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Risk: A Four-Letter Word That Can Work Wonders

A company is either growing or dying – unless you’re prepared to take some risk to push the envelope, you’ll merely become a soon-forgotten sign that says Under New Management.

Humans are creatures of habit. Most families book all-inclusive hotels for their vacations as it provides a reasonable degree of comfort, amenities, and the safety of an enclosed fortress. Cruise ships are similar. One can venture out for a few hours during the day and then return to the safety of a hotel-prepared meal and security-guarded lodging.

And I don’t know how many people I’ve spoken to that won’t eat things like shellfish, sushi, and chicken gizzards. Just the thought of these delicacies turns their stomachs. (Strangest “foods” I’ve tried: cow brain, raw horsemeat, toad… and none of them are recommended eating!)

Safety is bred into us from the beginning – keeping a fire lit in the cave, then the advantage of a hilltop fortress, and today’s gated communities. Pushing ourselves outside of our safety (or comfort) zone isn’t easy.

As entrepreneurs, the adrenaline rush of pushing a company into uncharted waters is in fact a primary driver for growth. How many times have you seen a company put up a sign outside its business that says, “Under New Management”? Does the message invigorate you in any way? Has it ever gotten you all juiced up to stop in and buy something?

Nope – it’s perfectly safe while being completely irrelevant. The only message it transmits is that the former management was inept. A riskier proposition is more along the lines of “Exciting New Widgets Now In Stock!” It takes a degree of risk to invest in new technology and/or a new product because there’s no guarantee that it will sell.

Always Moving

Many of today’s entrepreneurs live by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now-famous motto: “Move fast and break things.” Zuckerberg intended for this to inform internal design and management processes, but it aptly captures how entrepreneurs regard disruption: More is (almost) always better. It also has to do with thinking outside of the box – What can we do next? Where can we go?

With my business, I tried something new each year. I would present my idea or initiative in January, put out a set of criteria, and then work the plan.

The biggest obstacle to a successful outcome was me: I assumed that the team could take on the project and, in some cases, I didn’t allocate sufficient resources to attain the success I envisioned. Examples include launching a new product line, updating software systems, attacking a new market, and moving into a new building.

The management team didn’t always agree with the challenge or timing, and the staff was already busy with more on their plates than they could handle. But this is what entrepreneurs do. We push the envelope. We risk. This drove the team and created a sense of what I call “positive tension.”

The real challenge is knowing when to fish and when to cut bait. The old adage that says, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” only goes so far. At one point you must decide if you’re going to throw more money at it, and if so, will it come to fruition? Or is it time to abandon ship?

Making It Go

This brings to mind the subject of resources. Facebook has unlimited cash on hand. I’ve often said that when money is coming in the door, everything is easy. If, on the other hand, dollars are scarce, what do you do?

In the early years, we put aside $500 a month into a special “rainy-day” savings account. It wasn’t much, but we could run day-to-day operations without it, and over the years the account built up. As the company grew, the monthly savings increased. When a new project was decided upon, if cash wasn’t readily available, the account gave us some extra funding to launch the project.

The other – and even more important – resource was people. If I felt a project really had “legs,” we would figure out how to move or hire someone to take on the task. We had great people and they rose to the challenge.

A company is either growing or dying. Unless you’re prepared to take some risk to push the envelope, you’ll merely become a soon-forgotten sign that says Under New Management.

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