The place of analysis for entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs are hailed as saviours of modern society. The current international paradigm (and one which is growing ever stronger in South Africa) is biased towards the idea that career success requires one to create something new and build up something from scratch – head out on one’s own and conquer the earth.

OK, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but the start work at a large company, rise within the ranks to senior management then retire and die doesn’t have the same allure as it used to. I was discussing this with some very bright friends recently. We agreed (in our pop psychology way) that probably one of the causes of this change in attitude was the decrease in loyalty offered by large companies to its employees over the last 30 years. It might be simply a matter of survival that has created this idea that you’ve only made it once you’ve made it your own way.

So increasing numbers of engineers are heading out on their own to form small engineering consulting businesses. Even actuaries are departing the safe and comfortable world of life insurance or pensions for the wild wastelands of “entrepreneurial world-saving activities”. These are entrepreneurs with extensive theoretical training, rigourous mathematical and problem-solving abilities, and (particularly actuaries) a huge array of analysis tools and a deep-seated understanding of risk. Are these skills of benefit or hindrance to these professionals in their new-found living-on-the-edge lives?

Jawwad Farid (an actuary in Pakistan with extensive education in the States, including an MBA) takes a view on this in his blog on the new Image of the Actuary site. (The tagline for the Society of Actuaries is “Risk is Opportunity”, which I quite like as a slogan for actuaries, since we are used to using risk rather than just getting rid of it.) I get the impression that Mr Farid is not a typical actuary in his risk-taking exploits, but he does explain the twin concepts that reduce actuaries’ willingness to take risks:

  1. Possible higher risk aversity (the obvious, but not necessarily all-powerful factor)
  2. Higher opportunity cost of taking risk (more to leave behind in terms of virtually guaranteed good income)

Factor 1 comes from several possible areas. Maybe only risk averse people are attracted to studying actuarial science. Maybe only the risk averse ones make it. Maybe the very process of writing (and passing…) the exams kills off part of the soul of actuaries, leaving them nervous shells of their former beings in the process. While I’m sure these all make a contribution, there can be no question that virtually all actuaries start out as risk averse. In their career choice (at school-leaving age now, mostly) they choose to study a course that is difficult (has a high cost) but reasonably certain rewards (provided they make it). Thus, they are paying a high price to reduce risk. This is a classic definition of risk aversity. As it turns out, many probably underestimate the amount of risk involved in actually getting through the exams. Let it not be said that actuarial students don’t back themselves to meet challenges! Overestimation of one’s abilities is one of the important components of Behavioural Finance and related behavioural studies. (Interestingly, many of these studies show that the extent of overestimation of one’s abilities increases as one’s abilities increase. The frightening fact may be that as actuaries and other “experts” become more qualified, they are more susceptible to overestimating their skills.)

But all those last few paragraphs are something of a digression. The point of this blog is to pose the question: “Does analysis have a place for entrepreneurs?” If it does, then actuaries (and similarly other analytical professionals) should have an advantage, even if it is muted by the dangersr of analysis paralysis. If, on the other hand, the advantage of analysis is so slight in the face of huge uncertainty and the need for brace, gut-based decisions, then actuaries should do well to stay clear.

There is no doubt in my mind that analysis is key to success in business, but I’m an actuary after all.