In his fourth article on modern woodworking, Anselm Fraser, principal.of the Chippendale school, looks at taking risks.
“The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
Or so says Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook which is one of the world’s most successful and influential companies.
Or to put it another way: nothing ventured, nothing gained – an adage that has been around since the 14th century. It’s all about balancing risk and reward.
That balance is a philosophy that I endorse. When I told friends and family over 30 years ago that I was going to open a furniture design school, everyone told me I was mad. That it was too risky a venture.
Well, maybe they were right, but what if I’d taken their advice? Would the intervening years have been as happy and fulfilled as they have been? I doubt it, and I’d have spent the last 30 years filled with regret.
The simple fact is that we need to take risks. It’s in the human genome to throw a bit of caution to the wind. Without risk there can’t be progress, and without progress there is rarely success.
That goes for every furniture designer and cabinetmaker trying to make a living from their passion for woodworking. Who doesn’t dare, doesn’t win.
I see a lot of woodworkers who have learned core skills and, in everything they then do, simply keep to those skills – making simple unpretentious furniture that will sometimes sell, and sometimes not sell.
Their great mistake is to think that a comfort zone is a good place to be. It isn’t because, in business, there are no safe places. Think Aeschylus, the ancient Athenian playwright, who was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. For Aeschylus, and for any business, comfort zones can be anything but safe.
But I also see other woodworkers who recognise that staying still is a recipe for going nowhere. These are the woodworkers who keep learning new skills, and keep applying those skills in new and imaginative ways.
More often than not, those same people have the best websites, the most enticing marketing materials – and an edgy philosophy that accepts that the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
However, what successful entrepreneurs do is first define the risk and then actively manage it, following the advice of the Ugandan poet Ignatius Hosiana. “Adversity is best mitigated by business diversity.” Or, in simple English: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
That, to me, sums up the intelligent way to take a risk. Don’t risk your entire business on one wacky idea. Test the market, see if it works.
If you don’t have the particular woodworking stills to turn your idea into a reality, first learn those skills and then practice, practice, practice until you’re more than competent. Don’t rush into things.
Risk is also about defining the upside and downside. What does success look like? It’s about knowing when your risk may be about to pay dividends, or knowing when to cut your losses.
Taking a risk is also about risking failure, and successful entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of that. When I started the Chippendale school I frankly didn’t know if it would succeed or not. But I was prepared to take the risk, because the risks seemed manageable and the rewards, in terms of a fulfilled career, would be greater.
It’s sometimes said about successful business owners that good fortune has smiled on them. That their success is all down to luck, or to have been in the right place at the right time.
In my experience, that’s rarely the case. Success comes to those to take risks, practice their skills, learn new skills, and are persistent. As the legendary golfer Gary Player said: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
That ethos applies equally to the professional woodworker or the keen hobbyist. Persistence and practice, coupled with knowing when to take risks, equals success.
Lastly, a quote from the American author John Shedd. “A ship in the harbour is safe. But that’s not what ships were made for.”
It’s not what woodworkers were made for either.