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There's Risk Involved

Can risking your life on a mountainside make you a better entrepreneur?

Jason Niedle went to Mount Kilimanjaro in search of adventure. He found a rainbow of experience ranging from inspiration to exhaustion.

Hiking through the African rain forest to approach the sides of the dormant Tanzanian volcano was "really beautiful," recalls the 31-year-old Anaheim, California, entrepreneur. That changed after they began the high-altitude part of the ascent to the 19,340-foot peak. "It was a brutal grind," says Niedle, co-owner of 15-person Printmedia, a printing company. "I'd take a step and breathe and take the next step and breathe. After a couple of hours of that, I was ready to give up."

Niedle is far from the first entrepreneur to take on risk-taking activities away from work. British superentrepreneur Richard Branson first gained fame when a 1985 attempt to cross the Atlantic by boat resulted in shipwreck and near-disaster. He's since gone on to hot-air ballooning and other risky stunts.

Less famous entrepreneurs also enjoy a taste of danger. Mike Belitz, owner of two audio-related businesses in El Segundo, California, climbed Kilimanjaro along with Niedle and also likes to hang-glide, skydive and fly stunt planes.

Belitz, 34, feels there's a close connection between entrepreneurship and risky hobbies. "Entrepreneurs are typically risk-takers," he says. "I think we like to see if we can overcome challenges." Now that Belitz's two companies, Sonic Sales Inc. and eBlitz Audio Labs, have grown enough to employ 12, he looks to sports for his risk. "It keeps me interested," he says. "If all I did was show up at the office, I would die a pretty quick death."

Frank McKinney, a Boynton Beach, Florida, home-builder and occasional motorcycle racer, agrees that the thrill of risking his life on wheels is related to his business activities. "I get the same rush in what I do-building large houses on speculation without a buyer," says McKinney, 39, who employs six at Frank McKinney & Co. and is also the author of Make It Big! (Wiley). The book reveals his philosophies about success, one of which is to engage in risky activities to "exercise the risk threshold like a muscle." McKinney says, "Eventually it will become stronger and able to withstand greater pressure."

Not everybody buys the idea that risk produces beneficial effects. Andrew Zacharakis, a professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, says studies have shown managers and entrepreneurs have similar tolerances for risk. He also warns that lenders and investors may be less likely to fund a venture when you engage in overly risky extracurricular activities. "Investors like to see calculated risks," he says. "That means minimizing all the risk you can."

Carl Hiebert is also skeptical. In 1981, the Waterloo, Ontario, motivational speaker was in a hang-gliding accident that left him a paraplegic. A few years later, still in a wheelchair, Hiebert piloted the first ultralight aircraft to fly across Canada. Nowadays Hiebert makes a living talking to business audiences about risk. But he doesn't wholeheartedly endorse it.

The risks he took, Hiebert says, were calculated ones, in which he did everything possible to reduce the danger. "Risk-taking to me should be an extremely prudent exercise," he says, adding, "If the only way you can feel alive is to push yourself close to death, then I think something's wrong."

Compulsive risk-takers should ask themselves whether they're engaging in daredevil activities instead of more important emotional or spiritual risks, according to Hiebert. "Sometimes," he says, "we get involved in physical risk to avoid taking on the real risk."

For Niedle, Mount Kilimanjaro turned out to be a turning point in more ways than one. Near the top, he was ready to give up, but pushed himself on to complete the climb. And on the peak, he said, he felt the lifting of the burden of a past business mistake that had dogged him for years. He'd bought a business, he explains, that turned out to be less than it was advertised and failed, leaving him with a mountain of debt and lawsuits.

"I felt if I could get to the top of this mountain, I could release the mental burdens and look beyond the mountain and get on with my life," Niedle says. "And now I feel good. I feel great. And this business is going well."

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This article was originally published in the February 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: There's Risk Involved.

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