Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to Start a Business: Be Willing to Fail!

     Entrepreneur Adrienne Choma, President and COO of Saladax, a company which provides oncology drug monitoring tests, started her career as a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company. After a short stint, she realized she really didn't enjoy practicing law so she proceeded to "beg my way" into the business area. After five years experience in market research and business development, she decided she wanted to take on the management of a production facility. When she went to her boss with her request, she was told, "you're a girl lawyer; how can you run a production facility?" Choma answered, "Give me one year. If I haven't improved the operating results of this facility, you can fire me; I'm willing to sign an agreement now that assures you have no liability if I don't do what I think I can do."
     Adrienne Choma was never fired; in fact she went on to have a 20-year career at Hoffmann-La Roche, including Vice President, New Product Development and Regulatory Affairs; Vice President, Operations; Vice President, International Drug Monitoring Business Unit; and Vice President, Marketing & Sales for the U.S.      When she left Roche, she tried a couple of other jobs including one that only lasted six weeks. She says, "I guess I just can't stand cushy jobs; I thrive on obstacles." Shortly afterwards she started Saladax with another ex Roche colleague -- the second company funded by Golden Seeds, the women-led angel investor group. With 26 employees and 15 products pending and licensing agreements with major testing companies in place, Saladax recently closed an $8 million round of funding. But the obstacles remain and so does Adrienne's determination to meet them.
     The characteristic she shares with many entrepreneurs is a high adversity quotient, a term first coined in the book Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities by Paul G. Stolz. It refers to the ability to respond positively to frustrations, bad luck or anything that gets in the way. Golden Seeds member Jim Estill who "started a computer distribution company out of my car" which he later developed and sold to Synnex, says:
     It is of course important to have a high I.Q. And your E.Q, emotional quotient -- the ability to get along with and communicate with people, is key too. But I'm a great believer that the ability to deal with adversity is a critical characteristic of successful people. My mother taught me my P's and Q's so I'm high on all the Q's, especially A.Q.
     So important is adversity that Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Venture Technology Program, asks her students to write a "failure resume." She admits that it makes her students at Stanford "very anxious." But she wants them to acknowledge their failures so they have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. As she says, "We hire people because of their successes but also because of their failures which are learning experiences." Author of a recent book, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, Tina Seelig acknowledges her life is "littered with successes but also with failures. You have to try to extract as much as you can from the experience, and then move on to the next challenge."
One of Tina's students recently wrote a blog post that actually included her failure resume. She used it as an opportunity to reflect on the errors she made in a management position she held before returning to graduate school. Here is her entry:
     Avoidance of giving negative feedback: I hated having to give criticism to my team members -- it made me feel like a bad guy and I am naturally sensitive and felt horrible for them when they were receiving it. To avoid it, I would often just fix their work myself. This meant longer hours for me and they never improved. What I have learned: No one benefits from this behavior. Do not mistake vagueness for compassion. Give them feedback as soon as possible but focus on actions and behaviors rather than personality traits -- shows them it isn't personal and they can improve. Give three pieces of praise for every criticism. But convey the seriousness of the situation.
      Entrepreneurs! How have you failed lately? And how did you benefit from your failures? Tell us the tales behind your batting average. If yours is less than 50%, you're in the same league as Babe Ruth and other successful heavy hitters!

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