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Danger can create opportunities

We know that taking risks and embracing change are instrumental to career success, but what happens if your company is risk-taking as well? In my experience, a high-growth business is an exciting place to be – a little danger creates opportunities and drives outcomes – but what’s it like leading one, and as a female CEO at that?

Diversifying across everything from career path to professional network, Dr. Alex Birrell leads fast-paced tech start-up PAFtec, manufacturing and exporting CleanSpace respirators. A respected business colleague, she’s an easy woman to admire. Birrell’s achievements as CEO demonstrate that high-growth businesses and calculated risks can deliver big results: just two years after launch, PAFtec’s product was in 20 countries.

Five years in, Birrell confides over coffee that successfully managing that level of growth meant taking the leap, but also mitigating the risk.

“It’s constantly that balance, all the way through the value chain,” she says. “The business is incredibly agile: it’s responsive, fast and furious. If you want to try something, you do, and it happens the next day. It’s such an amazing experience.”

Nonetheless, there’s no blueprint when you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. You don’t have the wisdom of a decade of stable sales or reliable customers or even the safety of known errors – and that’s very challenging.

“There’s a lot of fear,” Birrell concedes. “You could always be making a mistake or putting yourself onto some extraordinary uplift in sales. It’s really hard to know which one it is until you do it.”

High growth businesses succeed when risk is understood and approached as an asset; what I like about Birrell’s perspective is her knowledge that managing that element of chance is both exciting and essential.

“You take more managed risks and opportunities and just go out there,” she says. “If it doesn’t work, you pull it back quickly, or you tweak it and get it right and go for it again.”

It’s a classic fast-fail, a high-growth business strategy built on finding value in failure. High-growth businesses fail for all sorts of reasons, including market changes, a flawed business model, pricing, competitive pressure and lack of capital. But if you assume there’s a failure rate, the best serial entrepreneurs bounce back by jumping into a different business bringing everything they’re learned.

This Silicon Valley-style model makes such entrepreneurs extremely bankable second time around, because they’ve been taught so much in the burn. Ironically, one benefit is learning how to de-risk.

“You have to de-risk your business by getting good advisors, whether in accounting, legal or financial,” agrees Birrell. “Then there’s the team, the board, shareholders and investors. Keep the information flowing, get their input where you can. You need that support all the time.”

Good decision-making is the crux of high-growth leadership – every senior executive knows that CEOs need intuition and information to be effective.  

“Intuition allows you to be more agile in decision-making,” Birrell says, “but equally you need to be open to the information at hand and quite aggressive about trying to get that information quickly.”

Having the confidence to voice uncertainty can be crucial in a volatile landscape. When you hear the phrase ‘high-growth company,’ you might picture cowboys at the frontier swaggering into a saloon, but in reality, transparency and pragmatism is key.

Birrell explains, “As CEO, I like having a really clear idea [about] our projects. I want to know the good stuff as well as the risky stuff. I like the transparency.”

Investors in angel investment, private equity and venture capital all need to know what’s really going on. They don’t want to hear ‘everything is awesome’ only to get an unwelcome surprise down the line.

PAFtec’s CEO is equally unequivocal on this point: “No one likes a surprise in business.”