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Invest in a new venture

How to decide…
Published: 
Thursday, November 27, 2014

To do, or not to do; that is the question. Business leaders get paid big bucks to make smart, informed decisions about whether or not to take the plunge on a potential venture, yet there is no science or advice anyone can offer that will help new entrepreneurs to make similar choices.

Such decisions could never be programmed into a computer. It’s more like sitting on a jury: All reasonable doubt must be removed before you can pass a verdict one way or the other. (Thankfully, though, corporate decisions seldom involve matters of life and death!) That said, I have found that a few general rules often help me to arrive at a decision within the appropriate timeframe about whether to approve a project.

For me, first impressions always matter a great deal, but I don’t let that thought process influence my decision-making when it comes to business matters. I’ve learned that even when an idea immediately strikes you as a really good one, you must push aside that first reaction and carefully and objectively weigh the potential new business’s pros and cons. If no significant cons come to mind when you first evaluate an idea, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Almost every startup encounters unforeseen problems, so be sure to devote a lot of time to figuring out what they are and assessing solutions before you move forward; if you learn of a major problem after the launch, you’ll be in a much worse position to deal with it.

This kind of caution becomes doubly important if everyone on your team is unanimously in favor of going ahead with a project. No idea is perfect, so be on your guard and work hard at exposing the hidden problem areas. 

Find and address them, and you’ll only build a better business. Avoid making a decision in isolation about whether to launch a venture: You must also consider how the project will affect the overall functioning of your company. Every choice you make as an entrepreneur will impact, to some degree, your ability to explore future opportunities; this is what the experts call the “decision stream.”

You might feel that the venture you’re considering might be too good to pass up, but you have to keep in mind how it will affect your other projects down the road. If it appears that now is not be the best time to move forward, consider what risks, if any, there would be in putting the venture on hold for an agreed-upon length of time. In those situations where you cannot take on a project because another is waiting in the wings, think about why one should get the nod and the other not, and what that says about your priorities.

Finally, do everything you can to limit your exposure to risk; protect the downside. Wise investors go to great lengths to limit their potential losses when it comes to stock portfolios, and you should employ a similar strategy when setting up a new business.

For example, when I was starting up Virgin Atlantic, the only way I got my business partners at Virgin Records to begrudgingly accept the risks involved in running a new airline was by getting Boeing to agree to buy back our 747 airliner after a year if things didn’t work out as we’d hoped. Ever since then, whenever we are looking into starting up a giant, capital-intensive venture like Virgin Galactic or our upcoming Virgin Cruises, our team always spends a lot of time finding inventive ways to protect the downside.

These are just a few tips that I have used to help me make smart business decisions, and I hope that they will help you too. A final hint: If you have the time to take an approach that involves orchestrated procrastination, then do so. Doing more homework on a project is seldom a bad thing; as long as you don’t let the opportunity pass you by!

(This column was adapted from Richard Branson’s latest book, “The Virgin Way.” For more information, go to virgin.com/richardbranson/books.)

(Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson. To learn more about the Virgin Group: www.virgin.com.)

(Questions from readers will be answered in future columns. Please send them to RichardBranson@nytimes.com. Please include your name, country, e-mail address and the name of the Web site or publication where you read the column.)

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