What’s the right amount of risk for investing to grow?

That’s the question at the heart of “The Liquid Economy,” a feature article in this issue that examines the dilemma faced by folks in the pool and spa industry, and businesspeople in general. With the economy much improved from this time last year, business owners are trying to address increased consumer demand without overextending themselves in case the boom is short-lived. So many in the pool and spa industry are stretching every dollar, and every employee, to meet the new demand.

After several years of declining industry revenues, dealing with an increase in customers is a nice problem to have, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. The last thing you want to do after landing a new customer is deliver bad service because you are short-staffed, under-equipped or technologically behind the times.

Businesses and consumers alike are concerned about getting stung by another bubble. A new pool or spa is a luxury item and people ordering up new ones often are just as nervous as the industry people building and servicing them. Both sides are taking risks, and it’s this kind of daring that has always been at the core of our economy.

The key is to take the right risks, to invest and not just spend. Getting ahead requires getting up every day and preparing for a better future while dealing realistically with the challenges of the present. No one ever went broke holding onto every dime, but no one ever enjoyed financial and personal success without taking some risk.

Last month, my wife and I dropped our second son at college for his freshman year, which means we now have two tuitions to pay. It’s a high price tag for two degrees, but we are betting that higher education will give our boys fuller lives, and improve their chances of supporting us in our old age.

I don’t own a small business, but my wife does. I have been constantly impressed with her ability to manage costs and investments. She wisely updates her computers on a regular basis — even if it means some debt — because she knows technology is key to serving her customers. She has also always given her employees annual raises, even in the toughest times. She figures that it’s harder to find a good staffer than to keep one, and so far she’s been right.

Building and maintaining a business — especially a small business — through good markets and bad ones requires hard work, optimism rooted in reality and a little good luck.

No one knows whether today’s slowly warming economy will chug along at a steady pace or heat up into an unsustainable bubble. But one thing is certain: The heroes of a brightening business environment will be those who watch their costs but don’t slam shut their checkbooks, and are willing to take the right risks to serve their customers.