Starting any new venture is risky. Before we can limit or manage the risk, we have to understand it.
Most startup (or new product) risk can be divided into three buckets:
- Tech Risk
- Market Risk
- Ego Risk
Tech risk is what entrepreneurs (or intrapreneurs, for those starting something within an existing structure) most often think about when starting a new venture. Can I build this thing? Is it scalable? Do I have enough servers? The irony is that, especially for consumer web startups, this risk is usually negligible. Most web startups aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before, unless it involves patentable algorithms. It may not be easy, but there’s high certainty that it can be done, given sufficient resources.
Market risk is the antithesis of the idea that “if you build it, they will come.” Do people have this problem? If we can deliver the solution, will people even want it? Can we reach the people who will buy this product? Do people believe that our solution is credible? Entrepreneurs should be thinking carefully about market risk.
The final type of risk facing any new venture is ego risk – and it’s probably the most important and the least discussed type of risk. Ego risk is the chance that an entrepreneur can’t get out of her or his own way, pay attention to the data, overcome cognitive biases, and avoid falling prey to a reality distortion field.
With so much risk, it’s a wonder any new venture survives (many of them don’t). But researchers and entrepreneurs have worked hard on each of these types of risks, and there are strategies for ameliorating each one.
Tech Risk + Agile
Tech risk is often mitigated with some implementation of Agile methodologies. I sat down with Agile expert Elliot Susel to ask him how entrepreneurs can get started with Agile. Listen to that interview here: See the Full Transcript.
Market Risk + Lean Startup
Minimizing market risk is the driving force behind much of the lean startup movement. By making a set of small bets in the form of lightweight experiments, entrepreneurs can validate market demand before investing in building a system to deliver a solution or product. Plus, talking to customers often helps entrepreneurs identify problems they had not originally imagined. Sometimes those new problems are more pressing for the customer, and lead to a new product with less market risk.
Ego Risk + ?
Ego risk is the final and most difficult hurdle. There’s no clear-cut answer to this challenge. Religions and philosophers have been focused on ego for millennia. But a meditation or mindfulness practice can be particularly useful in helping us step back from our impulsive reactions to external stimuli (e.g. data that challenges our preconceived notions, particularly if our self-worth is invested in being right, or in one particular self-image.)
Of course, even a zen-master-like separation from the ego doesn’t completely protect us from cognitive biases, nor does a higher IQ or more awareness of these effects. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest a correlation between higher IQ and higher susceptibility to cognitive biases. We don’t yet have any proven methods for overcoming biases, but the Wikipedia page on mitigation is very interesting reading, and a good starting point for learning more.