I won’t waste my time or yours with search results for the phrase “entrepreneurial risk.” Let’s treat each other as adults and assume the hits are significant if not endless. The sky is blue. Water is wet. Entrepreneurship is loaded with risk
No doubt, there are more dreamers than risk takers, which perhaps explains the chest-thumping glory given to startup founders who go “all in” with gusto. I get it. I’m even guilty of it myself. I don’t play poker, sitting that long doesn’t work for me, but the concept of strategically risking your stack in pursuit of the big win is one that I know well. Is it wrong to want a little credit? After all, that’s entrepreneurship and I am an entrepreneur.
Here’s your cookie, now get over yourself.
Entrepreneurs, founders, whatever you’d like to call them, haven’t cornered the market on risk. A lesson I learned one Saturday over 18 holes of frustratingly mediocre golf. My family was otherwise engaged and I had some time to kill. The plan was to practice, practice, practice. Upon arrival at the range I ran into a friend with a similar runway of time. After the typical small talk about the status of our games and a couple of decent strikes of the ball, we both agreed that we might as well play. Golf is easy. Who needs practice? Allen Iverson would have been proud.
It was a beautiful day, I had a good time and in truth, we both need to practice more often, but that’s not the point. As we were coming to the 17th fairway, our discussion turned to the leap into entrepreneurship and coping with the associated risk. Naturally, I started to think in terms of the personal risk that I had willingly accepted. It was a great moment of pontification about wrestling the fear alligator and knowing that even if I failed, I would at least find the floor, dust myself off and start anew. Chest thump. Pat on back. I looked to my playing partner for validation, but he dismissed it with a wave of the hand.
“I get that part. That’s given. What about the people who choose to follow you? Who depend on your vision to pay the electric bill. If you fall on your ass, what will they do?”
Right. Left. Uppercut. Down goes Frazier!
I’d like to tell you that I immediately moved from a position of self-centered confidence to one of clear-minded leadership, but that would be a lie. I could only muster a sentence or two about the entirety of my current staff consisting of contractors who understand the rules. The conversation quickly shifted back to pin location and approach shots. Damn you Iverson, it is about practice.
Pretty much anyone can file the paperwork, start a company and call themselves a CEO, but that in no way makes a leader. If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, and three out of every four venture backed startups fail, there is plenty of risk to go around. There are a multitude of reasons for a company to fail, from capital deficiency to scalability, but I’ll very unscientifically submit poor leadership as a primary cause of startup death. As a startup founder, I understand that I’m setting myself up for hardy criticism if my own venture doesn’t work out. I’m comfortable with that because I know leadership is a process of continuous learning that starts from one, and only one, personal trait: humility. I know what I don’t know and I’m more than happy to share that with you. I didn't get to there overnight. It took the slings and arrows of experience to make me realize that admitting I don’t have the answer makes me a better leader than the fool who masquerades as mastermind.
Working for a startup company has an abundance of risk. It’s well established. It also has an abundance of potential rewards over and above the stones throw chance of wealth. A lack of hierarchy, creativity, flexibility and if done properly, a shared commitment to vision can provide an awesome platform for personal and professional development. Nothing is so impressive, or formidable, as a functional team operating with a shared purpose. I can’t think of a better way to learn. That’s only possible with founders - entrepreneurs - leaders who are guided by humility. If you’re going to give up the great pay and security of that corporate job to join a startup, you’ll need to believe in the vision, sure, but make sure, more than anything, you believe in its leaders. After all, just like that entrepreneur, you’re accepting a great deal of personal risk.
Founders, let this serve as a reminder: it’s not always about you. Get over yourself and be part of something great.