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“He Who Will Not Risk Cannot Win”

A couple of centuries later, the lessons of John Paul Jones still apply

By Gary Griffiths, CEO

iPass: WINNER Best Wi-Fi Service Provider

You may be wondering what being selected by Wi-Fi Now as the Best Wi-Fi Services Provider of the Year has to do with risk and John Paul Jones, but being an old Navy guy, I can’t help myself.  And I do like the simple logic of the military, where life can be pretty binary: “Yes sir or No sir,” (or the occasional, “I’ll find out, sir.”)  And I think businesses would benefit from less posturing, less ambiguity, and more decisiveness:  yes, no, or “I don’t know – but I’ll find out.”

But back to Admiral Jones (whose bones, incidentally, rest in Annapolis in a crypt below the US Naval Academy chapel): as a young Midshipman, I was taken by Jones’ practical advice on risk versus reward.  And while my life in general has had a lot to do with taking risks, unlike the Navy, the consequences of taking risks in business typically don’t include life or death as part of the consequences.  Today, we can only imagine the terror of the crew of Jones’ newly minted USS Ranger, facing the more heavily armed and better trained ships of the British Empire: “Well, kids, in order to beat these guys, I’m gonna try some risky stuff.  And I hope I’m right, but if I’m not, we’re all probably gonna die.”  (And the history buffs reading this may recall that when things weren’t going so well for Jones in that battle, his ship and crew alike shattered and bleeding, the commander of the British frigate asked Jones if he was ready to surrender.  To which Jones responded with the immortal words, “Surrender?  I have not yet begun to fight!”

For me, risk is what makes life interesting.  And yet in my career, I’ve encountered so many who consider risk a four-letter word.  People who are afraid to put their name by a decision that may turn out poorly.  Who, instead of a simple yes or no, would vote “present.”  Or would take extraordinary steps not to have to make a controversial decision that involves risk: “While I tend to agree with you, I think we have to study this issue in greater detail.” Theodore Roosevelt had some words for them: They are “Those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

So we’ve taken a lot of risks in the past eighteen months at iPass.  We certainly haven’t won yet, but nobody’s died, either.  We risked by dramatically reducing the size of our staff, parting with decades of institutional knowledge in the quest to reduce operating expenses and streamline and flatten our organization – and with that our decision making processes.  Against the conventional wisdom, we broke ranks with the past of pay-per-use services and introduced unlimited Wi-Fi usage.  And if that wasn’t putting enough risk on the cost side of our business, we began negotiations with our network suppliers that promised them a guaranteed price for annual capacity, whether we used this capacity or not.  And we took some major risks on the product side, promising an application that would be invisible – that would keep you connected to Wi-Fi without you having to manually find and connect to an iPass hotspot.   We promised that our technology will eventually manage your connectivity between Wi-Fi and cellular – or any new connectivity media as they emerge.  And since we couldn’t wait for all of this new code to be written by our engineering team, we took the risk of partnering with our sometimes competitor Devicescape, who was ahead of us in the Wi-Fi discovery and curation technology we knew we’d need to realize our lofty vision.  So how are we doing?  So far, so good.  We’ve promised our investors the first growth year in a decade, and also that we’d stop burning cash.  And if you don’t think that’s a risky bet, you haven’t been spending much time with Wall Street.

But back to the point, we actually do have a win to attribute to our risks.  Today we were recognized by our industry peers as the Wi-Fi Services Provider of the Year, selected by an independent panel of award judges.  We are grateful, honored, flattered, and humbled by this recognition.  And I am certain that had we not made some bold moves, and taken some risks, we’d again be sitting obscurely in the audience, clapping, while one of our colleague, award in hand, was taking the bows on stage. Eighteen months from now, I’m sure when we look back we’ll reflect on all the new risks we’ve taken between now and then.  There will be some wins, but losses as well, for loss is inherent with risk.   But we hope more of the former than the latter.  Because in the end, it’s all about risk: risk taken with as much information as possible within the allotted time.

I’ll close with another naval hero, Captain James Lawrence.  Lawrence may not be a household name, but I’m sure you’re familiar with his dying words, “Fight her till she sinks, and don’t give up the ship.”  So while I can’t promise you which risks we’ll win and which we’ll lose, I can assure you that we won’t give up this ship.