By Andrew Martin
Entrepreneurs, by definition, are risk takers. They break new ground, make unexpected decisions and deviate from the perceived norm. For entrepreneurs, “risk” can mean many things: opportunity, venture, shot in the dark, jeopardy or even danger.
But there’s a difference between taking risks and engaging in risky behavior. The former can lead to big rewards, and the latter to nasty surprises.
Entrepreneurs need to cultivate communication and teamwork, research as thoroughly as possible and use data and technology to their fullest potential.
As head of the Metia Group, I focus on risks that are most likely to benefit our agency. For example, one way we ensure we’re taking smart risks as we grow our digital marketing business is to hire and develop the most talented people by not just looking at what they’ve done but what their potential is that they haven’t yet explored.
It’s easy to get caught up in narrower perspectives of the world we work in. I encourage team members to look outside our industry for inspiration. We look for talented people whose experience will add value to our team and our clients, regardless of their background.
When you’re hiring—especially at a senior level—there’s an element of risk in selecting the candidate whose personality, ethics and “fit” are right for your company, beyond their qualifications and experience. Mistakes will occasionally happen, but at least we are confident of doing everything possible to mitigate risks.
Using Information and Instinct to Calculate Risk
Our customers are always looking for the next big thing. They look to our team for insights and recommendations regarding whether they should commit to a new buzzworthy technology or platform.
The only way to hedge bets on new technology is to be absolutely systematic about the selection process, weigh the pros and cons and test-drive the products to see which best fits your criteria. Guesswork makes for risky behavior, whereas knowledge allows you to take a calculated risk.
Sometimes you have to be more instinctive and less systematic about taking risks in order to evolve and test your limits. Back in 2009, I decided to move my entire family from the U.K. to the U.S. It wasn’t a totally uncalculated decision, but there are many aspects about living here that we couldn’t even guess about before we came. We were determined to make the move work out. As it turned out, the risk paid off. Why?
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant” and it’s one of my most important mantras. I find that it’s only by embracing change, pushing myself to uncomfortable limits and trying new things that I’m able to grow.
Failure is always a possibility, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. And, once you embark on a course of action, you can use data to help steer your course: ongoing analysis of data will provide life-saving signals to help you see what’s not working and where to make adjustments.
The Balancing Act
Pursuing out-of-the-box growth while staying within acceptable levels of risk is one of my most difficult balancing acts. You need to set boundaries appropriate to the situation, and work with team members to better understand how to challenge the organization.
It’s also vital to be flexible. Don’t stick with the plan just because it’s the plan: watch performance and measure it against acceptable risk levels so that you can move on if the plan gets derailed. And don’t be afraid to act quickly when the situation demands it.
For example, think of Oreo during the Super Bowl blackout when they posted the now-famous, “You can still dunk in the dark” tweet. Brilliant. The tweet caught fire and was retweeted tens of thousands of times. If they had gone according to plan and didn’t take a risk by acting quickly, they wouldn’t have created one of the most buzzsworthy ads of the Super Bowl.
My father has had a big impact on shaping my approach to life and my comfort level with risk. As a farmer, he was constantly making best-guess decisions that would be affected to hard-to-predict variables, like the weather, the outcome of which he wouldn’t know for months or even years. I don’t know anyone who negotiated this balancing act better.
In the business of marketing, the biggest risk is not changing! Consumers, technologies and industries evolve. What was fresh last year is now stale. The challenge is to stay creative while delivering results, which means that smart new ideas can be worth more than gold.
Yes, there’s always an element of risk in putting new ideas out there, but with the right people, sound processes and a philosophical approach, the rewards are likely to outnumber those nasty surprises.
Andrew Martin runs the North American division of Metia, a digital marketing agency. He has delivered digital solutions for clients such as Microsoft, AT&T, AmazonFresh, Tesco, Next and Sports World.