When Joe Green was in college, he had a roommate who had some really big ideas for new online businesses. The two of them worked together on a project that got them in trouble with the university administration. So when Joe’s roommate asked him to participate in his new company, Joe’s dad discouraged him from getting involved, saying it was too risky to go along on another project with his talented-but-troublemaking roommate. So Joe declined the offer to own 4% of his friend’s new company, and did the “safe” thing by focusing on his college education instead.
It sounds like a happy ending, right? Talented young person listens to his father and avoids making a big, risky mistake, right?
Wrong. Joe Green’s roommate was Mark Zuckerberg, and the company that Joe missed out on joining was Facebook. If Joe had taken a bigger risk and ignored his father’s advice, his ownership of Facebook would be worth $3 billion today.
Of course, most of us are not going to miss out on becoming the next founders of Facebook. But how many would-be entrepreneurs are missing out on big opportunities and a better way of life because they’re too afraid to take a risk? Sometimes the “risky” move is less “risky” than it seems. Sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is not take a risk at all.
I’ll give you an example from my own entrepreneurial journey. Back in 1997, my husband Phil and I were struggling with big student loan debts, mounting bills, and only one $10-an-hour income between the two of us. I drove home from work one day, after fighting traffic in an un-air conditioned car, and found Phil sitting on the couch in his boxer shorts. And I said to him, “You need to find a way to contribute financially to this relationship.” And Phil said, “I’ve got an idea – I want to start a business online!
Now, some people might have said, “That’s crazy. That’s too risky. We don’t need a zany online business idea, we need INCOME. You need to get a job, right now!”
But as it turned out, the “risky” decision to start a business and pursue this unique opportunity turned out to be the best move we could have made. It would have been far riskier for my husband to take a job he didn’t enjoy, wouldn’t have done well at, and would have probably gotten laid off from. Instead, by taking the “risky” route, we built a business that we eventually sold to Intuit in 2005 for $20 million.
Most people who decide to start a business aren’t planning to be millionaires. But even if you have more modest goals, even if you never cash out your company for millions or billions of dollars, chances are you can build a better life for yourself by starting your own business.
Many people feel that starting a business is “too risky,” but having a regular job with a steady paycheck poses risks of its own. What if you spend too many years at the same company and your skills start to stagnate? What if you get laid off through no fault of your own, at a time when you need that paycheck the most?
Holding on to a “secure” job might actually turn out to be a riskier move, in the long run, than starting your own business. When you start your own business, you create your own safety net and shape your own destiny. No one can pull the rug out from under you. We’re not all going to be the next founders of Facebook, but we can feel just as free and empowered as Mark Zuckerberg feels when he goes to work every day.
Instead of thinking about it as “risk,” perhaps we should reframe the discussion in terms of “taking a chance,” “reaching for opportunities,” and “daring to dream.” The downsides of starting a business might be lower than you think, and the upsides can be astronomical.