walking the tightropeThe title of this post makes an important point. Many people feel that starting a small business is a lot like being a performer going out on a tightrope. And they are absolutely correct.

But not for the reason they might think.

Both groups of people seem like risk takers. People who go it alone. People who put it all on the line, in a situation where one slip can spell disaster. And above all, people who must learn to work comfortably far outside of their comfort zone.

In reality, all of these statements are false. Successful high-wire artists take a very different approach to their craft than you might think, and small businesses could actually learn a great deal from how they operate. Let’s break it down:

1. Replace risk with preparation. When famous tightrope walker Nik Wallenda crosses the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls on the wire, he has already made the trip over and over – on a wire just a few feet off the ground, with wind machines simulating the weather conditions. By the time he performs an actual event, he has already rehearsed it close to 100 times. (Here’s a look at one of his practices.)

In your business, your job isn’t to spit fear in the eye. It is to become really, really good at what you are doing. And for most of us, the best way to get there is to start small, be safe and comfortable, and get lots and lots of practice.

2. Always have a safety plan. High-wire artists know what their “outs” are during a performance: if something goes wrong they can slow down, stop, or in the worst case hold on to the wire until they are rescued.

In business, you need to know your “outs” as well: adequate capital, predictable launch markets, and survival plans for the normal ups and downs that any new venture experiences. If you are doing it right, starting a business should seem sober and rational, and having a job (that could get whacked at any time) should seem risky and crazy by comparison.

3. Build a great support team. Performers like Nik Wallenda need an army of support at several levels: for example, his own technical and logistics team, the television networks and locations that sponsor his events, and a cast of volunteers that can top 100 people.

Your small business is the same way. In the long term, your success pivots around the quality of your employees, your partners, your suppliers, and the customer relationships you build. And if you ask anyone who has been successfully self-employed for a long time, most if not all will tell you that their success rides more on their relationships than anything else.

Society likes to romanticize both the daring performer and the bold entrepreneur. But if you deconstruct what really happens with most successful performers AND most successful businesses, you will find lots of planning, lots of preparation, and skillful hedging against risks. So by all means approach your small business like a tightrope walker: be safe, secure and smart about what you are doing – and watch it drive your success.