Shortly after Mike Slack joined with four partners to launch Starspace46, the largest co-working facility in Oklahoma City serving the technology and entrepreneurship communities, he had an epiphany: “I didn’t appreciate being an entrepreneur was all about risk and risk-taking.”
Slack suddenly realized he was risk-adverse, certainly more so than his partners. He was married with two kids. And while his partners were seasoned entrepreneurs, this was his first time starting a business. “I couldn’t do it full time, and make this my only thing,” he says. He kept his day job as a fundraiser for non-profits.
While that worked, he realized he hadn’t explored the topic of risk with his partners deeply. After Starspace46 had been in operation for 16 months, Slack saw the partners’ different views on risk were becoming disruptive. Some of the partners wanted to pursue every opportunity - like a fundraising event that Slack considered a long-shot to succeed.
“I am a meticulous person by nature,” he says. “The high-risk takers are more innovative and visionary by nature, which is why I like to be around them.”
Their divergent views had the potential to drag the entire operation down. The risk-tolerant partners could be viewed as scattered and reckless. The risk-averse partners could easily be seen as nay-sayers. Rather than let such feelings fester, Slack and his partners addressed the issue head-on: They entered a coaching workshop to explore their risk personalities.
Now when the partners meet every Thursday evening, they employ language from the workshop that allows them to talk about opportunities and risk in a non-emotional away. Slack, for example, has a “CEO operational style thinking” that colors his view on risk. Just as important, they now have a greater understanding of the roles they can take within the partnership.
“The partner who had the idea for this runs for the show,” he says. “I’m better at financial analysis, so I can play an important role in planning and analyzing the budget and determining how it affects the strategy.”
He says understanding risk tolerance is a process of self-discovery, as well as a discovery of the partnership group itself. “Until we went through this process, we didn’t really understand what motivated each member of the group, and what got us excited or frustrated,” he says.
Armed with this insight, Slack’s partners now appreciate that when he questions some of their ideas, it’s not nay-saying as much as searching for the best possible course of action. “If we were a knight going into battle, I’m the one who would be trying to find the weakest point in the armor so it could be fixed. At the same time, I’ve learned that even if the armor isn’t perfect, we still have to go into battle at some point.”
He likens the situation to a cartoon he recently saw about the entrepreneurial journey, which begins with “uninformed optimism” and moves on to “informed pessimism” - neither of which is an ideal scenario. By working together, the partners have developed the final stage of the journey, “informed optimism.” They acknowledged the challenges, but focus on solutions and opportunities, leveraging each other’s strengths and perspectives.
He says that having partners with a wide range of risk tolerance provides a valuable check and balance, as long as they become comfortable asking each other “uncomfortable questions.” If and when Slack starts his next business, he’ll begin with what he feels he should have done this time around: Determine everyone’s personality when it comes to risk.
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