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Risk-Reward of Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is characterized by willingness to take on higher-than-normal risk in pursuit of outsized reward. To achieve outsized rewards, one must be willing to accept higher risks, because risk and reward are proportional. Success comes from skilled assessment of what risks are worth taking for the rewards that can be earned with respect to capital accumulation (growing the business), production capacity, revenues, profits, market share, innovation (bringing superior products and services to the market), and customer satisfaction (making a positive difference to society).

Start-ups pursuing highly uncertain goals on the frontier of human innovation are at the extreme end of the risk-reward spectrum. Near-certain failure is assumed by outsiders. Most people believe the pursuit to be impossible. Only the entrepreneur has the vision and courage that are uniquely exceptional to overcome the status quo. The culture of a start-up is defiant, contrarian, and non-conformist.

A start-up’s market is initially non-existent because demand follows supply. Supply is zero until the product is produced and its value can be demonstrated to consumers. People could not have imagined the product until the invention brought it into reality. Invention creates a market, where none existed before. Before the automobile was invented, the market for transportation could only imagine a stronger, faster horse. Once an automobile could be supplied, consumers demanded it.

Contrast a start-up with an established corporation. An established corporation has mature processes, regimented procedures, and formalized governance. Standards, guidelines, and best practices are enforced through reviews and approvals for compliance. The intent is to reduce and mitigate risks: financial risk, schedule risk, technical risk, security risk, and market risk. Knowing what has proven to work, it is imperative to institutionalize delivering quality reliably and consistently to engender trust with customers and shareholders. The culture of an incumbent is compliant, conformist, and standard-bearing.

Entrepreneurship often involves recognizing that what has worked for the incumbents can be revolutionized. Processes can be more efficient. Labor can be automated. Products can be better designed or entirely obsoleted by the next generation of technology. Business models including the relationship with customers can be changed (i.e., a perpetual license can be replaced by a subscription). The goal is to win sales from customers by having a competitive advantage. Entrepreneurs seek to disrupt the market for existing incumbents.

Incumbents are intent on protecting their market position. Risk is ever-present that a competitor may win out. New up-starts entering the market are disruptive to the market. There is the risk that an established business can be made obsolete. Obsolescence is almost inevitable, as we are continually advancing to improve quality of life. Danger exists for incumbents who stubbornly cling to their established ways, eschewing novel innovations that are causing the industry to evolve. Incumbents may even resort to erecting barriers to entry through lobbying and regulatory capture. But the relentless march of progress never stops.

There is an uncomfortable tension between maturity (protecting what is proven to work) and novelty (inventing better ways of working). Culturally, it is very difficult for an incumbent to build disruptive technology that threatens its own business, even though it knows this kind of disruption is necessary to make a better future. This clash in cultures is usually overcome by entrepreneurs building start-ups, which are unencumbered by the status quo. The freedom to explore disruptive innovations allows a start-up to break all the old rules and ignore every self-imposed constraint that would hold back an incumbent from going against its established know-how. An incumbent’s financial strength allows it to forego risky experimentation, which is prone to failure, and watch the landscape for successful start-ups that can be acquired before they grow to become a competitive threat. In so doing, an incumbent gets the best of both worlds. It can protect its market position while also benefiting from risky bets taken by entrepreneurs that prove successful.

When an incumbent acquires a start-up to absorb successful innovations the clash in cultures becomes apparent. There is a desire to incorporate the smaller start-up into the larger incumbent’s organizations, and subject them to mature policies, processes, and procedures. Often, what is discarded are what made it possible for the start-up to be entrepreneurially successful: the freedom to be agile, rule-breaking, disruptive, and anti-establishment. The incumbent usually incorporates innovative technology but resists incorporating innovative culture and spirit, especially entrepreneurial risk-taking.