It Takes Guts To Start A Company–So How Do You Get ‘Em?

If the world were full of passionate, brilliant people with no guts, there would be no progress. Luckily, guts are something even the naturally timid can grow.

It Takes Guts To Start A Company–So How Do You Get ‘Em?

It takes guts to act, accept a risk, and to try something new. If the world were full of passionate and purposeful people with brilliant minds, but no guts to act, there would be no progress.


The guts trait can be subdivided in several different ways. One is the divide between risk takers and risk tolerators. Risk takers derive excitement and engagement from being in a situation laden with meaningful uncertainty. Many of the entrepreneurs we have spoken to refer to the dramatic emotional shifts of their “high-amplitude” lives (they love it that way, too). Bungee jumpers, cliff divers, and other adrenaline junkies are extreme examples of guts-dominant people.

Risk tolerators do not necessarily seek risk, yet willingly pursue their goals by understanding and accepting and managing the risks inherent in a given decision. The guts-oriented professionals we spoke to, such as doctor and former astronaut Scott Parazynski, are risk tolerators. The common correlation between astronauts, entrepreneurs, and high-performance athletes, Parazynski told us, is one of understanding and assessing the risks at hand and learning how best to mitigate them. These risk-tolerant individuals confront fear not with the risk-seeker’s defiant smile but with thoughtful training, management, and self-awareness techniques.

What makes for a gutsy person?

The willingness to take risks is born of a combination of elements. Your personality, your experiences, your “training” to deal with risk, and your support network all factor into your readiness to accept and embrace the risks that entrepreneurship requires.

External factors aside, some individuals are quite simply more risk-hungry than others. While you cannot choose what degree of guts you’re born with, it can help to know if you’re naturally fearless, genetically risk averse, or somewhere in between.

In the course of screening businesses in our day jobs as venture capitalists and advisers, we are principally screening people and their propensities for being strong business-builders. A big part of that is whether we feel that there is a natural fire in the belly, a desire to make something happen, and a need to share in that risk.


Risk tolerance is not an immutable quality. By placing themselves in certain targeted environments, business-builders can train themselves to be smarter or more comfortable with risk taking.

Business-building is a journey. The more miles you travel and the greater the number of critical decisions that accompany that journey, the greater your comfort will be with risk. A large acquisition or sale that was fear-inducing the first time around eventually becomes almost second nature. Those who have the opportunity to manage through a crisis, a challenging post-merger integration, or a reset or turnaround of a business gain invaluable perspective. The greater your experience, the more comfortable you will become with endeavors that people on the outside perceive as high-risk.

Practice leads to risk reduction. The training of commercial air pilots, NASA’s training program, the risk-mitigation strategies and programs that large corporations adopt–how can some of these training practices be applied to smaller, faster-growing businesses?

As an entrepreneur, you will likely have to deal with the management equivalent of at least one failed space shuttle booster rocket. Astronauts train for years to handle this and other emergencies. How are they trained to handle go/no-go scenarios? How much is physical? How much is mental?

Very often, the perceived risk of a situation outweighs the actual risk, leading to irrational behavior. We have often counseled young, highly risk-averse business school graduates about starting new ventures. We often ask: What do you believe is your worst-case scenario? If you attempt to launch your startup for two years and it fails, can you still secure the more conservative consulting, brand management, or banking job you’re now considering?


Typically, the answer was yes. Thus, the ability to pursue a risk-filled endeavor becomes more palatable when graduates understand both the shelf life of the credibility of their degrees and the logical flaw in thinking that their second choice will disappear if they pursue their first choice.

How to Initiate, Endure, and Evolve

  • Guts give business-builders the courage to make things happen, stick with it, and remain confident against all odds.
  • Guts-driven entrepreneurs aren’t fearless; they just know how to cope with, and maybe even thrive in, uncomfortable environments.
  • It takes guts to start something. The guts to initiate empowers us to take a leap of faith despite an uncertain future.
  • The guts to endure lets us recognize that failure is not an option but rather a reality. It’s about remaining strong and resolute: persevering in the short-term to realize our longer-term goals.
  • A good business-builder has the self awareness and readiness to pivot, evolve, or reset. The guts to evolve gives us the ability to enact change within ourselves, unleashing our inner potential to lead through natural business inflection points and thresholds.
  • Successful companies are vigilant, taking few breaks to rest or exhale. Inevitable trials and tribulations are part of the business-building growth cycle, and it is guts more than any other trait that keeps the fight going and provides the courage to take action and adapt as necessary along the way.
  • Ultimately, the great paradox for the guts-driven business-builder is the tightrope balance between refusing to accept failure and simultaneously embracing it when it appears. It is a perennial reflection on where to hold steadfast and where to adjust–an inner push-pull tension between conviction and humility. Awareness of this helps carry the day forward.

Adapted with permission from Harvard Business Review Press, from Hearts, Smart, Guts, and Luck by Anthony K. Tjan, Richard J. Harrington, Tsun-Yan Hsieh. Copyright 2012 Tjan, Harrington, Hsieh; all rights reserved.

[Image: Flickr user Listentothemountains]