Inviting Risk

I don’t like Risk. The board game, I mean. Hours and hours playing chess with different pieces never interested me. It was dull. I’ve never liked dull.

Risk, on the other hand, as in the answer to “what have you got to lose?” I’ve had to learn to like that. Let’s rewind a bit.

I was not a risk-taking kid. I followed rules, tattled on my friends, colored inside the lines, and was physically uncomfortable by doing something wrong. My biggest fears were centered around getting in trouble or getting hurt and there wasn’t much of a distinction between the two for me. That’s not to say I never stepped out of line. Any kid does. But did I try to? Absolutely not.

When it came to choosing my life path, I made a series of single-option decisions. My cousin was a graphic designer and that seemed to suit my skills, so I tacked that on to my extracurriculars at 16 and zeroed in on it by the time I graduated high school. I applied to one college. I interned at one agency and decided I’d move upon graduation to work there. Five years later, I was laid off and my single-option decisions were out.

To hear my mother tell it, I started my risk inviting with the move from my hometown of Norman, Oklahoma to Dallas, Texas after college to work at imc2. I started contacting them five months prior to graduation to tell them that I would be moving to Dallas and ask when I could interview. I would have a strange, awkward interview in March for a position that wasn’t open, probably because I kept emailing and calling.

I moved two weeks after graduation, transferring my job as a barista from a Starbucks at home to one in Dallas. Renting an apartment, filling it with new, but cheap furniture. My mom was in tears over my moving, which has something to do with my being her only child and something else to do with my moving in hopes of a job and not for one secured. It took six weeks of making coffee and sweeping the floor as slowly as possible to pass the time before I was offered my second internship with imc2. I gave my notice to my store manager, telling her where I was going. She didn’t like me, but said I could come back once the internship was over. I smiled and said, “thank you.” Inside, I thought, “never in a million years.”

None of this to me was risky, though. It was necessary. My mother and grandmother both say, “you’ve always known what was right for you.” That may be so. I don’t want what’s wrong. But who really does? What I assume everyone is doing is what they feel is right for them, even if it’s only in that moment. The point is, if I think it’s the right thing to do, it seems like the risk is in doing the opposite.

Now, in this point in my life, I’m the founder of a company. A company that pays people with little to no experience and puts them in the driver’s seat. A company that prioritizes low-budget clients and still delivers work that took as much effort, as much research, and as much attention as the work done for the higher-budget clients. A company where I, at 32, am the most tenured and knowledgeable person on the full-time staff. Anything about this sound risky to you?

Before starting Brass Tacks Collective, I hosted a series of brainstorms with people I’d previously worked with, professors, agency owners, and those I knew from associations I was a part of. Everyone was on board with BTC until we got to the part about paying the apprentices to learn while doing from revenue made on low-budget clients. The plan was insanity to them. They wanted, above all things, for me to be careful in setting expectations. Noble as my quest may be, what I shouldn’t do was presume we’d always have enough money or the apprentices would always be able to deliver in a profitable way. They were right.

I’ve been faced with not enough money in the bank account more times than I care for, even just this year. The model I built works, but it can’t be all there is. How I’m course-correcting for that is another story, though. This one is about risk.

The reason most places advertise for entry-level job openings with 1-2 years’ experience required is because it’s too risky to bring in someone with no experience at all. They need the lower starting salary, the willingness to over-deliver and over-extend, the squishy, moldable brain ready to learn their way of doing things, but they don’t want the unvetted, untested, undetonated grenade that could walk in the door. It’s why they don’t want to pay interns at all (and thank you to all those that do now) because if you pay them and they don’t work out, that’s money straight out the window. Lost to their pockets and never coming back. Where’s the ROI? Nowhere? Then what’s the point?

I found a point. I found that when you bring people in and give them a job to do, show them patience, respect, share with them instead of being withholding, that they’ll likely flourish. Will they all work out? No. Has any business existed where no one ever quit or had to be let go? If that’s a thing, I want to know all about it. In case it isn’t, this is what we have to do. We have to risk that not everyone is going to work out, but that those that do are now ready to work anywhere. They’ve managed and lead, worked in a team and on their own, taken criticism and feedback without falling apart, presented to clients, the list goes on. We cram as much as we can into that one year so that they are the ideal job candidates. We take the risk so you don’t have to. Sounds like an insurance plan, right? It kind of is.

Now, about the clients. We have made a choice to work with nonprofits, startups, small businesses, so on and so forth, not because they’re easy to deal with and easy to profit on. They can be chaotic, indecisive, hagglers that are just as high maintenance and self-righteous as the million and billion-dollar companies I used to work for at imc2. They can also be wonderful, there’s no one way. Where my willingness to take the risk with these clients comes from is a sense of justice. Many of these would be turned away from other agencies because of their small budgets. I don’t like anyone being told they’re undeserving because of circumstances like money. So, we work with them as long as they’ll work with us. Just like any client/agency relationship, really just like any relationship at all, some end and some don’t. Some you see the end of when you first shake hands. Some surprise you. It’s scary, sure, but if I let fear stop me, I wouldn’t even have moved to Dallas in the first place.

So, I’ve told my story and talked a little about the risks I’ve taken. The whole point of this is supposed to be about why being risk-tolerant isn’t enough, so it’s time to get to that.

Are you bothered by the word “tolerance?” I am. It’s always grated on me a bit because for a person to be “tolerant” it means you really don’t like it in the first place, so you’re putting on a show of allowance. If that’s the approach in business, I think it means you’re absolutely going to fail. If you entered into a marriage being tolerant of your spouse, it’s a matter of time before you want them gone. If you tolerate your neighborhood, you’ll move. If you tolerate the risk of starting a business, you’ll close it. The first thing to do is get rid of that word.

I grew up risk-averse as far as I was concerned. When I decided to start a business, I had to tattoo the words “if not now, when” on my arm so I would have to face that aversion head on, every day. Ultimately, I realized that it was my relationship with risk that was really at the crux of this decision. If I limited actions or decisions that were risky to things that could end in the destruction or harm of myself or my businesses, it freed up a lot. It also meant I didn’t have to be tolerant ever because why tolerate something that will cause your downfall? So, I could be averse to things that would ruin my life and I could invite the things that wouldn’t, trying them out without the expectation that each and every one of them had to work. A lot of people talk about being willing to fail, and I think there’s so much value in that, but I don’t like that word either. We don’t fail, we just try things and sometimes they don’t work. That’s fine.

Being risk-inviting is understanding what you want and deciding to make a move. It’s being willing to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out.” It’s making room for trial and being comfortable with error, but it’s choosy. You don’t have to call all risks up and invite them to stay in your house. Consequences have to be quickly sized up and those that aren’t worth taking aren’t worth inviting on the small chance that they don’t shatter everything you’re working for. I say that with at least 90% confidence that there is another way in those cases.

So, here it is. My assessment of risk and my storied, boring past with it. As I tell the apprentices, “my way isn’t the only way and I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about everything.” If you ask them though, I’ve said I indeed know everything. Some people don’t get my jokes, but that’s ok. I invite them anyway.

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