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Safer Ways to Take a Risk

Chasing your dream demands a leap of faith. Just remember to look before you leap.

“Quit your job. Work your butt off. Screw up. Have the time of your life!” Those words adorned the cover of Fast Company in the spring of 1997. Since then, we’ve all been chastened by the perfect storm of recession, war, and terror, right? Wrong. Those words still ring true, with one important caveat: These days, it’s not as simple as “Leap, and a net will appear.” Now it’s “Look before you leap — and make sure that the net’s there first.” In that spirit, we offer a guide to new endeavors. Here are four things to do before you do that great new thing.

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1. Check your pulse before you check your wallet.

In slower times, everybody checks out the financial risks and economic ramifications of following their dreams. But the real question is one of heart, not wallet: Does the idea make your pulse race?

When companies come to Silicon Valley guru Randy Komisar, he has just one criterion: the thump factor. He only wants to work with organizations that make his pulse quicken. “The authenticity with which you make decisions about your life will lead you where you want to go,” says Komisar, who teaches at Stanford in addition to being a “virtual CEO.” “Once you make that leap of faith to live your life based on a consistent set of principles, you’re empowered to do great things.”

2. Become an amateur before you turn pro.

Doug Worple was a rapidly rising numbers pro — until he went amateur as a copywriter. Worple joined the finance department of Procter & Gamble after he graduated from Iowa State University, and he quickly started to climb the career ladder.

Then he got an itch. Worple took advantage of a P&G program to do an internship at the company’s ad agency, Leo Burnett. It was there that he caught the creativity bug. In the spring of 1993, Worple left P&G and gave himself 12 months to make a go of being a freelance copywriter. “I was definitely an amateur at what I was trying to do,” Worple says.

Within his first week as a freelancer, regional work started piling up. Then some national accounts came through, and finally, Worple opened what has since become one of the country’s hottest boutique shops, Barefoot Advertising. Indeed, Worple recently came full circle: He’s now doing ads for P&G’s Daily Defense shampoo-and-conditioner line.

3. Prepare for the long haul before you start the trip.

Twenty years ago, Fred Carl, a fourth-generation general contractor in Mississippi’s poverty-stricken Delta, had little reason to think that there would be a market for professional-style cooking ranges in private kitchens. All he had to go on was his own passion for the range, a couple of clients, and a few clippings from home-design magazines. “I was always convinced that this would be something that people wanted,” says Carl, founder of Viking Range Corp., based in Greenwood, Mississippi. “I didn’t care if it was going to take 10 or 12 years — I was going to do it.”

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Carl says that his persistence welled up from deep inside of him because he felt so strongly about the product. In 2000, analysts estimated that closely held Viking was bringing in about $200 million a year. Carl hopes to double that figure by 2007.

4. Expect the worst.

While lots of stories about trusting your instincts and going for broke have Hollywood endings, many don’t. “You have to come up with a worst-case scenario if things don’t work out,” Worple says. “I saved money and got ready for my 12 months, but the worst case I came up with was that I would tend bar to make ends meet.”

Komisar, who could have made a living just sitting on corporate boards, is more blunt: “It’s hard. You don’t get much support, and there aren’t any good role models.” In fact, one of the hardest adjustments that Komisar made was coming up with a good answer to that cocktail-party staple, “So, what do you do?” His answer: “Whatever I like.”

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