One of the things that I have most often heard being said about entrepreneurs is that they are risk takers. The unsaid implication seems to be that entrepreneurs are dare devils who will willingly defy death because risk is an aphrodisiac for them – they actually seek out and enjoy risk.
Now nothing could be more untrue of most of the entrepreneurs I have known, including yours truly. Every entrepreneur I have known is risk averse. I will go so far as to say that most entrepreneurs are really cautious people – they think a hundred times before making any significant investment.
Entrepreneurs are rational people – they try to minimize risk. What entrepreneurs do is that they seek to understand risk better, they manage risk, they try and mitigate it and then of the various alternative courses of action available they go for that one that carries the least risk.
So how do entrepreneurs go about minimizing their risk when they are starting out? Different people do it different ways.
Some would put aside a nest egg in the bank that would suffice for personal and family expenses for two or three years.
Others would ensure that there is some income coming in independent of the business to run the house with. It could be rental from a property or a spouse’s salary.
Another way to do it would be to do some work that is not the main business but ensures a steady income without being full time – teaching, training, a consulting retainer, periodic short term assignments, writing a newspaper column etc., anything that gets in some small steady income while leaving enough time to pursue the main business.
Many companies pursue one business in the short run in order to get some money for the longer term dream which could be another business. For instance a number of start-ups working on a software product fund the development expenditure by doing software services work early on.
How many entrepreneurs do you know who started their companies from their homes? Who did not take on the overhead of salaried employees early on and instead worked with business associates who got a revenue or a profit share but no fixed salary. Who gave large chunks of equity to early colleagues instead of a salary.
I myself employed most of these methods of reducing risk early on.
The point is that there are hundreds of small ways that start up entrepreneurs reduce their risk. Those that I have enumerated above are only some of them.
I would go so far as to say that entrepreneurs exhibit greater risk averse behavior as compared to employee managers. The reason is simple – it’s the entrepreneur’s own money. It is his life on the line. He has bet his all. He cannot afford to go bust. If he does he will lose everything he has. He will have to start his life all over again. What is more he cannot walk away from his business easily – there are employees and creditors to be paid, and customer commitments to be met. He is personally accountable. Therefore he takes fewer chances.
What I have said is true of many start-up entrepreneurs who do not take external funding immediately. Who try and first bootstrap their companies.
Entrepreneurs who get generous VC funding early on frequently do not display the mind set of frugality that bootstrapping a business instills. They usually don’t understand the value of money and how difficult it is for a business to earn it. Many of the dotcoms that got funded in the last bubble failed precisely because they got too much money too soon. The entrepreneurs did not understand the importance of being tight fisted and minimizing risk. These entrepreneurs ended up taking somewhat injudicious risks – with money they got easily from other people. They were actually not taking a personal risk – they had not bet their own money. Most went back to being professional managers in large companies pretty soon.
But don’t many entrepreneurs choose to leave secure corporate jobs and embrace the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. Isn’t that prime example of embracing risk?
Well, not really. The point is that the lower risk corporate job was not taking the entrepreneur where he wanted to go. He did not want to lead that life. His goals were different. And he believed entrepreneurship would get him there. So once he was clear about his goals he would then go about moving towards them in the manner that minimized his risk.
The point is – entrepreneurs have different goals.