A Fear Factor

Your Personal Brand of Fear

Fear is personal. It affects people in different ways and at unexpected times. Someone may fear starting a business, while others can start five businesses without a second thought--but then worry they're not successful enough or that they won't get financing for further expansion. You alone know what fear stops you from doing.

Instead of creating 10 excuses for why you shouldn't do something and then picking up the TV remote control, let your fear act as an incentive. Just accept that it's a natural part of the process and:

1. Discover your unique strength. Look inside yourself, and take inventory of what is unique about you and your business. That's the foundation you'll build on, and it will provide unexpected results.

Nina Yang, 32-year-old founder of Double Edge Entertainment in Sherman Oaks, California, had a dream: to create a new style of film by crossing Asian and American cultures and genres. Her strength was an insight into film production at both ends of the world. She knew how to spot opportunities and what it would take to make them real.

But before starting her business, she was scared of the competition. They all seemed to have the right contacts, financing and ideas. She could have questioned her abilities and allowed this fear to stop her from realizing her dream. Instead, Yang set off to define and master her unique strengths.

She started by creating a support team of members she could share her ideas with to determine what would work. Their regular feedback was an exchange of energy that propelled her dream forward. She now has her own production office and staff, clients in China and the United States and sales of $2 million.

Linda Hollander, 44-year-old author of Bags to Riches: Success Secrets for Women in Business by the Wealthy Bag Lady (Celestial Arts), believes "fear is the most expensive habit you will ever have." Before Hollander started The Bag Ladies, a custom packaging company in Los Angeles that creates bags for shopping malls, businesses attending trade shows and the like, she was worse than broke. She couldn't even imagine owning her own business. To overcome her fears, she used a technique called sensory anchoring--getting your subconscious to support your efforts.

To do this, first recall in vivid detail a peak experience from your past. It could be a time when you conquered a tough assignment or a time when others were extremely proud of you--when you felt the ultimate rush of confidence and euphoria. When you begin to feel fearful, call up one of these peak experiences instead of making up an excuse. This memory summons your confidence and courage so you can take the next step forward.

2. Reaffirm your abilities to reinforce your belief in yourself. We often need to see our beliefs reflected in something tangible. Getting feedback from people whose opinions you trust can help you turn fear energy into forward motion. "Yes, I know you are capable of running a business like this" goes a long way in the conversion process.

Scott Myer, 39-year-old co-owner of The Furniture Store, a successful retail chain in South Riding, Virginia, developed his business ideas in part by regularly visiting the competition. He made it his mission to learn what it would take to be a better merchant by creating a list of what worked and what didn't. He knew he could offer unique customer service and make money.

After many months, Myer and his business partner, John Mazur, 58, had gained enough experience to know what path to follow and what traps to avoid. But Myer harbored a fear that talking about a business is a far cry from actually starting and running one. His wife and kids needed his steady support, and the "what ifs" were a substantial mental barrier.

Myer worked through his fear by sharing his thoughts and plans with people who knew him well. The process helped him turn his fear into positive forward energy. When he heard confidence in the voices of intelligent people, he decided to act. Says Myer, "I knew I was capable of overcoming the barriers. And the fact that I had a partner I trust means we're even more likely to think of all the angles."

Today, Myer and Mazur have sales in excess of $16 million, and they're still growing. Says Myer, "Once you push yourself over the fear of getting started, there is no turning back."

3. Speak positively with enthusiasm, and ask for help. All fears, no matter how small, are magnified when we are alone. Learn to translate your fear into a specific goal, and then ask others for the help that's readily available to you. Instead of saying "I'm not sure customers will come," turn it around and say "I know there are customers for my product. How do I attract them?" This simple statement allows your supporters the opportunity to offer solutions that work rather than just sympathize with your fears. "It is amazing how many people will help you when they know you need help. It all comes down to having the guts to ask," says David Cardona, 39, a top fashion designer in Los Angeles. "People recall when they were in your situation, and the doors fly open!"

Cathleen Mitchell, 36-year-old founder of McRoberts Mitchell in New York City, started her design studio with minimal business experience. She worked through her fear--lack of experience--by asking the right questions. Whenever she was afraid, she continually asked questions until she found someone who had worked through her specific fear. She and her staff are now growing a thriving business with more than $1 million in revenues.

Missy Mastel, 32-year-old president of Mass-Tel Communications Inc., an outsourcing telecom-auditing services firm in San Francisco, was terrified of hiring her first employees. She was anxious about her tax, insurance and liability risks. She also worried whether she would know enough to hire the right people. She turned those fears into action.

For Mastel, small steps led to big action. She hired independent contractors and consultants who had the expertise she lacked. These experts developed the internal resources and processes she needed. Then she was able to hire her employees based on a more profound knowledge of the business. Says Mastel, whose sales have since hit $1.5 million, "I let my fear do its job by forcing me to learn and then grow."

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This article was originally published in the June 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: A Fear Factor.

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