“Entrepreneurship is about the journey. You need to be able to enjoy it,” Trip Davis told the approximately 270 attendees of the third annual Darden Entrepreneurship Conference. During the event, held at the Darden School of Business on 3 and 4 November 2011, that journey—circuitous, uncertain, messy, and rewarding in expected and unexpected ways—was recounted by entrepreneurs at various stages, many of them Darden alumni, and by entrepreneurship and innovation researchers.
The theme of this year’s conference, “Innovate. Effectuate,” was chosen by Darden students involved in various programs of the Batten Institute’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, which sponsored the event. “This theme is wonderful because it gives us an opportunity to feature the work of Darden professors Saras Sarasvathy and Jeanne Liedtka,” said MJ Toms, the Center’s associate director.
Attendees got a vivid introduction to effectuation, the term Sarasvathy uses to describe the decision-making process of expert entrepreneurs, who often start not with a given end in mind but with their basic means—who they are, what they know, and whom they know—from which various ends can emerge. Through Sarasvathy’s work in this field, effectuation has become globally recognized as a rigorous framework for understanding the creation of organizations and markets. “I wasn’t familiar with the term effectuation,” said local entrepreneur Rick Kulow. “But what I’ve heard about today—that’s exactly what I’ve done.”
The conference began on 3 November with Darden’s Entrepreneurial Concept Competition, during which ten finalists (from 50 entries) presented their business ideas to a group of judges. The winners, Darden First Year student Scott Caras and Sam Reiche, who introduced maple water to Caras, will compete in the UVA Cup on 18 November. The company is presently advancing toward commercialization in New England under the corporate name M2O, Inc., securing licenses, production space and partners for supply, marketing and distribution of bottled maple water, a liquid that is tapped from maple trees and is shown to have numerous health benefits.
The conference’s keynote session, moderated by Davis—president of the Darden School Foundation, senior associate dean for external relations, and a self-described serial entrepreneur—featured Adam Healey (MBA ’05) and Charles Seilheimer (MBA ’05). The two launched hotelicopter, a hotel search platform, in the Darden Incubator in 2006 and sold the business earlier in 2011.
Healey and Seilheimer traced their effectual journeys in building hotelicopter: the initial glimmers of the idea, camping out in a Darden Learning Team room to work on the venture, developing a rough prototype, finding a mentor and eventual partner in Davis, raising multiple rounds of financing during the global financial crisis, locating talented developers, deciding whether to leverage existing platforms or build their own, and switching from a consumer-facing to a business-facing model. Philippe Sommer, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, commented on Healey and Seilheimer’s passion and determination: “Those two would have worked out of a phone booth to launch this venture if they’d had to.”
In a session focused on innovation, moderated by the Batten Institute’s Sean D. Carr, panelists Jeanne Liedtka and Mark Miller, the cofounder and CEO of the award-winning architecture firm MKThink, discussed ways to facilitate what is often assumed to be a “fuzzy” and mysterious phenomenon. Liedtka, whose research has focused on innovation within large organizations, has written extensively on the innovation techniques and tools used by designers, which such organizations as Procter & Gamble have adopted to spur organic growth. “Innovation in large companies can be extremely difficult—an unnatural act,” she said. “But it can be systematized. You can get better at it.”
Liedtka and Miller both emphasized the importance of putting customers at the center of the innovation process. “You need to develop a deep understanding of the job that people are trying to get done,” Liedtka said. “You can’t wait for them to articulate their needs. The clues to great business opportunities are there; we’re just not trained to look for them.” The two also discussed the “restless environment” surrounding innovation efforts, in which, as Miller put it, “just enough resources is the right amount.” He went on, “You have to be comfortable dealing with a world that doesn’t exist yet.”
A session on effectuation moderated by Sarasvathy highlighted the venture-building experiences of two Darden alumni: Tim Grant (MBA ’89), the founder and CEO of Resurgent Capital Services; and Sean Eidson (MBA ’04), the cofounder and CEO of golf footwear and apparel company TRUE linkswear.
“People often assume that entrepreneurs get a brilliant idea, see that there’s a market for it, and then go ahead and start a company,” Sarasvathy said. “But the process is much more human than that…there are all kinds of interesting paths.” The two entrepreneurs spoke not only of the nuts and bolts of launching their respective companies but of the personal experiences, relationships, and contingencies that shaped their journeys.
Other sessions centered on three markets ripe with opportunity: clean technologies, consumer experience, and social media. Panelists in these sessions included Manoj Sinha (MBA ’09), the cofounder of Husk Power Systems, which uses discarded rice husks to provide power in rural India; Matthew Hantzmon, the cofounder and COO of solar energy company HelioSage and Patrick Sweeney (MBA ’98), the founder and CEO of ODIN, an innovator in the RFID (radio frequency identification) industry. The panelists answered questions from audience members about such issues as proprietary technology, marketing strategy, and how different consumer segments are using technology and processing the flood of data available through social media platforms.
The conference also included workshops on effectuation, buying a business and financing.
The Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership, part of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, cultivates principled entrepreneurial leaders in new ventures, established companies, and not-for-profits. The Center offers academic and experiential programs, a business incubator, business plan and concept competitions, workshops, conferences and mentorship opportunities. Darden’s entrepreneurship program was recently ranked third in entrepreneurship programs by Entrepreneur magazine and the Princeton Review.