The Entrepreneurial Journey:  Risk vs Uncertainty

The world has changed.  Today, as I ordered groceries online, I actually asked my husband if he wanted me to order more cereal.  This may not sound extraordinary since he LOVES cereal, but up until several weeks ago, I was known to severely chastise him when he bought excessive dry goods that had to be jammed into our already overflowing kitchen cupboards (or even sometimes in the hall closet).  He frequently had to endure my reminders that “we live about 5 minutes from an excellent grocery story so we can always get whatever we need.”  What a difference a few weeks can make.   Does anyone have extra toilet paper???

Today we are all living with a good bit of uncertainty about the future.  Uncertainty about a pathogen that is not understood, uncertainty about the economy, uncertainty about when we can spend time with loved ones.  Questions are going through our minds every day. When will the social isolation and social distancing guidelines be lifted?  Will I still have a job?  Will my business stay afloat during this economic lockdown?  Will I be able to stay healthy? When will we have a vaccine?  What will my 401K look like after this and can I ever retire?  When can I hug my grandchildren again?  The uncertainty is painful at best and at times debilitating.    We are getting a firsthand experience of the change from risk to uncertainty. At least that is what it feels like.

In reality, there are few certainties in life except that there is no certainty because the one constant is change.  (Many also add taxes and death as guarantees).  Actually, we live with lots of uncertainty every day.  There is no guarantee that we will arrive at our office safely each time we get into a car or train.  There is no guarantee that the conversation we have with a prospective new customer will yield a sale.  There is no guarantee that the new recipe we try for dinner will be enjoyed by our family.  We learn to live with some uncertainty but we also experiment a lot, we read about the experimentations of others, and we learn and use that to calculate risk. Uncertainty is what we have before we experiment and learn, calculated risk is the result of the experimentation and learning. 

A number of years ago, I invited Dr. Steve Spinelli, co- founder of Jiffy Lube International and currently Babson College President, to speak to my graduate class. During the class, Steve addressed the question of whether entrepreneurship can be taught. To illustrate his perspective, he asked the students in the class which highway was the busiest at 5pm on a weekday.  We were in the Cincinnati, OH area at the time and the students suggested it would be I75.  He then asked them how many of them would be willing to try to cross the highway blindfolded if the prize for doing so successfully was $1 million.  Of course, there were very few takers  despite the large sum (there was one young man who said he would try because it was a “parking lot” at that time).  Nevertheless, most were not interested in taking on that challenge because of the high risk associated. However, Steve then asked how many would try to cross the highway without the blindfold.  More were willing to take that chance because the risk had been reduced.  He then suggested that through entrepreneurship education, we can take off the blindfold and reduce some of the risk associated with a business startup.  There still may be accidents or even tragedy if miscalculations are made, but hopefully there are fewer. 

When we teach entrepreneurship to our students, we talk to them about risk.  We usually say that entrepreneurs must learn to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty along the journey and that entrepreneurs take calculated risks.  But how does that really work?  The answer is that in the end, every new venture is an experiment.  A business concept starts with a hypothesis.  The development of that concept into a company is actually a series of experiments that involve testing assumption after assumption.  And, entrepreneurs are constantly calculating their risk as they move forward to shape what will become the new venture. For example, a number of years ago, I was a partner in a startup that focused on risk mitigation in higher education.  My partner and I had a theory that universities could reduce reputational risk by using the unstructured (at that time) web to gather intelligence.  As the business concept developed and we launched the company, a number of changes occurred in the environment, and in the end, the company looked completely different than the original concept.   This is common.  It is not only common, it is necessary.  It is what we often refer to as “pivoting.” Along the path to launching a company, a founder is constantly testing and learning.  And, in doing so, she is able to move from uncertainty to calculated risk.   And even more importantly, an uncertain environment offers the most fertile ground for innovation and entrepreneurship. 

If we had complete certainty, there would not be room nor would there be a need for experimentation and learning.  So, while the idea of certainty can be seductive, it also eliminates the need for innovation and entrepreneurship.  As educators, we have the opportunity to remind our students of the value of change and uncertainty.  This is an especially important message during these times of great change, because these are the times of the greatest innovations. In his Enfactor podcast, Kevin Harrington, talks about riding these changes, first building his career on the emerging ubiquity of television, and later having to adapt to the changes brought on by the internet and web-based entertainment.   Bonnie Harvey and Michael Houlihan, who built the Barefoot Wine brand, tell their story of experimentation along the way in their episode. And, Benson Riseman talks about how his first concept underwent changes to become the first pre-paid debit card.  In fact, this message of embracing change is evident in almost every entrepreneurial success story told through the Enfactor podcast series.  I encourage all of us to reframe our fears of the unknown today by considering how each of us can put this challenge to good use to develop our own innovations – whether that be to find a new dinner menu, make a change to our work process or begin to build an amazing new venture.

Skip to content