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How To Launch a Business While Minimizing Risk

There are no guarantees in business, but take these steps to set yourself up for success.

This story appears in the March 2019 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Q: Before I launch my business, how can I set myself up for success while limiting risk? -- Jack, Portland, Oreg. 

If you obsess about making sure your business won’t fail -- rather than figuring out how to make it succeed -- your focus will be in the wrong place. Fear doesn’t get you far in entrepreneurship, so it’s best that you keep your eyes on the prize.

Federico Gastaldi

Still, you can plan to limit downside. That begins by following the first rule of business: Understand your audience. Some researchers believe that more than 20 different factors -- from time of day and culture to self-perception and mood -- can influence buying behavior. Maybe that’s true, but don’t drive yourself crazy trying to track it all. You don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to sell a product or service. However, you do need to understand the personality of your target buyer. Who are they? How does your company help them? How much money do they make? What trends influence them? What do they read, watch, or listen to on a daily basis?

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Invest in finding the answers to these questions. You may learn them through focus groups or surveys, by buying market research, or by other means. It’s an investment you want to make.

After that, connect with those customers. I’ve done this a lot in the past few years, as I’ve helped launch three separate entities -- an annual event, a consulting business, and, more recently, a wellness brand. I’ll share a lesson from each.

First, you need to develop your story. When we started our annual entrepreneurial event, two12, we felt like we were the 872nd company to put on a business conference. How could we stand out? Our solution was to focus on solving the problems we saw in the space. We wanted to provide catered guidance and advice for attendees, the ability to meet face-to-face with the speakers, a personalized agenda, and no ticket upsells. Then we translated those solutions into a brand story -- talking about how we’d eliminate the gap between where attendees are and where they want to be in business -- and built the infrastructure to deliver on that promise. We sell out every year.

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Next, focus on executing and learning. I see this at the wellness brand Ladder, where CMO Jack Gray often talks about the danger of any business seeking perfection. When you launch, he says, you don’t need a plan to become a billion-dollar company. You only need a plan to be successful for today, tomorrow, and the near future. The point is to stay alive long enough to iterate.

Finally, set clear financial goals. Every company starts with an amount of money it can afford to lose before it goes belly-­­up, so always be mindful of that number. When you’re disciplined about your spending, you’re forced to challenge your assumptions about success. That’s ultimately a good thing. 

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For example, when I launched Pen Name Consulting, I made the decision to not invest in a website. I just didn’t have the budget. Instead, I invested in the team and the services that would make us a disruptive growth agency. The result: We worked with clients such as Microsoft, Equinox, and Dollar Shave Club before we ever had an online footprint. Eventually, we’d need to play catch-up. (We have a site now!) But forgoing a website helped us keep the lights on and pay our employees, and that’s what mattered most. 

All of this boils down to one primary goal: Do what you can to see another day. When those days start adding up, it usually means that your business is growing, succeeding, and headed in the right direction.

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