Making The Leap

10 tips to help conquer your start-up fears
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the November 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

After helping others build three in the mental-health field, Holly Dorna was confident she could do better on her own. But starting PsychTemps Inc., a Cincinnati recruiting and staffing agency for the behavioral health-care field, turned out to be an exercise in mental terror.

"Making the transition from working for someone else to owning everything was scary. Many mornings, I'd wake up at 5 a.m. feeling panic-stricken," Dorna says. "I'd been a success three times and made money for other people, but maybe this was the time I was going to fail. I thought of myself as an entrepreneur but, for awhile, `entrepreneur' became a four-letter word. Putting myself on the line, seeing my bank account shrink month by month and not knowing if my idea would work--I was more frightened than I'd ever been in my life."

Let's face it: Starting a is an unnerving proposition. Whether you succeed or fail, every aspect of your life is affected, from bank accounts to friendships. Yet while fears surrounding start-ups are normal, they add pressure to an already stressful situation. Avoidance is not the answer. Instead, you must face your fears and learn how to cope. Here are 10 tips to smooth the way:

1. Start slowly. Quitting a 9-to-5 job one day and starting a business the next would give anyone nightmares. Dorna suggests making a slow transition by starting your business part time to ease some of your fears.

"When the last company I'd helped build was sold to a hospital, and the owner made a lot of money--but I came out with nothing--I decided to try consulting," Dorna says. She did well financially, but felt pulled in too many directions and wanted to create a business into which she could pour all her energies. She started PsychTemps in 1995, working at it part time for almost two years while keeping up her consulting practice. "I felt I had less to lose, since I was only working part time," she says.

Making a gradual transition also gives you time to think, plan and work on potential problems, which should help lessen your .

2. Ask for help. of the unknown has stopped many would-be entrepreneurs in their tracks. While no one can respond to your doubts with 100-percent certainty, experts and others who have been in your shoes can ease your fears.

"Starting a business is scary, but all true rewards come with ," says Betty Otte, a Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) volunteeer who counsels small-business owners via the . "SCORE members help people who are starting a business take that big, scary monster and dismantle it. We lead them through a process that enables them to plan and prioritize. We're there for them every step of the way, walking alongside them, breaking down fear and turning it into success. We know it can be done because we've done it ourselves."

With all the help available (much of it free), there's no reason for a start-up to go it alone. Try SCORE's Internet e-mail service (see "Web Sites Worth Visiting," above), or hook up with a local SCORE office. (Call 800-634-0245 for the location of the SCORE office nearest you.) Your local Small Business Development Center () is another source of free, one-on-one counseling. You can also access the Internet for additional ideas and support; just type "starting a business" in your browser and you'll find hundreds of sites worth exploring.

3. Plan. Nothing beats preparation to quell the panicky feelings that can keep entrepreneurs awake at night.

"A well-thought-out business plan can go a long way toward helping alleviate start-up fears," says Bill Fioretti, director of the SBDC at the University of Cincinnati. "It's fascinating to watch people go through the process of building a plan. As their ideas crystallize and they make three-year based on facts, you can almost feel their sighs of relief."

4. Expect the unexpected. Unless you're blessed with unlimited monetary resources, starting a business means taking a financial risk. Unfortunately, you can no more control many of the variables that affect your investment than you can stop a tornado. Whether it's a superstore that undercuts prices, an unhappy customer who sues, a snowstorm that collapses a roof or a war in the country from which you import your goods, outside influences can threaten any business.

It's frightening to think that everything you've worked for can be wiped out by circumstances beyond your control. And while you may not be able to keep superstores from building, stop customers from suing, halt falling snow or bring peace to warring countries, you can accept the reality that being in business brings risks, and institute methods to address those risks.

Start by imagining "what if" scenarios involving circumstances that might put your business in jeopardy: "What if my biggest supplier goes belly up?" "What if our building is struck by lightning?" "What if there is a health scare involving my product?"

Once you catalog outside influences that have the potential to harm your business, create a contingency plan to deal with each of them. Hopefully, you'll never have to put the plan into action; but if disaster strikes, having a strategy will go a long way toward giving you peace of mind.

5. Build and faith in yourself. If you're the kind of person who constantly worries about what other people think, you'll need to swallow a big dose of confidence before starting your own business. Alana Chandler, for instance, owner of Paint Yer Pottery, in Dallas, could never have gotten her store off the ground if she hadn't fought the doubters with the only weapon she had: her belief in herself.

"It's hard enough to be taken seriously when you're a young female who's never run your own business before," Chandler says. "But it's even more difficult when you present your idea to people and they look at you as though you thought up a silly concept last night and decided to go find a store.

"I'll never forget opening day," she recalls. "A guy I'd been dating, who had said he totally believed in me, called the store to see how I was doing. I told him how busy I was and how it really seemed to be working. `Really?' he asked me. `Are you kidding? But people are coming in to look, not to paint, right?' " Chandler isn't dating him anymore.

"When everyone around you is questioning your sanity, of course you're afraid they may be right," she says. "The only thing you can do is have confidence in yourself and your idea, and go on to prove them wrong."

Success tends to breed confidence, so if you're short on belief in yourself, set achievable goals and celebrate publicly when you reach them. For instance, send press releases to your local newspaper when sales figures exceed expectations and each time you celebrate another year in business. If an article gets published, send it to everyone on your mailing list. At the very least, feel free to brag a little at gatherings of fellow entrepreneurs. Pats on the back, even when solicited, can send your confidence soaring.

6. Put fear to work. Why view fear as a negative when it can be a powerful motivator? Fear of forfeiting a home to the bank has launched more than one laid-off executive on the road to business ownership, and fear of failure pushes many entrepreneurs to work around the clock to get their businesses up and running.

If you're fearful, pinpoint exactly what you're afraid of, then consider ways to deal with it. Let's say, for example, that you own a design firm with a partner who, you discover, may be fooling with the books. Because the business has been surpassing sales projections and your partner is an old friend, you're scared of confronting her with your suspicions. You think up lots of excuses: "She's the financial wizard, after all. Maybe I'm calculating the numbers incorrectly. Or maybe she's just made a mistake." Inside, you churn with anxiety.

As with most things in business--and in life--you have a choice: Do nothing, and possibly watch your company crumble, or act, spurred on by your fear that the business may fail unless you step in. Using fear as a motivational tool means analyzing the cause of your anxiety, enumerating and sorting through alternative approaches, then acting. While inertia fuels fear, action can overcome it.

7. Reshape your thinking. "My biggest fear when starting this business was not making enough money to cover our living expenses," says Ellyn Ingalls, owner of Poole-Brook Farms, a North Haverhill, New Hampshire, company that markets gourmet specialty foods, handmade from fourth-generation family farm recipes. "I never doubted that we had a great product and that it would sell. But with the expenses involved in getting a company successfully off the ground, I was concerned that we would lose what we had worked so hard for. We started the business about $30,000 in debt and then we borrowed another $23,000, so money was always a concern."

But this past year, after an emotionally draining winter, Ingalls reexamined her priorities. "I thought a lot about how I wanted to live my life," she says. "I decided that if we lost everything, so what? There's always something else."

Accepting the fact that the business might fail had the opposite effect from what you might expect. "Actually, I gained a sense of freedom," she says. "At the same time I decided to stop worrying about the money, I also decided I would take the energy I'd been spending on that and focus it on the business."

8. Build a support network. Fioretti says that talking to fellow entrepreneurs who have walked the same path you're on can help assuage your fears. "Focus on success," he suggests. "Attend conferences, join associations and talk with others who started as you are, but who have moved on to the next step."

Fioretti suggests creating an advisory board. Include your banker, your accountant and, perhaps, someone in the marketing field. "As a single-person operation, you won't have a staff to bounce ideas off," he says. "A board of more experienced business owners can fill that role, helping to steer you right."

Don't forget family and friends as sources of support. Seek out those who are generally optimistic people. While they may not be able to relate to your specific fears about starting a business, you should be able to count on them for emotional support.

"My sister said to me, `You can do this. You've done it before,' " Dorna says. "That helped a lot."

9. Take care of yourself. Dorna thought about getting massages or some counseling when she was feeling the most alone and afraid. But both choices seemed a bit self-indulgent--as well as expensive. Instead, she upped her treadmill exercise routine from two days a week to five. "That helped break some of the stress and clear my mind," she says.

When a friend or spouse asks how to help during a stressful start-up, be ready with ideas. And if they don't ask? Tell them what you need. Also, be prepared to give yourself a boost. Make a list of inexpensive treats that take less than an hour. Choose one a day: Buy yourself an ice cream cone and take the time to enjoy it. Read the comics. Do some stretching exercises. Play a video game. Call a faraway friend for a quick chat. Dream about your business in full swing.

10. Just do it! "We can't escape fear. We can only transform it into a companion that accompanies us in all our exciting endeavors," says Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., author of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (Ballantine, $12, 800-733-3000). Jeffers believes that our fears are rooted in the thought that we can't handle situations that confront us. "If you knew you could handle anything that came your way, what would you have to fear?" she asks.

Fear is one of the most elemental of human emotions, yet it need not lead budding entrepreneurs to give up their plans or stop the expansion of their businesses. If you find yourself shaking in your shoes over some business concern, remember that most successful entrepreneurs have been afraid at one time or another. But while fear may have slowed them down, it never stopped them.

Lynn H. Colwell offered five remedies for business burnout in the June issue of Business Start-Ups.

Web Sites Worth Visiting

  • The National Small Development Center () Research Network ( ) offers a listing of all the SBDCs across the United States, links to small-business Web sites and articles that answer questions frequently asked at SBDCs.
  • SmallBiz Net ( ) offers a list of books about starting a small business; the Edward Lowe Digital Library, one of the largest collections of small-business information on the Web; research findings on ; and links to other small-business sites.
  • The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) offers names of chapter counselors and their areas of expertise at its Web site ( ), along with e-mail addresses for direct contact; and one-on-one counseling in more than 400 locations.

For More Information

Read one of the following books when you need to ease your fears:

  • of Failure, by James M. Galbraith (Benchmark Books, $19.95, 800-345-6665)
  • Achilles Syndrome: Overcoming the Secret Fear of Failure, by Petruska Clarkson (Element, $13.95, 800-253-6476)
  • Up to Your Armpits in Alligators? How To Sort Out What Risks Are Worth Worrying About, by John Paling ( Communication & Environmental Institute, $25, 800-484-2073, ext. 2502)

Contact Sources

Betty Otte, (714) 650-3050,

Paint Yer Pottery, 17194 Preston Rd., #109, Preston Trail Village, Dallas, TX 75248, (972) 248-0001

Poole-Brook Farms, RR1 Box 246, North Haverhill, NH 03774, (603) 787-6446

PsychTemps Inc., 2404 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45219, (513) 651-9500

Small Development Center, University of Cincinnati, 1275 Section Rd., Cincinnati, OH 45237, (513) 556-2071


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