Grace: Investor Karen Linder goes with her gut

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Posted: Friday, May 31, 2013 12:00 am

The first real risk involved quitting a good job, one that provided more than half of her family's household income.

The second real risk involved starting a business, one that came with no immediate benefits.

The third real risk involved quitting that flourishing business, one that got her kids through college.

Then came more risks: Writing a book. Marrying again. Sinking money into business startups that offer no upfront reward and little chance of one at all.

Karen Linder is not, obviously, afraid of risk.

What the 52-year-old fears is the opposite of risk, which she defines as paralysis. Being stuck.

This may sound strange coming from someone who spent a career looking through the lens of a microscope as a trained cytologist, a biologist who studies cells. It's work that requires caution, safety, a laserlike focus, decisiveness and certainly some smarts.

Karen Linder

Yet when it has come to life changes, Linder has gone with her gut.

So far, her gut has had the Midas touch.

The risks, in Karen Linder's case, have become rewards. Well, most of them, so far. Her investment ventures are still rather new.

Time will tell whether the business startup investments she made with her husband, Jim, a pathologist and technology innovator, will pay out.

Theirs is a high-stakes gamble.

When it comes to startups, Linder said, one to two out of 10 fail outright. Four limp along with zero growth. One to two are profitable in five years. And a blessed one out of 10 will become a superstar, offering 20 times the return of the original investment.

People such as the Linders ante up for a chance to get an idea launched. They are in it to make money, but also to help a new business owner become successful.

They are called angel investors because angels swoop in where other lenders — namely banks and family members — won't tread.

“Angel investment is a huge risk,” she said. “But you get to create something unique and innovative that doesn't exist.”

Nebraska Angels is the state's most formal group of such investors, and Karen and Jim Linder and their limited liability company, Linseed Capital, are among the 47 angels.

Linseed has invested in 18 companies, including one that has failed and one, SkyVu Entertainment, which is poised for success. SkyVu has developed a mobile gaming app that has had 25 million downloads. SkyVu has turned down an acquisition offer because the company expects more growth.

You could argue that people like the Linders putting what for them, at $25,000 or more, is small potatoes into these firms isn't all that risky. But you could also argue that life presents a series of risks to everyone. Of doors to open or keep closed.

Each choice, however mundane-seeming, is in itself a risk, because we don't ultimately know what is ahead.

Which brings us to Karen.

Here she is at age 24 with two job offers: one for a stable, predictable hospital lab job in Council Bluffs and one for a lower-paid position with the University of Nebraska Medical Center that ends after six weeks. Her brain said take the Bluffs job. Her gut said go with UNMC.

So she followed her gut. UNMC offered a job closer to her training, and she saw it as a foot in the door.

Here she is at 40, leaving that job, which had become permanent, provided vacation and sick time and higher pay than her first husband, a teacher, was earning. Everyone said she was nuts to give that up.

Here she is later that year, starting a laboratory business, Heartland Pathology. It was just her and two really expensive microscopes. She called hospitals around the country to say that she could read their Pap tests, which screen for cervical cancer. Within the year she did 30,000 tests and had hired staff.

Here she is at 50, selling Heartland Pathology. By then it had brought in enough income that Karen could pay for the college educations of her three children.

Here she is that same year, writing a book about the women of Berkshire Hathaway.

Here she is now, speaking to a roomful of women in various stages of their careers. She is talking about economics. She is talking about risk.

She tells the women about how day in and day out at UNMC she clocked in at 8 and left by 5 and spent the time in between staring down a scope, looking at the cells taken from women's cervixes, determining whether the cells were normal (most are) or not (about 10 percent), making the best scientific judgment that could save a life.

She had been doing this for 16 years. The work was predictable and safe, and she frankly loved it. Her family was used to the routine.

So when her gut rumbled that maybe things could be even better — with such a dearth of labs and such a tidal wave of Pap tests — she listened.

Heartland Pathology was born, and it did well. Running her own business brought Karen more income and more flexibility.

But after a decade, the paperwork was getting tiresome. Again, her gut rumbled. Maybe it was time to do something else. Again, Karen listened. She sold the business.

Karen immediately set to work writing “The Women of Berkshire Hathaway: Lessons from Warren Buffett's Female CEOs and Directors” (Wiley, 2012). This year, she sits on three boards.

And she's doing oil painting.

I asked her whether the cliche was true: Risk is its own reward.

She said she couldn't understand that. Risk in itself is not reward. Risk is uncomfortable. Risk is sometimes painful.

But the bigger risk, she said, is not to risk at all.

“Without risk, there is no progress.”

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