Outside of dreams, there is no real business opportunity without risk. Serious entrepreneurs know that, but too many “wannabes” still fall for that elusive get-rich-quick scheme with no risk. As an active angel investor, I still hear entrepreneurs asserting large opportunities with minimal risk and no competition. My conclusion either way is that they have no market, or haven’t looked.
According to the classic book by serial entrepreneur and former race car driver Tom Panaggio, “The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Edge,” smart business owners embrace two essential risks to every opportunity – decision and change. First, they decide on a direction to jump, and then they make adjustments and innovations to keep going and growing.
In simple terms, the way you balance risk and opportunity is to look at both as two sides of the same coin. Obviously you are looking for the opportunity side to be bigger than the risk side. Great entrepreneurs have learned how to realistically assess and manage both sides of the coin in the following business opportunity and risk categories:
- Strategic. Visionary entrepreneurs tend to identify and map strategic new opportunities, rather than grow existing current ones, based on market insights emerging technology. The risks in new opportunities are usually not evident, so the challenge here is to reduce the probability that the assumed risks actually materialize and to improve the company’s ability to manage or contain the risk events, should they occur.
- Financial. Both risks and opportunities in this area can arise from many aspects of your startup, before and after product development. First you need to assess the risks and value of investor funding and carrying debt. Then you walk the delicate balance between burn rates, revenue flows versus expenses, investment in marketing, and employees.
- Operational. Once a business is operational, the opportunity can be maximized, and risk managed through best-of-breed processes, and a rules-based control model. Examples are the risks from employees’ unauthorized, illegal, unethical, or inappropriate actions and the risks from breakdowns in routine processes.
- Growth. The way you scale your business is a huge balancing act between risk and opportunity. You can grow organically, or stretch out with big capital investments for volume and reach. Grow too fast, and risk quality and delivery ability, or go slowly only to be overtaken by your competitors or a new technology. Find the balance.
For entrepreneurs, both Panaggio and I agree that the first step is adopting a winner’s mindset, and not become a prisoner of hope. When entrepreneurs become prisoners of hope, they look for others to solve their problem. After they decide to be a winner, the key is to embrace risk, rather than fight it, which gives you the real advantage:
- Embrace the risk of failure. Every entrepreneur must realize that failure is not defeat, but a signal that it is necessary to invoke the two essential risks: decide that change is necessary, and change. Every investor believes that entrepreneurs learn more from failures than from successes. Short-term failures lead to long-term successes.
- Embrace the risk of proactive marketing. Marketing is fraught with risk, but playing it safe or no marketing is the ultimate risk. Proactive marketing is a marketing strategy that focuses on one objective – to generate customers now. Look at marketing as an investment, not an expense. Risk being known for who you are, as well as what you sell.
- Embrace the risk of standing in your own line. All entrepreneurs should face the risk of being one of their own customers, by using their own products and standing in their own customer service lines. Only shortsighted leaders assume that customers have unreasonable expectations, or their demands will increase once you have a relationship.
Embracing risk and learning from your mistakes really is an entrepreneur’s edge, since only startups and small businesses can afford to fail quickly, maybe multiple times, and all the while having the ability to pivot quickly to achieve success. In fact, these are the keys to balancing risks against the opportunities. When was the last time you felt your business was in balance?