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The Secret Upside to Fear

Don't let fear make your decisions. Find out how to ease your worries, and boost your business to new heights.

It's late at night, and you're minding your own business by working on your business. Suddenly a creepy thought invades your head: This would be the perfect moment for a homicidal psychopath to burst into your office and attack. Suddenly you're wondering if you should be bolting the door or hiding your paper shredder.

Relax and stop watching horror films. After all, there are so many other frightening and more realistic scenarios that can destroy you or your business. For instance:

  • You might fail to meet payroll.
  • Perhaps being audited will set your financial life backward 10 years.
  • Maybe the squeeze of high gas prices will suffocate your business into bankruptcy.
  • What if you made a lousy decision with your inventory?
  • What if you offended your customer base?
  • Maybe you've mistaken complacency for efficiency, and you don't know it, but your best days as an entrepreneur are behind you.

If we're honest with ourselves, fear is a powerful component of business. An underlying trepidation is invested in almost every business decision we make. Reading this article can't make business fear go away, but it doesn't hurt to take a look at the monsters under the bed and see how they affect entrepreneurs.

Breathe deeply: Fear is natural
"[Fear is] a natural byproduct of our ancestry--one of those innate fight or flight mechanics of survival," says John Baker, an Eden Prairie, Minnesota, management and leadership consultant who routinely advises Fortune 25 companies. "Today it's less life threatening, but it's out there in every aspect of business that we do."

You may already have come to terms with that and know that whatever your fears in business, they're unlikely to paralyze your decision making for a longer period of time than you can afford. Or you may be too busy to worry about your fears and whether they're affecting your thinking. But even if you wake up every morning in a cold sweat, wondering whether today's the day you'll screw up and see your business collapse like a house of cards, you shouldn't feel as though your business instincts aren't as good as anyone else's, at least according to Baker.

"People are under the assumption that the secret of conquering fear is that they feel no fear, but that's not the secret," he says. "The secret is being able to do something with the fear."

Mike Brey, owner of HobbyWorks, a chain of stores in the Washington, DC, area, agrees. Early in his business, Brey learned that his bookkeeper was embezzling funds. He later had an ex-employee leave to start a competing business--but not before recruiting several of his staff members. For a long time afterward, Brey was afraid that anyone he hired or worked with would soon betray him. It was a fear that was probably justified. In any case, Brey thinks that fear is natural and pervasive among all entrepreneurs.

"Fear can be a way of telling you something," Brey says. "Even now that I'm older and not in danger of going out of business, I don't think I'm different from any entrepreneur."

Wipe off the sweaty palms: Face your fears
Kelly Coyne and co-founder Erin Fouberg, both 38, own Maggie Delaney, a custom children's clothing company that lets customers design their kids' clothes on an interactive design website. Last year, when they learned that Country Living magazine would feature Maggie Delaney in a Pitch Your Product contest, Coyne says the two were ecstatic. But the excitement quickly gave way to fear.

"Would production be able to handle the influx of national business? Would our website crash and burn? Did we really want our home-grown business to explode, or were we happy with our comfortable, manageable work-life balance? Needless to say, we froze," Coyne says.

Coyne and Fouberg actually pulled back on their marketing.

"We declined participation in events that would have provided exposure and income because we were nervous that we would not be able to handle the combination of these events and the magazine-related business. We were waiting to see the impact of the Country Living press."

Then that magical day happened. The national press led to new customers, but otherwise . . . nothing. Their website didn't crash. Production didn't stop. Life went on and, suddenly, Coyle and Fouberg wondered what might have happened had they spent months preparing and welcoming the upcoming press instead of fearing what it might bring.

"We haven't made that mistake again," Coyne says. "We now embrace rather than run from our successes."

Relax your mind: Worry about you, not others
Jeff Tobe, the president of Infinite Speakers Agency, says his biggest fear so far was the time he had to fire an employee who had been with him for a year.

"I knew within the first two months that she was not the right one for the position," Tobe says. "I tried everything from outside coaching to changing her responsibilities, and nothing seemed to work."

Then everything came to a head just before the Christmas holidays. Yet Tobe couldn't bring himself to fire his employee at that time of year.

"I had come to the end of my rope but still played with the idea of sticking it out another two months to get through the holiday season," he says. "I lost a lot of sleep over it, and December 20, she entered my office and quit!"

Tobe says the experience taught him a valuable lesson--that most employees know what the situation is and that avoiding dealing with the fear doesn't mean the issue will go away.

"You are actually doing them a favor by letting them go and allowing them to pursue another opportunity," concludes Tobe, who adds that he has conquered his fear of firing. These days, if Tobe needs to prune his staff, he says he can do what needs to be done.

Matt Blumberg, CEO and founder of Return Path, a New York City-based e-mail performance management company, had a similar experience. Except in his case, he was trying to talk a CTO who wanted to quit into staying.

Afraid his financing would be destroyed if the CTO left, "the result was an even more difficult situation going forward, with a disengaged senior manager who believed--correctly--that he wielded great power over me. I'd never do that again."

Your white knuckles aren't important--your company is
If there's a theme to entrepreneurs who succeed despite fear, it's this: Focus on your company, not your fears. If you do what's right for your company, and you turn out to be right, your fears will probably be blown to oblivion.

Penny Sansevieri, owner of book publicity firm Author Marketing Experts, has been sued by a contractor and bullied by authors and publishers. Though Sansevieri could stand the discomfort of having a high-profile author intimidate her, she realized the real risk when it started affecting her staff.

"When it started to affect our staff, I'd pull the plug. I'm very protective of my team," Sansevieri says.

Still, if you can't quite close your eyes and punt in the best interest of your company, you'd do well to consider the advice of consultant Starla Sireno, who founded Fearlessness Inc., a coaching program that helps with the emotional aspects of business building. Here are four steps she advises fear-paralyzed clients to take when trying to summon up the courage to make a hard decision:

  1. Accept that you're afraid. This is the first step to overcoming fear.
  2. Write your fears down. According to Sireno, this brings clarity to the issue.
  3. Shift your focus. Instead of focusing on getting through a shaky economy, or summoning up the nerve to fire a toxic employee, ask yourself what you're ultimately trying to achieve, Sireno suggests.

    "If you're worried about money and the recession, and that's your fixation instead of your business, your actions are going to follow that," Sireno says.

    So envision your business's future-- not how the economy's doing or how your temperamental employee will react--and you'll guide your business toward success.
  4. Take action. As the saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. According to Sireno, "The biggest enemy of fear is action."

Also consider talking about your fears with trusted employees or colleagues.

"It can be therapeutic," says Chris Lyman, CEO of Fonality, a telecommunications company aimed at servicing small and medium businesses' telephone needs. "You need to get that stuff out on the table, or you just carry it with you."

He adds that he's never "opened up and had the situation worsen. I can think of times when I was too stalwart or obfuscated, and that worsened the situation. But I think people realize we're all human, and if you're honest about your fears and feelings, usually you get rewarded."

And that's the weird, if comforting, thing about fear in business. If you confront the fear, you usually see results.

As Sireno says, "Behind failure, there's often a great opportunity."

And even if there isn't a great opportunity, getting past fear is generally a confidence booster.

Says Brey, who found himself feeling the most vulnerable after two employees betrayed him.

"I've learned that even in a serious situation like that, my business is going to go on, and I know if that kind of thing happens again, we're going to survive."

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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