As a kid, I absolutely loved ginger beer. So one day as a 10-year-old I decided to make it myself. I found a recipe courtesy of New Zealand childhood TV legend Suzy Cato, made up the gingery-yeasty-sugary concoction and left the bottles for three days. The anticipation for trying my home-made bottle was building. And little did I know, so was the pressure inside the bottles. The first half-full bottle was opened with a half metre foamy column pouring out of the top. With some less than sound scientific knowledge, I reasoned that the full bottle would be less likely to explode. Obviously, this was completely wrong. The final bottle exploded in a torrent of foam, hitting the ceiling 3 metres above, spraying the walls, and leaving barely enough ginger beer in the bottle for a taste. A failure. A bit like this one:
It’s well known that ginger beer has a tendency to explode, but I was obliviously engaging in this risky behaviour. As a naïve 10-year old an explosion had not even crossed my mind, so I loaded up the yeast and the sugar without restraint. There were no what-if scenarios niggling me with fear. And even though it was a total failure, I learnt a lot, from the physics of pressure to the biology of yeast, to the joys of science experimentation.
In life, the fear of failure can often hold us back from trying things, but ultimately, risk-taking is the driver of innovation. None of the world’s big breakthroughs were achieved by safely sitting on the couch. In the world of entrepreneurship taking risks is just as important as it is for a child learning about the world. But for many the thought of investing personal capital, staking their reputation on an unproven idea or sacrificing a steady salary seems terrifying.
Unfortunately, we tend to exaggerate the likelihood and consequences of failure. Sure, the ginger beer exploding and coating the walls with sugar was not ideal, but it was not a total life disaster. When considering a risk, think “really, how bad is the worst case scenario?”. If it all goes wrong, could you bounce back? Chances are you could.
Even so, Leonard C. Green specified, “Entrepreneurs are not risk takers. They are calculated risk takers.” Successful entrepreneurs do not take reckless risks with a vague hope of success, betting everything on one roll of the dice. They take small steps towards their goal, so any stumbles do not totally derail their plans. With each and every one of these steps, they find ways to minimise risk. Can they make the step cheaper, faster, more effective, all to reduce the investment in this risk. Riskology even suggests a Smart Risk Equation for quantifying risk, balancing potential loss against potential reward. So sure even though glow-in-the-dark ginger beer would be cool, the risk of poison from that glowing powder is so much higher than the potential benefit. That would not be a smart risk.
The final, most important element of risk taking is learning. There is no value in taking a risk, failing, and calling it a day. Be an experimental, cyclic risk taker. A popular strategy in entrepreneurship is Act. Learn. Build. Repeat. When you act, you are taking a smart, calculated risk. A small step towards your goal. Whether it is a success of a failure, pausing to consider helps you to learn. This learning can then be built into the next step or iteration, and then the whole cycle repeated. With this strategy, improvement and progress are inevitable.
When I made ginger beer as a child, my mum’s reluctance for sugar-coated walls meant it was the first and the last time I made ginger beer. I never followed Act. Learn. Build. Repeat. This was a missed opportunity, as I would not have made the same mistakes twice. At the very least I would have opened the bottle outside! I learnt a lot from my foray into ginger beer production, but this knowledge could have exploded exponentially if I had not just left my risk as a failure, but rather, as the pinnacle in a learning cycle.
Who knows, maybe I’ll give ginger beer homebrew another go tonight. Building from my failure, 10 years on.