…

2) King Family Vineyards – every year as part of Darden Days, the entire Darden community is invited out to a close by vineyard for barbeque, wine, and socializing. I remember going last year as a part of Darden Days and having a good time– but once you are here as a student the experience is completely different – you know everyone, have inside jokes, and are completely engrossed in the community! The night just reinforced how grateful I am for my friends here J

1) Rainy Saturdays – yesterday it rained non-stop in Charlottesville and it was one of those days where you have to force yourself to stop and take a day off. I spent most of my day relaxing, listening to the rain, and reflecting…

And now, on this Sunny Sunday, I am energized and ready to start the new week. With three more weeks until we split ways for the summer, and with the weather getting warmer and warmer, I imagine the next couple of weeks will be a treat!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A few of my favorite things...

As we wrap up our last required set of classes today, I was thinking back over the last few months and the journey my classmates and I have taken.  But instead of reflecting on the last few months, I thought I would share my favorite things of the past week!

4) Nintendo!

Yes, ladies and gentleman, I am talking about playing "regular" Nintendo.  One of Darden's biggest community outreach activities of the year is called Building Goodness in April (BGiA).  As part of BGiA, there is a big auction in the Fall - and one of the things I bid on was an hour of Nintendo with a classmate.  We got to level 8-3 in the first Super Mario Brothers, but couldnt quite beat the game.  Man do I miss the time I was actually good at video games! 

3) Finance Merger Simulation

Darden loves simulations.  We have done simulations in almost every one of our classes, from Ethics to Decision Analysis to Leadership & Organizations.  Last week we did my favorite simulation of the year in our Finance class.  The simulation was a merger negotiation between Mars & Wrigley - modeling the actual 2008 Mars aquisition of Wrigley.  We were split up into teams of three and had to negotiate against teams in other sections playing the opposing stakeholders.  Coming in, each side had built financial models (DCF, multiple analysis, etc.), analyzed our optimal price/ranges for the aquisition, and decided on what qualitative factors we would hold our ground.  With more than 50 three-hour negotions happening all around Darden, you can only imagine the incredible scene and buzz around here:  "Who got the best deal?"  "Did you hear with happened with x,y,z team?"  Perhaps you had to be here - but from both a qualitative and quantitive perspective, there was definitely a lot learned!    

2) NAWMBA Board Meeting

Next year, I will be leading Darden's chapter of the National Association of Women MBAs.  Last Thursday, we had our first meeting with next year's Executive Board.  I am blown away by the passion and excitement of the team and am so excited for upcoming year.  After a year of "taking" all that Darden has to give - I am excited to start giving back to the school and the incoming class!  

1) My Last Learning Team Meeting

Last night, my learning team met for the last time in our official capacity.  As I have mentioned a few times in the past, my learning team has been one of my most favorite parts of the Darden experience - and yesterday was no let down.  We met last night and had our usual back and forth banter and prepared our homework, with moments of nostalgia here and there. 

I have been struggling with a summer internship decision.  I have been lucky to have had a lot of options from the beginning of this process, and have narrowed my decision down to two firms.  Both are fantastic and both are in a number of ways, "exactly what I want to do."  I have gone back and forth, and almost decided every day for the last two weeks.  Last night, after our homework, my learning team decided it was time for them to step in and help me make my decision.  We mapped out a decision tree (yes, that really did happen) and made some pro/con lists on the white board.  They asked me questions, grilled me on my assumptions, and helped me clarify my thinking.  I finally made a decision last night, and couldnt have done without the gentleman of Studio 54.  It was a perfect, bittersweet end to something so special.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Welcome aboard the emotional roller coaster. Please fasten your seatbelts, and enjoy the ride.

I loved roller coasters when I was younger.  I would stand in line for hours in anticipation with a grin from ear to ear.  And then a funny thing happened when I got to the front of the line - I would get a pit in my stomach and start to shake.  The reality of the impending "doom" would set in and I couldn't help but  look for a way to jump out of line.  I wasn't ready, but it was too late - I was on the ride, buckled up, and there was no turning back. 

That pit-in-the-stomach feeling describes the last few weeks of my Darden experience.  After months of preparation, we finally embarked upon interview season - and it has been painful.  No one did, or perhaps could have, prepared me for the roller coaster of emotions that my classmates and I would face.  The smiles, tears, excitement, disappointment, joy, frustration,  anxiety, relief...this sheer emotional exhaustion has now just become a part of our daily routine. 

A month into the process, some of us are celebrating our signed offer letters, but most of us are continuing to explore, weigh our options, and strategize next steps.  Despite which category we fall in, at one point or another all of us have re-calibrated and re-adjusted our initial thoughts on who we are and what we want.  We have asked tough questions about the industries we want to work in and the people we want to work with.  We have thought about our lifestyles, the tradeoffs of our decisions, and the implications our choices will have on family and friends.  We have thought not only about our own personal happiness, but also about how our professional careers can best make a lasting impact.  We have defined and re-defined our view of "success".   We have been forced to take a moment to think critically about our lives, and in most cases, we have learned something surprising along the way.

As I think back to those amusement park afternoons, I realized that all that time I stood in line for the roller coaster, I just imagined the ride would be "perfect."  I never thought about the ups and downs, the loops that brought me back to where I started, or the sharp turns that made me feel like I might not make it in one piece.  Miraculously, after I got off the ride and took a deep breath on solid ground, I would forget everything that terrified me during the ride, and only remember how much fun I had. 

So here's to hoping that when I get off of the roller coaster, I will think back, remember all the imperfections and emotions, and then realize how perfect the whole experience was because ultimately the process forced me to find and define me.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

...and we are back in the game!

The last time we had to go to class was 46 days ago.  That seems like a lifetime in business school years. 

So much has changed in the last month and a half in the life of a Darden First Year.  We finished exams and got final grades for many of our first semester classes.  We went on job treks across the country and made our final connections with companies.  We enjoyed some sleep, time with family, and time away from school.  We reflected on our first 1/4 of business school, likely made resolutions, and finally cherished the little things about school we overlooked in the midst of daily chaos.  We started aggressive interview prep.  We started interviewing.  Some of "us" finished interviewing (oh, those lucky few...). 

And now, with the first day of our second semester starting tomorrow, we have new Sections, new subjects, and likely, new perspectives, to share.  Tomorrow will be a whirlwind of a day, and with the 45+ different jobs people are interviewing for this week, I imagine the week will be quite a spectacle in the Darden hallways.

Good luck, everyone!