Guest Post: There Is No Substitute For Taking a Risk

by Lee Gesmer on December 26, 2013

“ In actual life, every great enterprise begins with and takes its first step forward in faith. ” — August Wilhelm von Schlegel

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Now that Christmas is over its time to start thinking about 2014, and that means New Year’s resolutions. 

The guest post below was written by my partner Jonathan Draluck and published last month on Gesmer Updegrove LLP’s BostInno channel. Jonathan didn’t write this with New Year’s resolutions in mind, but it struck me as inspirational as we approach 2014. Maybe your New Year’s resolution will be, as he writes below, to conquer your personal fears and —  “take the leap.” 

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School is nice.  Sometimes necessary. But no education beats the school of hard knocks.  All the theory and fancy degrees in the world won’t get you anywhere unless you are willing to take what you have learned and add some elbow grease.

You may not even know what melts your butter unless you’ve had a first-hand glimpse outside the frying pan.  Hot in the Boston venture capital scene two decades ago, my colleague Andy Updegrove worked on enough deals to pique his aptitude in technology.  He began taking an interest in the computer standards being adopted by the government.  He wrote about it and then rallied loyal readers who most assuredly had not given it much thought.  He is now an expert on setting standards and represents more consortia than anyone.  And my scientist friend Eric Buerger models synaptic transmission at a cutting edge biotech company which studies how alterations influence diseases of the central nervous system.  Curious about the business and legal side, he offered up part of his FTE to keep colleagues sitting at the lab bench and allow himself time to consider other angles.

Then there’s the raw desire to enhance your skills.  For example, educators have known forever that when you write the report or prepare the presentation, you absorb new material.  So when two large pharmaceutical clients wanted to run clinical trials overseas, and medical device companies sought manufacturers, I tossed the readily-available templates and put pen to paper to come up with my own form contract.  As I previously wrote, it’s amazing how targeted activities can actually help you gather intelligence.

There is also no substitute for taking on a risk.  You show others that you’re hungry and you are.  Indeed, “skin in the game” was one of the criteria that fellow MassChallenge judges used to assess the commitment of start-up entrepreneurs.  For example, when she created SitterCycle, Helen Adeosun quit her job for the school system and decided to put her master’s degree from Harvard to the test.  She kicked off a business to educate and certify nannies.  Nick Dougherty, also a finalist, was fed-up with the technology available to patients at hospitals and hospices.  Through bootstrapping [that is, self-funding], he developed an interactive platform for patients with aphasia, Verbal App.  It puts traditional bedside call buttons to shame.  And Sean Kevlahan shunned the cushy job opportunities that came knocking for his Ph.D in chemical engineering.  He is now co-founder and CEO of Quad Technologies, whose product can isolate stem cells from blood, economically delivering them to researchers undamaged.

So you’ve had the exposure and desire and are perhaps ready to sacrifice a salary.  But if there weren’t other ingredients, everyone would be doing it!  While I don’t have the secret, I’ve witnessed the phenomenon.

You have to take the leap.  A year ago, I wrote about unflappable curiosity and persistence among Israeli entrepreneurs who somehow muster the moxie against odds to shake down an industry or find a cure for the uncurable.  Spreading your wings could also require chemical intervention.  As my law professor warned, you are green until it’s high noon in the courtroom and you’re facing down your opponent.  From this I’ve deduced that part of the equation for getting good may be adrenaline.  I’ve unwittingly deployed it negotiating for the little guy against Goliath and in answering questions posed by the Syrian police about my Israel affinity.  Of course, you may not happen upon it unless you’ve pre-positioned yourself (in my case, objecting to a one-sided contract proposal or being in Damascus in the first place).  But each person knows where she might approach her comfort edge.  Like the brilliant scientist who gets stage fright when speaking in public.  Getting himself ready to compete with a pitch or, more importantly, attract an investor, may constitute the required jump.

I guess this is the long way to confirm what our parents already told us.  You can achieve what you set out to do.  But you now have tools that you didn’t have growing up – the exposure to figure it out and the maturity and drive to take it to the next level.

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