Angela Mader still feels the fear. It follows her silently, waiting to strike. It tags along at meetings, wanting nothing more than to cover her ears and eyes, so that the Very Important Thing someone’s telling her is blocked by that Very Scary Thing instead. And let’s be clear: Mader is not some rookie, having just plunked down her life savings on a hunch. She cleared the first hurdle back in 2008, when her health and fitness startup, fitlosophy, began its ascent to sales in 10 countries and retail partnerships with Amazon, Target and Walgreens.
No, Mader has already faced fear and survived. But that doesn’t matter. “A healthy level of fear is always present or lurking, causing me to question everything,” she says. “It’s not only my future on the line here. I have families that depend on me to pay their bills, and I have a responsibility to my customers. The fear that ‘Oh my gosh, this is not going to work’ is very real.”
It’s also very common.
No entrepreneur needs to be told this: Fear comes with the territory. If you don’t feel it, quit your job right now, because there’s an opening on SEAL Team Six waiting for you. The only question is, what kind of fear do you feel? Roughly 30 percent of all U.S. entrepreneurs confess to a fear of failure (and the numbers spike even higher in Europe and Asia), according to a Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report from last year. Uncounted: those who fear embarrassment, or being wrong, or losing the trust of everyone they just hit up for cash, or whatever. About half of all new startups tank within the first five years, the U.S. Small Business Administration reports, so there’s certainly reason for alarm. Entrepreneurial Americans rank “launching a company” second on the countdown of the scariest life-changing events they may face, trailing only concerns about retirement savings. What’s less scary to them? Divorce. First-time parenthood. Relocating to a new city. You know, the easy stuff.
But listen: Thunderstorms are common, too, but you don’t see people giving in to them -- just standing there when the rain starts pounding, looking down to watch their shoes fill with water. Something may be common, but that doesn’t mean it’s inescapable. “To be an entrepreneur is to worry and be scared. We’re all just scared of different things,” says Craig Dubitsky, founder and CEO of oral-care-product manufacturer Hello, based in Montclair, N.J. “The scariest thing to me is not bringing your idea to life. You don’t want to have any regrets. Regrets just suck. You’ve got to be willing to go all in. If you’re not built that way, you can’t be an entrepreneur. It’ll never happen.”
The result of giving in to fear? Dubitsky nails it: paralysis. Left unchecked, fear can cripple the entrepreneurial psyche -- halting innovation and thwarting goals. Fear is an anchor; it drops down, heavy and determined, and does not stop until it has stopped you. Fear destroys. Fear inhibits. Fear is a business that never begins, or an investment never made, or a decision deferred forever. Fear is the thing you don’t know, but you’re convinced that it’s the thing you don’t want to know.
But take heart from these numbers: Roughly 100 million businesses still launch worldwide each year. That’s three entrepreneurs facing fear every second. That’s 11,000 entrepreneurs an hour who said, To hell with it! They’re not special, those people. They’ve just figured out a simple, critical mind trick, one they’ll need to return to and refine countless times over the lifetime of their business. And that trick is this: Make fear work for you.
Last year, Mader was talking to a friend who has started a few companies. “Entrepreneurs are some of the most insecure people you’ll ever meet,” the friend said, “because there’s always something to prove.” And Mader paused, because those words felt so true. She does have insecurities. And yet, she wants to keep proving.
“My faith in what I’m capable of doing is greater than my fear of doing it. I know I will figure it out,” she says. “Too little fear of failure results in recklessness; too much fear guarantees complacency. But I know that if I operate in a place of fear, I will never, ever get where I’m going. And I’ve got big things to do. I’m grateful for the fear. It’s what drives me.”
It’s what should drive us all.
Before we talk about what we’re afraid about, let’s just talk about being afraid. Fear: It’s an abstract thing. If you were dunked in honey and then deposited alone in the woods and a bear started approaching, you would experience real fear. That is I’m-about-to-die fear. And is that what you’re feeling when you’re burning through cash and that first big client just cannot make up their damn mind? Well…
“There’s ‘fear’ the emotion, and when you experience fear the emotion, it’s unmistakable,” says Dan Gardner, author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. “Then there’s ‘fear’ that is used almost as a metaphor for anxiety, worry and concern, which may or may not be experienced as a conscious emotion. If I’m thinking of going into business, and I do my analysis and realize there’s a lot of risk here and I may go bust, I may say that I am experiencing fear. But it’s not fear in the same sense you would experience when a lion lunges at you.”
First bears. Now lions. But hey, you’re facing neither. (Except for you, guy launching a grooming service for wild predators. Best of luck!) What you’re feeling is more complex -- a whole range of emotions and worries and forecasting gone amok. And what good is that information? Honestly, it’s not life--changing. But it should remind you of something important: You may feel like there’s an imminent disaster, but there probably isn’t. That’s just your brain thinking way too many steps ahead -- that this thing could go wrong, and then that thing, and then the other thing. That’s anxiety. That’s internal. That’s you doing this to yourself.
“[Former Intel CEO] Andy Grove nailed it. The title of his most famous book was Only the Paranoid Survive. I think that’s absolutely true,” says Steve Blank, a serial Silicon Valley startup founder who once took a company, E.piphany, through a $66 million IPO. (And what’s he afraid of? “Waking up every morning knowing what my burn rate was, how much cash I had left in the bank, and the day, hour and minute I was out of business,” he says. Oh, and people not wanting his product, and his best employees leaving him, and…)
He likes that title because it doesn’t discount worriers. Blind optimism? Now that will get you in trouble. His bet is always on the founders who know bad things will happen -- and have steeled themselves for the possibility. They’re people who have already proven themselves in other high-pressure training grounds like military combat, dysfunctional families or just other tough startups. “They’ve been trained how to deal with chaos and uncertainty and fear, and they’ve learned to shut down all the things that are extraneous to survival,” he says.
Haven’t done any of that? Latch on as an early employee at another startup to get hands-on experience with the day-to-day challenges, or sign up for hack-a-thons, startup weekends and entrepreneurship courses—“anything that can simulate the pressures of a startup,” he says. And then when you’re in the hot seat at your own company, do as the most experienced founders do: anticipate. “You need to constantly plan for what could go wrong. You need to have not just plan A but also plan B, C and D. I was always thinking multiple moves ahead. ‘What do I do about cash? How do I raise money? How do I get customers?’ If your head isn’t churning 24/7 on multiple levels and multiple things, you’re gonna get screwed.”
Only the paranoid survive.
lthough, is that true? The paranoid may not trust anyone. They may be afraid to leave their desks, working nonstop and treating Delivery.com like a lifeline. Nah -- not all paranoid survive. The survivors have something else. Because this is the most important thing of it all, the greatest weapon against fear. It isn’t naming thy enemy (“anxiety!”), and it isn’t having a game plan (or three or four). The most important thing of it all is:
Making decisions. Only the paranoid who know how to make decisions survive.
When you’re afraid, you stick with what you know -- and that’s the state you’re in now, unchanged by any future decision making. Startups have scant time and resources to waste on stagnation. And so, you need to adopt a “bias to action.” It’s a phrase Blank likes to use. It’s a little wonky, but it makes a good point: You should favor action over inaction. You don’t want to study something forever. You don’t want to say the phrase “Let’s circle back,” because you will never truly circle back. What does it even mean to circle back? Where else does the circle take us? Your employees hate that phrase. Quit it.
“You learn very quickly that if you don’t have a bias to action, you end up frozen in fear. You die, and the people around you die,” Blank says. “Shit happens all the time: New competitors come up, VCs change their mind, blah blah blah. You need to figure out what to do. You don’t have time to waste.”
Where to start? Blank has some more jargon for the occasion: “revocable decisions or irrevocable decisions.” Divide and conquer the questions that await you. That price change or marketing tweak -- can you change it later, if the decision turned out to be wrong? Yes, you can. That’s a revocable decision. Make it now. How about that long-term office lease or venture capital offer -- can you change that later? No, that’s an irrevocable decision. There are fewer of those, and you’re allowed to take longer on them. You’re welcome.
The point is: Make decisions and see what comes from them. The more steps you take, the more impact you’ll see, and that will inform your next steps. Become experienced. And don’t be afraid to ask for advice. “You want to surround yourself with really grounded folks who help you deal with things, partly because they’re not exactly like you are. That’s really helpful,” says Hello’s Dubitsky. “That’s where a good board of directors comes in, along with good investors and good friends in and around your business who’ve been entrepreneurs themselves.”
This may sound obvious. That’s OK. Good, even. It means there’s no secret to defeating fear—no mutant gene contained within the 11,000 entrepreneurs an hour who launched their companies. Fear is common, and so is overcoming fear. It’s a part of the process.
And for argument’s sake, let’s just say the worst happens: You fail. Your fears are realized. The business closes, the employees are laid off, maybe someone writes an embarrassing news story about you. Tears are shed. Some people are pissed. Some jerk, somewhere, says, “I told you so.” And then…well, what?
There will be nothing left to fear, that’s what. It happened. You survived. And you’re free to try again.
That’s how it went for Jim Snediker, whose last company, the flash-sales curation site Left of Trend, folded in mid-2012. “There wasn’t any part of me that was like, ‘This won’t work out’ until I’d done Left of Trend for a while and realized it’s pretty hard to build an e-commerce business with no money and no competitive advantage,” Snediker deadpans. “But I wanted to do something good. I didn’t want to have to go back to the job I was doing with my tail between my legs. That was the fear and motivation driving me. So you keep trying different things.” And he did: Within weeks of his failure, he cofounded a menswear company called Stock Mfg. Co., which he’s now CEO of. “It reinvigorated me.”
There’s nothing to fear. The worst is never as bad as you think. Again, that is, unless you’re the guy facing down the bear. That probably is just as bad as you think.