What Have You Got to Lose?

In Silicon Valley, we celebrate entrepreneurship. It seems like almost everyone is starting a start-up, or, at least, is starting an incubator for start-ups. The founders of tech companies are household names. There are start-ups aimed at helping people create start-ups, such as Founder Dating, which describes itself as “the premier online network for entrepreneurs, advisors, and co-founders.” Our schools teach entrepreneurship to our children. Entrepreneurship has delivered great rewards, not just to the founders of companies or to their investors, but to their employees and to all who use their products.

But is entrepreneurship for everyone? Surely not! Like any job, entrepreneurship requires skills that come easier to some people than others. And, like any job, because you can do it doesn’t mean that you should do it.

But let’s suppose you’ve got the skills, starting a business sounds fun, and you have an idea you think could make a lot of money. Should you set out to be an entrepreneur? Well, what you got to lose?

Thinking about that question reminded me of a debate I had with a friend a long time ago. As a financial thought experiment, we were discussing what you should do if Man finding a $1 billyou had no money, no source of income, and came across a $1 bill. Should you buy something? Probably not; there isn’t much you can get for just one dollar. My friend argued that you should save the dollar. Maybe you will find more dollars, and eventually you might have enough to make a difference. In contrast, I argued that you should buy a lottery ticket.

My friend (a mathematician) was appalled; lottery tickets have a negative expected value, so no rational person should ever buy one. My argument was that you probably would never find enough money to make much of a difference; in contrast, you just might win the lottery and completely transform your financial situation. The odds aren’t good, but at least you have a shot.

Thus, it seems reasonable to me to buy a lottery ticket if you are either desperately poor (because you just might win), or moderately well-off (if you find lottery tickets entertaining enough to justify their expected cost). On the other hand, you shouldn’t buy them if you are of modest means (because you’d be better off saving the dollar than purchasing entertainment) or if you are very wealthy (because I can’t imagine it’s very fun to have a tiny chance to win even $100M if you already have $1B).

Somewhat similar logic applies to entrepreneurship. If you’re 22, just graduated from college, have $50K, and limited job prospects, becoming an entrepreneur is a reasonable choice. Your opportunity costs are relatively low, and you could win big, and you won’t starve while you work on your new business for a few months. You might want to do a few job interviews in case you can’t get the business going, but if, at the end of the day, you burn through $25K before going to get a job, you’ll survive.

On the other hand, what if you’re a 35 year-old skilled professional (a doctor, or a software engineer, perhaps), making $150K per year? Let’s assume that you have a house (or, rather, a mortgage), a 2 year-old you’d like to be able to send to college some day, and $250K in financial assets. Entrepreneurship is a risky choice for you. If you spend a couple of years working on a business that fails, you may have burned up a lot of your savings, and you may have a hard time getting your old job back. You’re a prosperous professional with reasonable certainty of a comfortable future; are you willing to put that at risk?

If you’re very wealthy (say you have $50M from a previous venture), entrepreneurship seems like a good idea. The vast majority of jobs aren’t worthwhile because they’ll pay a fraction of the passive income you receive from your portfolio of stocks and bonds. However, rich as you are, you don’t have enough capital to get too many “unfair” advantages as an investor. You can’t go around buying up controlling interests in major public corporations or demanding board seats. But, you do have a unique advantage in starting a business — you have enough capital that, at least in the early stages, you can dictate terms to investors.

Finally, if you have $50B, you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur in the traditional sense of the word. It’s unlikely that you can create a new business that will have a material impact on your net worth. Instead (assuming you’re still trying to grow your wealth) you should probably be some kind of investor; you can combine synergistic enterprises, you can buy businesses and sell off units you think are undervalued, or you can use your considerable political influence to bend the regulatory environment in your favor. You could even invest $1B in some incredibly capital-intensive business that might completely transform the world.

I haven’t attempted any kind of rigorous statistical analysis, but the theory set out above seems to apply reasonably well in practice. There seem to be fewer successful 30-something professionals building Silicon Valley start-ups than there are young entrepreneurs who have not yet built careers or middle-aged entrepreneurs who have considerable assets.

People are indeed asking themselves “What have I got to lose?” They’re just not asking rhetorically.

That said, most entrepreneurs have a higher tolerance of risk than the average person. A lot of the young founders of start-ups are very well-educated and could get great professional jobs. And, few of the older entrepreneurs have $50M in assets; I’d expect that $5M is closer to the mark. Thus, both groups may suffer real economic harm if their business fail. And, I bet that the risk-adjusted returns for both groups would be better from the highly lucrative jobs for which they are well-qualified. I think these people love the idea of being entrepreneurs, they want the chance to win big, and they have the stomach to tolerate the risks. It’s also conventional wisdom that entrepreneurs over-estimate their chances of success.

So, if you’re a risk-taker, an optimist, and starting a business sounds like fun, then, by all means, be an entrepreneur. But, as denizens of Silicon Valley, we shouldn’t turn entrepreneurship into a cult. If starting a business sounds unpleasant, or you feel you have too much to lose, do something else. It’s not like there’s something wrong with being a teacher, a lawyer, a marketer, a nurse, an engineer, a stay-at-home dad, or “just” a loving wife. These are all wonderful choices.

I am blessed with two wonderful children, one of whom already shows a keen interest in business. I’ll be proud of my kids if they turn out to be entrepreneurs, but I’ll just as proud of them if they do something that affords them independence, gives them satisfaction, and leaves the world a slightly better place.

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One thought on “What Have You Got to Lose?

  1. In my experience, the same applies to *working* in start-ups. Once you have the kids and the mortgage, the uncertainty outweighs the potential rewards.

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