Admit it.You're scared out of your mind. Whether it's financial stress, uncertainty about the business partners you've chosen or just plain fear of failure, some aspect of starting your own business is keeping you up at night.
You're not alone. We queried entrepreneurs to find out what scares them the most. Survey says: everything from speaking in public to keeping up with technology to growing too fast.
So we brought in the authorities: Colleen Long, a psychologist who specializes in entrepreneurship and Jim Koch, a well-known entrepreneur with decades of business experience. They analyzed your top five fears and offered up their best advice on how to handle them.
Meet the experts
Colleen Long, founder and creative director, FreudTV
Colleen Long has a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Spalding University. After spending several years working in psychiatric hospitals, schools and university counseling centers, she decided to focus her efforts on the psychology of entrepreneurship. She blogs about entrepreneurial fears and runs FreudTV, a talent agency for doctors.
Jim Koch, founder and brewer, The Boston Beer Company
Jim Koch was born into a family of entrepreneurs and brewmasters. Using an old family recipe, he concocted the first batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager in his kitchen in 1984. Carrying a few bottles from bar to bar, he was able to quickly build a following behind his frothy beverage. Samuel Adams is now the largest craft brewer in the country, brewing more than 21 styles of beer and employing more than 700 people.
Fear No.1: Failure
Without a doubt, an entrepreneur's biggest fear is failing--understandably, because 95 percent of all businesses fail within the first five years, Long says. When you're starting with those kinds of odds, it's OK to be a little freaked out.
The list of what-ifs is endless: What if I'm not cut out for entrepreneurship? What if I can't get this last deal? What if I go bankrupt? But the consequences of failure are mostly in your head, says Koch. He points to the concepts of subjective risk and objective risk: Subjective risk feels scary but is actually safe, whereas objective risk can feel safe but is actually quite dangerous. "Starting a business has a lot of subjective risk," he says. "Yes, it feels scary, but it's not. At the end of the day, the risk is small."
"Because entrepreneurs typically work in a vacuum, self-defeating thoughts can become very common," Long says. "These unconscious thoughts build upon each other, making you feel increasingly negative and scared." She advises keeping tabs on yourself by regularly writing a list of accomplishments. Whether you gained three new clients, received positive feedback or sealed a partnership, write it down. "Whenever those fears crop up, you've got a point of reference [that shows] you're actually achieving something," Long says.
Fear No.2: Economic uncertainty
Five years ago, the economy may not have been of forefront concern for a startup entrepreneur. But today, businesses big and small, young and old, are worried about what the declining economy means for them. According to the January 2009 "American Express OPEN Economic Pulse," report, 66 percent of small-business owners surveyed said they are stressed out by the state of the economy; 44 percent anticipate the economy will get mildly or much worse over the next 12 to 18 months; and 50 percent expect the economic climate to negatively impact their business prospects within six months.
But many small businesses have started, innovated and grown during a recession. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard established Hewlett-Packard during the Great Depression; Orbitz.com went live during the dotcom bust. Koch himself launched The Boston Beer Company and Samuel Adams during the early '80s recession.
When Koch was getting started, market conditions were less than favorable. Small local breweries were closing all over the country, and his father, a fifth-generation brewmaster, was even forced to retire from the beer business. "In 1948, there were 1,000 breweries," he says. "But when I started, 97 percent had closed." Nonetheless, Koch powered through, coming out not only alive, but also ahead.
During that time, entrepreneurs weren't opening breweries, and the megabreweries were selling mass-produced light beer. The state of the economy "blinded people to the need for somebody to make a great beer," Koch explains. Entrepreneurs are notorious for going against the current, so a bleak market can actually mean more opportunity.
Fear No.3: Being your own boss
Long calls it the "lemonade-stand fear." "It's the feeling the entrepreneur first gets when he starts any kind of business: the feeling that he's operating a lemonade stand, this low-budget operation that doesn't feel real," she says. As a small business, especially during the startup stages, there's very little stability and security. Unlike traditional employment, you probably don't have an office, employees, benefits or a paycheck. And what you definitely don't have is a boss, someone guiding you along.
"Working for yourself is both the best and worst part of being an entrepreneur," Long says. "No one's going to tell you what to do. The days can pass you by and you haven't really done anything because there's no one giving you the framework for what to do."
"The instability is scary," Koch says. "It feels very uncomfortable because you're in a new setting that doesn't have the order and the structure." In the early days, The Boston Beer Company didn't have an office, a computer, a telephone, a distributor or proper accounting.
Our experts agree that setting goals is key to conquering this fear. Whether it's daily, weekly or more long-term, setting specific, achievable goals keeps you accountable and on track. Koch's daily goal was to gain one new customer, even if it took him late into the night.
"Sales calls scare me," he says. "But not having an office forced me to go out and sell." Achieving this daily goal contributed to his two overarching goals: "to make great beer and work my butt off to sell it."
Today, those goals still stand: Koch makes sure his beer maintains the same taste and quality as his great-grandfather's original recipe by traveling to Bavaria each year to select the hops, and personally tasting every batch. Even with more than 700 employees, he still makes regular sales calls.
Fear No.4: Consuming your life
The idea of not having any time for yourself, neglecting your family and giving up your social life can be terrifying.
"A lot of entrepreneurs think, 'If I own my own business, then I have to eat, breathe and sleep this business,'" Long says. "There's a lot of guilt where they think any downtime should be spent on the business."
This isn't to say you shouldn't always be thinking about how to better your business and that you shouldn't jump into action whenever duty calls. Being an entrepreneur will consume a lot of your waking hours, but there are ways to manage the workload, ease the stress and still have time to live your life--and maintain the passion you started with.
"You have to do something you love," Koch says. "Ask yourself, 'Is this going to make me happy?' If you can imagine yourself being happy, you can handle the trade-off and the sacrifices."
Long advises practicing meditation. "You have to give your mind a break," she says, recommending 15 to 20 minutes of silence, deep breathing and relaxation every day. "It helps you to refocus."
And lastly, don't be afraid to ask for help--whether it means hiring people to do the tasks you don't have the time or know-how for, forming a discussion group or advisory board, reaching out to peers, or taking advantage of the small-business resources available.
Fear No.5: Staying afloat
You need money to start up; you need money to operate; and you need money to grow. Throw the dismal economy into the equation--when people are spending less and it's taking longer for small businesses to get paid (according to the "Economic Pulse" survey)--and money is even harder to come by.
Most important, you have to figure out if there is truly a consumer need. "You know you have a great product, but you don't know if it fits a need," Koch says. "Ask yourself if what you're offering is better or cheaper."
And if you find that for a certain segment it is, those are your customers; find out what matters to them. "The customer will give you cues," he adds. "You can learn everything you need to know from them."
Long discovered the need for her services when she saw a lack of resources for doctors looking to share their expertise. In a sense, she was her customer, and she understood where the need resided.
Koch emphasizes the importance of putting yourself out there tirelessly. As an entrepreneur, you're often the salesperson, so you have to master the art of selling, he says, reflecting on the early years when he traveled from bar to bar with chilled bottles of Samuel Adams for bartenders to taste. "I had to go into a bar 10 times before I even got to see the bar manager."
Lindsay Holloway is a freelance writer and editor in Southern California specializing in business, technology and green issues.