01 May 2016

Calculating Risk

"Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."

--Howard Stevenson
Professor Emeritus, Harvard University

Recently someone asked the following question:

"What three things should an entrepreneur do once they decide:  Okay, I'm starting a business." 

Getting started 

The few who start businesses and succeed don't take risks. They take calculated risks. Having started two companies in 1980 (consulting and research), my first thought was to reduce financial exposure by making sure, to the extent possible, there was a reasonable chance of succeeding. 

For example, I asked for a 50% deposit in selling market research and worked off other people's money (OPM). Then required the balance upon delivery of the final report. In the digital age, those transactions could all be online. 

The deposit approach came to our attention while reading about the creation of Encyclopedia Britannica, first published in 1768 in Edinburgh, Scotland. To get working capital, founders Colin Macfarquhar, Andrew Bell, and Archibald Constable used customer deposits to provide cash flow. 

This illustration of accessing capital by sharing risk seems quaint by today's unicorn investment standards ($1 billion market value for tech start-ups). Still, it was a business model suitable for the times.

Entrepreneurship in decline

According to The Washington Post, research shows the U.S. rate of new business creation, which peaked about a decade ago, plunged more than 30% during the Great Recession and has struggled to regain its footing.

That's going in the wrong direction since the 25-55 age category, a prime demographic for starting new businesses, is rapidly expanding, according to the Kauffman Foundation.

Fewer start-ups mean fewer new jobs.

To back up these trend lines, look below at business closings:

One more chart. 

This time tracking long-established businesses, an increasing percentage of U.S. firms. For over five years, those in the industry account for just over two-thirds of companies. In addition, the Post report shows that the proportion of companies of every age from one to five years has decreased over the past 35 years.

Kauffman believes millennials can turn these numbers around but aren't starting businesses. Their demographic, 20-34, shows a sharp drop in new formations since 2010 even though they have higher levels of education than previous generations, says Kauffman.

A survey by Hewlett-Packard Enterprise of 13-17 year-olds found that the entrepreneurial drive for Generation Z sets in around 29, the average age at which 79% of teens expect to be ready to lead or found their own company.

What to do

Back to our checklist of three things someone might consider doing if they are set on moving ahead:

1. Study the definition of an entrepreneur at the top of this post. Come to terms with the reality that you're not likely to have all the resources at hand when you launch a product or service, yet you still move ahead. If you need total funding up front, you're likely a bureaucrat, not the venturesome type. 

The definition from Professor Stevenson is a reminder of how little control you'll have over the start-up process and beyond.

2. Look at yourself carefully. Who are you? Entrepreneurship is about people first and ideas second. Investors look closely at background and character, investing as much or more in individuals with promise as ideas on paper. There should be flexibility in your human wiring as the need to adjust and the transition is ever-present. 

As someone said, "If you don't bend, you'll break." 

3. Be accountable from the beginning to someone or some group. I created an advisory board and had several mentors who, over time, exhibited wisdom and good judgment. A corporate attorney and CPA were essential to starting and managing the business.     

Even though this new enterprise should be fun, entrepreneurship can take a toll physically, mentally, and financially. So take care of yourself and employees.

The power of incubation

I include in No. 3 the possibility of getting into an incubation program sponsored by a nearby university, state, or nonprofit association. 

If you can survive long enough to get out of the house or garage, having an office in an incubator, where you can mix with peers, develop a disciplined work schedule, and gain access to professional resources, is all for good.

Something to read

Finally, I would consider reading Breakthrough Entrepreneurship, by entrepreneur and teacher Jon Burgstone and writer Bill Murphy, Jr.  What you learn is how to find and fill unmet customer needs. 

As Peter Drucker once said, "The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer."    


(C) Bredholt & Co.