From the June 2003 issue of Entrepreneur

It's no wonder entrepreneurs are facing a crisis of confidence; they have been hanging on in an economy where recovery never comes. Uncertainty over terrorism, the situation in the Middle East and a shaky stock market only increase the sense of anxiety.

You hear economists measuring numbers, but all you know is what you're experiencing on the front lines. You've been pumping up your employees' morale and productivity for so long, but what about your own? You may feel like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder uphill only to do it again the next day. When it seems there's no light at the end of the tunnel, even the most Type A entrepreneur can be tempted to stay in bed all day. Says Ben Leichtling, founder of Leichtling and Associates LLC, a management consulting firm in Denver, "What's happening to entrepreneurs is a general fear that if the economy stays down, they won't make it."

John Girard, 31, remembers the late 1990s, when life was good for his San Francisco start-up, Clickability Inc., which sells content organizing software to major media Web sites. Now customers are holding off, and Girard is holding on. Shrinking capital markets and a race to the lowest price are putting pressure on his 5-year-old business. Since 2001, he's had to cut his staff from 32 to 15, and the company's cash flow is, according to Girard, "break-even."

Girard finds the recovery hype frustrating at times. "It's certainly been a trying experience, with all the analysts and pundits saying recovery is right around the corner," he says. "But things really haven't settled."

This is the first time many entrepreneurs have really had to struggle to make a sale, explains management expert Brian Tracy, author of the new book Many Miles to Go (Entrepreneur Press). It's time to wake up, stop dwelling on the past and start getting face-to-face with customers."You become what you think about," Tracy says. "Think goals, sales, action, results and solutions."

But the question is, How do you set realistic goals in this economy? Girard is trying hard to balance the market's realities with its possibilities. He's started a system of "stretch goals" (long-term revenue projections to reach for) and "survival goals" (what needs to get done this week to keep the company going).

It's kept the company moving forward: In 2002, Clickability re-signed 97 percent of its clients and tripled its revenue growth. Here are some other ways to keep up your enthusiasm as well as your sales:

  • Find a way to measure progress every day, even if it's just an inch. Otherwise, you might be tempted enough to throw in the towel, Girard says. "Think 'What are the steps that are going to get someone to write me a check today?'"
  • Create a supportive environment for yourself, says Thomas K. Connellan, author of Bringing Out the Best in Others! 3 Keys for Business Leaders, Educators, Coaches and Parents (Bard Press). Ask your friends if you seem to be stressed and indecisive. Says Connellan, "Be honest about your business situation and how you see yourself handling it,".
  • Think about how you can do your job differently. In December 2001, Nancy Piepho, 33, started Expedite Group, a Cary, North Carolina, company, to provide companies with work-life balance services ranging from seminars and consulting to personal shopping. Cold-calling was incredibly stressful for Piepho, so she handed the task off to another employee who enjoys sales.

Dropping the dreaded task of telemarketing has helped Piepho stay positive and motivated about her business. "I'd sit there for an hour and build myself up only to be rejected. Then I'd have to pump myself up for hours afterward," she says. "If you're doing it and you're bad at it, don't do it. Find what you like to do."

  • Make time for outside interests. In her spare time, Piepho plays volleyball, while Girard enjoys competing in triathlons. "Entrepreneurs need to triage themselves," Connellan explains. "Bodies don't grow stronger unless you stress and rest."
  • Finally, remember the courage it takes to be an entrepreneur, especially during these trying times. "You're a free person willing to take on the risks of life in exchange for the potential benefits," Leichtling says. "That's heroic."