Game of Risk

Peering Over Cliffs

If you're the parent of a 12-year-old boy and you haven't taught him about risk, chances are Todd McFarlane already has. The comic book artist, known primarily for the Spawn series, has created an entertainment empire that features many risk-loving superheroes. So it's not surprising that when you ask McFarlane about the risk, he comes up with some nice visuals.

An entrepreneur, he says, needs to take a leap of faith every once in a while: "The average person will tippy-toe up to a cliff, look over and see that it's a 200-foot drop. They'll see that there are mattresses down there, but they'll ask all these questions, and maybe if you talk to them long enough, they'll make the jump-if they have three parachutes on their backs.

"The entrepreneur, when he sees a cliff, actually gets back 50 feet so he can get a running start. He flies over the cliff, and about half way down, then he'll ask the question: 'Oooh, I wonder if there's anything to land on.' Fear of failure is the least of [an entrepreneur's] concerns because we're motivated by potential, by something else we think we're going to get."

"Fear of failure is the least of [an entrepreneur's] concerns because we're motivated by potential."

McFarlane, 41, knows what he's talking about. His first serious risk began with his decision to walk away from a job that made him the country's best-paid comic book artist, drawing Spider-Man for Marvel Comics. He left in 1991 to create his own comic book series-Spawn, which went on to gross $85 million as a feature film in 1997. The Spawn series-and 35 other comic book titles-have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide since 1992.

McFarlane is CEO of Todd McFarlane Productions, parent company of Todd McFarlane Toys, Todd McFarlane Entertainment (film and video), and McFarlane Design Group (photos and designs). And while McFarlane won't discuss hard numbers, his businesses reportedly bring in an annual $50 million. McFarlane, meanwhile, is said to be worth $130 million, which means he can make his own fantasies come true: In 1998, he spent $2.7 million to purchase Mark McGwire's 70th home-run baseball.

But none of this would have happened without taking what many entrepreneurs might consider a big risk. Todd McFarlane Productions-which staffs around 120 people and is based in Phoenix-has never relied on market research in creating their toys and comic books. McFarlane just relies on his gut.

"I've done some marketing and focus groups through Hollywood and [with] other companies, and I hate to say it, but I thought most of it was a waste of time," says McFarlane, "because what ended up coming out of most of it was common sense. For all the time and energy and resources you have to put into it to grasp the three or four nuggets that you can use, I'd rather go to the school of hard knocks. I know who my audience is, because for the longest time, I was the audience. So most of what I make, I say, 'What would I personally want?'" And though McFarlane admits that he doesn't succeed every time, "you apply what you learn to the future," he says.

Get in the mood for risky business with these articles:

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the April 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Game of Risk.

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