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The Venture Café
By Teresa Esser

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 The Venture Café

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The Venture Café
By Teresa Esser
ISBN: 0446527831
Genre: Business & Money

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Chapter Excerpt from: The Venture Café , by Teresa Esser

Chapter One

A year ago my husband and I took a train ride through Germany's Rhine River valley. As I looked out the window at the gorgeous scenery, I noticed a curious event going on in the seat across from me. A four-year-old girl had dropped her ticket between the slats of the train's heating unit, and this carelessness had caused her mother to become extremely frustrated. The four-year-old was not at all sorry about dropping her ticket, but the mother was fighting back tears. She pressed her hand against her forehead and tried to avoid looking at her daughter.

A cyclist in a nearby seat noticed the woman's duress and removed a tool kit from his backpack. After a short conference with the woman, he began to disassemble the heating unit. While the cyclist labored over the air grate, the four-year-old pouted. "It's not my fault," she seemed to say. "I didn't do anything wrong." She made her hands into fists and kicked the side of the train.

Although the cyclist tried every screwdriver in his tool kit, he wasn't able to extract the fallen ticket. After fifteen minutes of tinkering, he reassembled the heating unit and went back to his seat.

The situation was eventually resolved when the ticket taker came around to collect our fares. He took one look at the angry four-year-old and let the family ride.

As I watched the scene play itself out, I began to feel sorry for the girl's mother. It must have been devastating to watch one's four-year-old drop an expensive ticket down an air vent. To have the child stage a tantrum about it must have been simply unbearable. Next time, I thought, the woman would have to do a better job of teaching her four-year- old to hold on to her ticket. Or perhaps she would learn that it's a bad idea to put train tickets into the hands of four-year-olds.

After the group had left the train, I asked my husband, Pehr Anderson, whether he had noticed the ticket incident.

"Of course," he snapped. "I could hardly ignore it."

I told him that I felt bad for the woman, since the lost ticket must have represented a significant financial hardship. I was glad that the ticket taker had allowed the family to ride, anyway.

"Eurail shouldn't be issuing paper-based tickets," Pehr retorted. "The airlines have switched to electronic ticketing. I don't know why the trains are still using paper."

I was surprised by Pehr's reaction, since it reminded me so much of the expression I had seen on the four-year-old's face. Pehr shared the four-year-old's view that the lost ticket was not the girl's fault. The system was broken, and it needed to be changed. The little girl had done the world a favor by pointing this out.

"Do you have any idea how impossible it would be to convince every train station in Europe to switch over to an electronic ticketing system?" I asked Pehr. "You'd have to negotiate with representatives from all sorts of different countries, and none of them would speak English as a first language."

"Paper-based tickets are obsolete," Pehr grumbled. "There's no reason to make people carry around paper tickets."

I thought about how difficult it would be to convince Eurail to change its ticketing system and how easy it would be to simply purchase another ticket. In my mind, there was no question about the better option. If riding Eurail meant keeping track of a paper ticket, then I would figure out a way to keep track of a paper ticket.

But then, I'm not an entrepreneur.

Instead of trying to change the world to meet my needs, I'm perfectly willing to alter my behavior to meet the world on its terms. When I encounter unpleasant situations, I try to resolve them quickly and then go on to other matters.

When the ticket problem was resolved, I opened my travel book and read about different places we could go for dinner. "There's a really famous cathedral in Cologne," I told Pehr. "Maybe we should look at it."

But Pehr was not interested in thinking about an ancient cathedral. Instead of being happy that the ticket situation had resolved itself, Pehr spent the remainder of the train ride scribbling notes onto his Palm Pilot. The ticket incident had provided him with an amazing entrepreneurial opportunity, and he was determined to figure out how much it was worth.

Pehr had no interest in worrying about something as boring as eating, since that was not the sort of problem that could be permanently solved. "We eat, and we get hungry again," he said. "If we fix the ticket problem, no one else will ever have to worry about losing a paper ticket."

Instead of helping evaluate the different restaurants in my guidebook, Pehr suggested that we grab a bag of doughnuts and jump back on the train. The little girl did not have the resources she needed to bring electronic tickets to Eurail, but Pehr might.

Or he might not.

I wasn't kidding when I told Pehr that it would be just about impossible to convince Eurail to adopt an electronic ticketing system. Pehr isn't European, and he doesn't even live in Europe. It would be better to leave the ticket opportunity for someone else.

But that didn't matter to Pehr. Pehr didn't care whether or not he would actually be able to transform the way Eurail handled its ticketing. What he cared about was that he had found a problem that needed to be fixed. It didn't matter whether Pehr would solve the problem or move on to something closer to his area of expertise. What mattered was that the problem existed.

When I told Pehr that I couldn't understand why he was spending so much time worrying about something that had nothing to do with him, he scowled. "You're no fun," he complained. If he had been back in Cambridge, hanging out at the Muddy Charles Pub, he would have re ceived lots of praise and encouragement for his amazing ability to notice that Eurail was broken. But Pehr wasn't at the Muddy Charles Pub. He was stuck in a foreign city with a person who was not an entrepreneur, and his idea was not being encouraged. Frustrated, he scribbled the last fragments of his idea onto his Palm Pilot.

As Pehr wrote, I found a place for us to have dinner.

Throwing Teddy Out of the Pram

Entrepreneurs are like that. Instead of worrying about visiting historical landmarks and figuring out what to have for dinner, entrepreneurs try to figure out how they can change the world. A normal person would be satisfied with sampling the local cuisine and posing for a photograph in front of the ancient cathedral, but the people who start new high-tech businesses are different from normal people. It's not enough for them to touch a building or sample a recipe that has stood the test of time. Entrepreneurs aren't satisfied until they have made a lasting impact on their surroundings.

Unfortunately, this overwhelming desire to change the world can be extremely frustrating when it manifests itself on a daily basis.

A year after Pehr and I returned from Europe, I went out for a cappuccino with a man named David Gill. Gill is the head of the innovation and growth unit at London's HSBC bank, and he's seen hundreds of entrepreneurs struggle through the early phases of starting a new high-tech company. "The ideal entrepreneur is not the kind of person that you'd want as a personal friend," Gill tells me. "The phrase we use in England is throwing Teddy out of the pram.' If they don't get their way, they get very upset. Without realizing it, they tend to be manipulative.

"Entrepreneurs have to be completely driven by vision, such that they only see what they want to see. Sometimes businesses go off the rails because they have a CEO who can't see some of the warning signs, but that's why there needs to be a team of at least two. You need the Genghis Khan' CEO and the safe pair of hands' CFO.

"The CFO is the guy who looks after the numbers and tends to the casualties. He's the person who smooths things over after the great general chair comes through. And often you couldn't reverse the roles. The guy who is a superlative number two is probably never going to be a Genghis Khan."

I try to picture following Genghis Khan around on the fields of battle and counting the number of people he'd killed. I imagine it would be rather exhausting. Following Genghis Khan around would mean putting up with extremely unpleasant living conditions and pulling all sorts of wacky stunts. It would probably be something like traveling with Pehr around Europe and trying to convince him to trade doughnuts for a decent dinner.

Far from the Maddening Crowd

Making the decision to quit one's day job and become a Genghis Khan of entrepreneurship can make a person extremely lonely. "It's like suddenly going off to college when all of your friends stay in high school," entrepreneur Carol Gebert tells me. "Suddenly it seems that there are only about three people in the entire world you can talk to. You can't share the entrepreneurial experience with people around you because they don't understand."

Gebert and I were sitting in her kitchen in Cambridge, talking about her experience starting an "e-business infrastructure provider for the pharmaceutical industry" called Central Dogma. As Gebert described her plans for bringing the benefits of large-company vertical integration to the myriad of emerging biotech start-ups, I noticed a gleam in her eye that seemed vaguely familiar. The gleam spoke of stubbornness and intelligence, of mischief and curiosity. It was the same gleam I had seen in the eyes of Pehr and the unruly four-year-old.

"Do you really want to know what it's like to start a new high-tech company?" Gebert's eyes seemed to ask. I leaned forward to hear what she had to say. As I listened, I began to feel as though I were being challenged to a game of chicken.

"Before you can become an entrepreneur," Gebert instructs, "you've got to look deep inside yourself and overcome certain existential issues. Your ability to withstand adversity is directly related to your ability to understand those existential issues.

"It takes a lot of ego to start a new high-tech company. It takes so much self-confidence that sometimes you even start to wonder whether it's delusion. The very first thing you have to decide is whether or not you believe in yourself. Are you following a vision, or are you being deluded? Can you decide, deep down, that you're going to go for it? Or are you just dabbling? Because if you're dabbling, what's the point? It's just a hobby for you. You're not on the road to becoming an entrepreneur."

Gebert first started down the road toward becoming an entrepreneur when she was a postdoctoral researcher in Boston University's molecular biology department. Her first experience with the entrepreneurial process involved getting together with a friend, talking about starting a company, and filling notepad after notepad with amazing ideas. But after six weeks of "dabbling," Gebert realized that she wanted to progress to the next level. And that meant quitting her day job and working on the company full-time. As long as Gebert and her partner were fully employed as biotechnology researchers, their business idea was going to remain a hobby. And that wasn't good enough for Gebert.

Gebert was serious about starting a company, and she hoped her friend would demonstrate an equal level of commitment. But Gebert's friend wasn't willing to give up his safe job at the lab and take a risk on a high-tech start-up. He was proud of the work he had done to earn his position and saw no reason to walk away from what he had. More importantly, he didn't enjoy the entrepreneurial process as much as Gebert did.

"Every time there was a little bit of adversity, my friend would get downhearted," Gebert remembers. "He would say, This is not clear. It's only going to work if it's really simple and clear.'" Gebert's friend didn't understand that starting a company involves discovering new and better ways to get around some extremely difficult problems. "Every time you come up against adversity, you've got to find some way around it," Gebert says. "If it's easy, then it's likely that someone else has already come up with that idea."

Gebert tried to convince her friend that the little difficulties and frustrations were all part of the fun of starting a new enterprise, but her friend didn't share Gebert's passion for risk taking. Besides, Gebert's friend wasn't interested in changing the world. If he had been on the train with Pehr and me, he would have been more than happy to check out the cathedral and help me look for a decent place to eat dinner.

When Gebert realized that her coworker wasn't going to join her, she had to reevaluate her own level of commitment. It had taken years of hard work to earn the position of postdoc at Boston University. Founding a new high-tech start-up would take even more hard work, and there was no guarantee that the enterprise would be successful. Was Gebert actually willing to walk away from everything she had worked for to start from scratch for the second time?

As Gebert pondered these issues, she tried to consider her predicament in a much larger historical context. There might be only three people that Gebert could talk to about her experience, but history books are filled with people who took gigantic risks and came out on top.

"When William the Conqueror crossed from Normandy into England, the first thing he did was burn all the ships," Gebert says. "His troops had to either fight to the death or win. I think the same thing happens in business. If you're really going to go all the way, then you must close your exits. You must create a situation where you can't go back."

Given the ease with which high-tech professionals can acquire new jobs, I have a hard time imagining how Gebert could reproduce the commitment level of burning one's ships. But for some people, the potential embarrassment of having to admit defeat is a powerful motivator. "When you resign from your job and tell everyone around you that you're going to do this, you start to really commit yourself," Gebert explains. "I hate admitting I'm wrong, so for me it was more of a psychological decision."

Whenever Gebert starts to feel downhearted about her business, she imagines being harassed by a jealous friend. "I thought you were going to start a business," the friend taunts. "Eeh! You've given up! You've gotten a job!"

"I don't think so," Gebert retorts.

Branded for Life: Start-ups and Navel Piercings

Making the decision to commit oneself fully to a new and uncertain enterprise can catapult a person into an entirely new psychological zone. And once a person has decided to take such a leap in her professional life, she may find it necessary to make similar adaptations in other parts of her life as well.

"When you reach that point, you start to listen to those little pieces of advice that everybody has been telling you all these years," Gebert reflects. "Is your marriage really so good? Is your health really so good? You've got to look inside yourself and figure out whether there is anything else you're deluding yourself about. Some people take up jogging or lose weight or face childhood trauma issues, or whatever. I've heard of people changing their style of clothing or getting a tattoo."

Gebert's decision to go for it professionally prompted her to make her own unique statement. "I pierced my navel," she says proudly. "The reason I pierced my navel was because I had been asking myself why I would want to give up a fairly safe track that was not going to lead to ten million dollars but was going to lead to a decent lifestyle. When I examined that question, I came down to the fact that I would never forgive myself if I didn't try.

"For me, the definition of hell is to be old and to say to yourself, Geez, I could have been great, and I should have been great, and I would have been great except that I couldn't take the risk.' I couldn't live my life like that. I pierced my navel to remind myself, for the rest of my life, that there is no reason other than the fact that I am compelled to try. And compulsion itself is a good enough reason to do something."

What Happens When the Lights Go Out?

While Carol Gebert was deciding to start Central Dogma, Owen Johnson and John Immel were launching Internet consulting companies in different parts of Cambridge. Johnson and Immel started their companies as undergraduates at MIT and Harvard, respectively. Both enjoyed a rapid increase in the demand for their consulting services, and both were obliged to move out of their university-sponsored housing shortly after they received their diplomas. When the time came to establish new corporate headquarters, both entrepreneurs chose to move their growing businesses into apartment-based offices in the greater Boston area.

Johnson and Immel were extremely pleased that the demand for their consulting services continued to grow and grow, and both entrepreneurs worked extremely hard to manage their growing businesses. Both became so engrossed with meeting their customers' needs that they forgot about how much they were straining the electrical systems of their ancient apartments.

On separate days during the hottest parts of the summer, both Owen Johnson and John Immel blew fuses.

Johnson's fuse blew in the middle of a standard workday. "The house didn't have a breaker box; it had an old-style fuse box, so we had to hunt down fuses at a local hardware store," Johnson remembers. "We found one old and dusty box of fuses that looked like it would work, and we were lucky that it did."

Realizing that the company's ever-increasing fleet of computers had exceeded the capabilities of the old house's electrical system, Johnson and his coworkers rearranged their office layout so that the computers would draw from different electrical circuits. But this solution was only temporary: After the power outages occurred several more times, Johnson resolved the situation by installing a proper breaker box and hoping for the best.

"Luckily, power wasn't an issue that winter," Johnson recalls.

The lights went out on John Immel while he was interviewing a prospective hire. He had just turned on the air conditioner when the house went dark. Immel was a bit surprised to have the lights go out during the middle of an interview, but he tried to appear nonchalant. "I guess we'll have to go downstairs to find the fuse box," he said.

Before coming to interview with Immel's company, the candidate had never set foot in a high-tech start-up. He had spent his entire professional life inside a major corporation, well shielded from the peculiarities of start-up life. Since he had no experience with young companies, he had no way to evaluate whether it was normal for an apartment-based Internet consulting company to experience a power outage during the hottest part of the summer. All the interview candidate knew was that he was dripping with sweat, he could barely see, and John Immel had just invited him to go down to the basement to hunt for a fuse box.

The candidate was surprised, but he was also curious. So he followed Immel down the stairs.

As he approached the darkened basement, he started to feel skepti cal about the job he was walking into. When Immel stumbled around the dusty basement in search of the fuse box, the candidate had a chance to evaluate some of his own existential issues. So this is what people mean when they say that start-ups are wacky, the candidate thought. He hadn't expected the job to involve stumbling around a darkened basement, but that's exactly what happened.

As Immel searched, the candidate tried to gauge whether he wanted to deal with the rigors of start-up life.

In the end, he decided he didn't.

I did not spend four years in college, two years in grad school, and four years inside a major corporation so I could wander around a basement in search of a fuse box, the candidate thought. He was annoyed, and he was hot, and he was frustrated. He didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel in the same way that Johnson and Immel did. There was no gleam in the candidate's eye. When he looked around the darkened basement, he saw nothing but darkness.

If he had been on the train with me and Pehr, he would have borrowed my travel guide, taken out his cell phone, and called ahead to make reservations.

At a high-tech start-up there is no such thing as making reservations. The kind of person who is comfortable with the experience of entrepreneurship lives his life from minute to minute. A person who needs the security of a well-constructed itinerary would be better off inside a well-established corporation.

When the interview candidate stared into the blackness of Immel's basement, he became much more comfortable with his present job. The big company might not give him any stock options, but at least they provided electricity.

When the lights were back on, the candidate thanked Immel for his time.

And then he left.

And that was fine with John Immel.

At a high-tech start-up, it's extremely important for every single employee to feel comfortable dealing with things like blown fuse boxes. And it's far better to discover this during one's job interview than after one has made a serious commitment to the new organization.

Making Educated Guesses

The personality traits that make a person feel comfortable taking a risk on a high-tech start-up are very similar to those that make one comfortable with other forms of gambling, including blackjack. And at MIT, the blackjack players have organized themselves into an underground community that is very similar to the community of entrepreneurs that exists at the Muddy Charles Pub.

MIT's Blackjack Team, or card-counting club, attracts new members by stapling photocopied flyers onto bulletin boards around the institute. While the club has no official affiliation with the institute, no one on the MIT campus bats an eyelash when ten or fifteen students and alumni commandeer an empty classroom and play a few games of cards. "It's definitely not superorganized," a current card counter tells me. "It's more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing. There is no faculty involvement whatsoever."

Because of the necessity of keeping one's card-counting skills hidden from the dealers at casinos, who prefer to play with those people who are more likely to lose, members of the MIT card-counting club tend to keep a rather low profile, often drifting in and out of the club over time. "It's not really a club," my contact emphasizes. "It's more of a team—a money-making venture. I think for most of the students it's a way to have fun and get a little cash for school. You have to be either a dropout or an alumnus to make it a serious endeavor."

Serious card counters understand that if they want to get good, they must spend a considerable amount of time playing blackjack, practicing hand signals, and developing trust relationships with fellow team members. The trust relationships are extremely important in the business of card counting because the most difficult thing about playing organized blackjack is making sure that dealers never figure out what is actually going on. Once a casino has identified a person as a card counter, the person's name and likeness are immediately circulated on something called the Griffin list, which, I am told, has the power to keep people out of casinos for the rest of their lives.

Casinos have good reason to be wary of card counters, because if blackjack players reach a certain level of proficiency, they can actually tip the odds in their favor.

If a person goes out onto the casino floor without any understanding of the rules of blackjack, he is likely to lose an average of $2 or $3 each time he lays down a $100 bet. A person who uses a technique called "basic strategy" to decide whether or not to request a new card is likely to lose an average of 33 cents every time he lays down a $100 bet.

The game of blackjack becomes interesting, and even profitable, when a blackjack player realizes that the probability of being dealt a winning hand changes depending on which cards have already been dealt. If a skilled blackjack player can train himself to keep track of those cards that have already been dealt, he can use this information to determine whether or not he is likely to be dealt a winning combination in his next hand.

If a blackjack player determines that all of the tens, jacks, queens, kings, and aces in a given deck have already been dealt, he can choose to wager a very small amount of money or avoid betting entirely. If, on the other hand, a blackjack player observes that a great many ones, twos, threes, fours, fives, and sixes have already left the deck, he may choose to increase the amount of money he puts on the table to take advantage of the fact that the cards remaining are likely to be tens, jacks, queens, kings, and aces.

It takes a great deal of study and a great deal of hands-on training to get good enough at counting cards to tip the odds in one's favor. The city of Las Vegas is itself a sizzling, smoking, flashing-neon-light reminder that the vast majority of would-be card counters fail miserably. But there are some people who enjoy math for its own sake and who enjoy the applied mathematics of casino gambling in particular. These are the people who spend weeks, months, and even years studying blackjack and casino gambling in an effort to determine, in any given card game, whether or not the next hand is likely to be a winner.

Skilled card counters know that if they can avoid becoming distracted by the free drinks and scantily clad women long enough to count cards, calculate the odds of winning, and make informed decisions about how much to wager, they can tip the odds in their favor. Instead of losing $3 each time they put down $100, a skilled card counter can actually win money.

How much a card counter wins depends on the amount of money that is being put to work and the numbers of bets that the card counter is willing to make. My contact tells me that in recent years the MIT black-jack team was gambling with approximately $1.5 million, built up from an initial investment of some $200,000. At one point the club had so much cash to put to work and so few card counters that they were forced to "push the max," playing up to a maximum bet of $15,000. "You'd do maybe one hand of a grand to two hands of $10,000," my contact remembers. "We had more money than the casinos would let us play with."

As long as the casinos are convinced that the card counters are no more than ignorant hicks taking a break from betting on hog futures to play a few hands of blackjack, they will do whatever it takes to keep the card counters around. My contact tells me stories of free food, free booze, and complimentary hotel rooms offered in the vain hope that the high rollers' luck will eventually change.

A skilled card counter must work very hard to convince jaded blackjack dealers that it was nothing more scientific than their lucky rabbit's foot that caused them to win so much money and that they really are putting their life's savings at risk when they decide to play another $10,000 hand. For if a card counter should slip up and reveal that he is being paid to make bets with a bankroll of his own and other people's money, his card-counting career will come to an abrupt end.

This is what happened to Semyon Dukach: He became so good at counting cards and won so much money that the casinos eventually caught on to his technique. Once Dukach's likeness was circulated on the notorious Griffin list—a report compiled by Las Vegas detective agency Griffin Investigations Inc.—he had no choice but to hang up his aces and look for a new game.

Dukach could still teach new kids how to count cards, and he was welcome to invest his own money in the club's communal kitty. But now that he was "burned out," the adrenaline rushes were reserved for the younger kids.

With card counting no longer an option, Dukach put some of his winnings into a high-tech company called Fast Engines, whose mission was to reduce the amount of time it takes to reach Web sites on the Internet. And the more time Dukach spent on his high-tech start-up, the more he began to like it. "You can't just make money," Dukach tells me. "You have to feel like you're doing something good for the world. I am very proud of creating this thing called Fast Engines."

The good work that Semyon did involved bringing together a group of really great people. "I had that in blackjack as well—a sense of teamwork with the people that we went to the casinos with and the people that I trained and organized. But there was nothing that we really created together. It was kind of like a quick thrill. We went, we played, we made money. It was fun, but we weren't creating real value. Whereas here, as a group, we can be proud of the product. We can be proud of the customers using the product, making their lives easier, making their Web sites faster. I mean, we have this thing that's really fast, and that generates pride as well."

Dukach has reason to be proud of the work he did at Fast Engines: in March 2000, the company was acquired by Adero, Inc. for an amount that the company's investors could feel very good about.

It's Only Dangerous If You Don't Know What You're Doing

One bright afternoon, sometime before Fast Engines was acquired by Adero, Pehr and I ran into Semyon and his family at a Cambridge café. After Pehr and Semyon had compared notes about their various entrepreneurial ideas, Semyon asked us if we wanted to go hang gliding with him the next day. I told Semyon that I thought the sport sounded too dangerous but if Pehr wanted to go, I'd be happy to watch.

Semyon tried to allay my fears by explaining his philosophy of risk management, which went something like this: Very few people die in hang gliding crashes. Problems occur when people forget to strap themselves into their safety harnesses. Thus, if a person trusts himself to perform a few simple safety checks, hang gliding can be viewed as a relatively safe activity.

Semyon Dukach is the kind of person who can be relied upon to per form a few simple safety checks each and every time he decides to go hang gliding. And for this reason, the sport of hang gliding appears nearly 100 percent safe, within Semyon's frame of reference.

Semyon's speech about the extremely rational, and completely safe, sport of hang gliding was enough to convince Pehr to join him on the mountain. But when I think about hang gliding, I imagine people who are much less rational, and much less methodical, than Semyon Dukach. The hang gliders in my imagination get so excited about the prospect of soaring like birds that they rush toward the edge of a cliff without buckling their safety harnesses. And in so doing, they mess up the sport's otherwise immaculate safety record.

As skeptical as I was about hang gliding, I was also a bit curious. So when Pehr and Semyon drove up to New Hampshire, I went with them.

On the way to the cliff, Semyon explained what Pehr had to look forward to. First he would go to the hangar and learn to identify the different parts of the apparatus. Then he would haul his glider onto the grassy hill and practice pushing it back and forth. Next, he would spend a few hours learning the basics: how to start, how to gather momentum, and how to stop without crashing. Finally, he would haul his glider to the top, strap himself into his safety harnesses, and race toward the edge of the cliff.

People who are good at hang gliding can travel as many as 190 miles before returning to the earth's surface. On the first day, however, a student is unlikely to leave the ground.

Pehr had an unexpected bonus during his first day of hang gliding: As he was rolling the apparatus back and forth across the side of the cliff, he caught a sudden updraft and soared about three meters. Unfortunately, Pehr's flight occurred well before the instructor had given his lesson on how to land, and Pehr's landing was a complete disaster. He bumped, he tripped, and he fell into the grass. Pehr did not sustain any serious injuries during his unpleasant landing, but he was held up as an example to his fellow students. "Let that be a lesson," the instructor thundered. "You don't leave the ground until I give the signal."

It was hard for the students to pay attention to the instructor's advice when the sky around them was filled with so many colorful gliders.

Off in the distance Pehr could see Semyon Dukach, circling and dipping like a lark in springtime. He looked as if he were having the time of his life.

As Semyon soared and Pehr learned about the fundamentals, I sat in the hangar and read a book about shipwrecks. Reading about shipwrecks made me feel secure because I already knew what was going to happen.

With Pehr and Semyon, I had no idea.

Excerpted from The Venture Café , by Teresa Esser . Copyright (c) 2002 by Teresa A. Esser. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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