Adam Sellke has been around the entrepreneurial block before, having started multiple tech companies and — more importantly — seen some through. His current and most ambitious pursuit is Evolve, a social gaming platform with roots dating as far back as 2006.
Over time, through trial and tribulation, Sellke has lead Evolve through funding milestones driven by a mix of traction and tenacity. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, or perhaps risk, he’s recently teamed up on a more experimental project called *Slinger.
When asked about a theme that personally resonates with your own entrepreneurial experiences so far, you chose ‘risk’. Why?
“Risk” seems to be a frequent topic of interest amongst curious onlookers and aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s also an interesting variable on the investment side of startups.
What does risk mean to you and what are some risks you’ve taken as a tech entrepreneur?
I guess I’m somewhat philosophical about it. I see risk is a baseline condition of entrepreneurship. It’s always there. The entrepreneur’s ability to deal with this condition is closely related to their ability to overcome fear. I believe that the better an entrepreneur works through fear, the better positioned they are to work through risk.
Every venture starts with 100% risk of failing. If you don’t take the next step, you’re guaranteed to fail. So entrepreneurship is about taking the next step and being smart about how you do it. It’s risk management.
As an entrepreneur, I think it’s your job to manage risk, not to avoid it (but also not to seek it). Too much risk avoidance doesn’t move ventures forward fast enough. Most importantly, avoidance keeps companies from being innovative and disruptive. Conversely, risk seeking behavior may mean you’re fearless, but it might also mean you are being reckless with your business. I’m always amazed when I meet tech investors who don’t appreciate—or have forgotten–the role risk plays in creating real value in companies.
I’ve started four companies over the past 12 years. I have had two modest, but successful exits. Through those experiences, I’ve taken thousands of little risks and a few big ones. There have been times when my mortgage has been on the line. Not fun, but during those times there was a belief that we could always pick up the pieces and start over. That my family and I wouldn’t go hungry. That we’d work it out. Self-reliance and self-worth, along with incredible spousal support, have allowed me to accept risks more readily than some might. It goes back to overcoming fear.
What have been some learned lessons so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
The more I’ve done this, the more I’ve learned to treat risk as a managerial exercise—as a discipline. I’ve also realized that most of the large corporations I’ve worked for in the past have chosen an avoidance stance on risk, which has contributed to some of my frustration with those environments. That realization has helped me determine that the entrepreneurial path is the right one for me.
As an entrepreneur, how do you personally cope with uncertainty in the face of risk?
Acceptance, prioritization and focus. I understand that it’s impossible to eliminate risk, so I try to figure out which risks are big and which are small. Which risks need to be overcome (and viewed as opportunities) before we can make it to the next level and which ones are ok to leave alone for now.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs regarding the concept of risk?
Know yourself and your team. If you have certain thresholds or limits, try to identify them up front and respect those boundaries. If you can’t accept the down-side of a risk, don’t take it. Otherwise, risk is just part of the job.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Once you’ve given up on the notion that you can avoid, much less eliminate risk, you need to ask yourself one more question: Are you a wolf or a wildebeest?
Wolves believe that they (and their pack) can survive the long winter in the harsh wilderness through cunning, tenacity and speed. Wolves have the risk management mindset to be an entrepreneur. Wildebeests manage risk by seeking safety in numbers and only worry about not being the slowest one in the herd. If that’s you, then entrepreneurialism probably might not be your thing.