A Fear Factor

Does the idea of starting your own business paralyze you? We've got some simple techniques to get you back in control.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the June 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Our fears arise from many sources, usually unexpectedly. And most business owners agree that fear is a result of our doubts: Will customers really want my product? Will I have enough time? Can I market my business effectively?

No matter what advice experts give, what medicine psychiatrists prescribe or how successful we become, fear is always lurking in the background. Fear makes our palms sweat, keeps us silent or giggly, gives us butterflies in our stomachs and persuades us that we can't achieve our dreams.

Fear can hold us back. How many times have you turned away from an opportunity, not followed up with someone or not given out a business card because you were afraid of rejection or what might happen?

Think of the products and the unique ways of doing business that could be developed if we never again had to face fear. What would the world be like if we turned fear on its head?

Harness the Energy of Fear
Energy gives us the courage and willpower to bring our dreams to life. It propels our businesses forward. What happens if we simply use "fear energy" for its opposite purpose? Instead of letting fear paralyze us, why not scream "Fear is the energy we need to achieve the impossible!" Embrace that energy-it is powerful.

There are countless verified tales of people experiencing enormous energy resulting from fear. A woman was thrown from her car after a collision while her husband remained trapped inside, unable to open the door. The back end of the car caught fire, and fear drove every cell of her body to hoist the car up, pull open the door and free her husband. We are all too quick to underestimate our energy, aren't we?

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."

Discover Opportunities & More

4. Stop attaching yourself to specific outcomes, and learn to discover opportunities. Your mind is your own worst enemy. The self-induced fear and anxiety we build around having to achieve a certain level of success stops us from actually progressing forward. No one can predict the future. The development of your business is an evolutionary process, so start by grounding yourself in your passion. Then set a small, achievable goal, test it out and grow your business according to the opportunities presented to you.

"I let my ambition for measurable successes get the best of me," recalls Jill Lublin, 41-year-old CEO of Promising Promotion in Novato, California. Lublin set out to create a publicity agency, but it wasn't growing as quickly as she would have liked. An expert suggested that instead of an agency, Lublin might make more money as a publicity consultant.

Lublin feared that starting over and changing her goal would decrease her income. She put her fear aside and took a hard look at what made her passionate about her work every day--and realized that she loved helping clients learn how to obtain great publicity. She decided to focus on changing the direction of her business. Her "new" publicity consulting business has now quadrupled in size.

5. Do what it takes. Every successful entrepreneur I have interviewed has said virtually the same thing: The true key to overcoming the fears you may have is to execute your idea continually.

One of the actions you can take instantly is to stop feeling bad about the small wins. After all, the jobs you don't want anyone to know about--those you feel are beneath your level of expertise--will actually fuel your long-term success.

Marie Edelstein, CEO of Designwest, an interior design firm in Woodland Hills, California, acknowledges that even though she was fearful about her financial situation, she never would have started if she had let fear make her wait for the money.

Every month for the first three years, she lived with the fear that she wouldn't succeed and would have to return to the work force. Often, it was a paralyzing notion, but she was determined to keep going. "You can't be too proud," explains Edelstein, 47. "Find work by pounding on doors and selling your unique benefit to everyone who will listen."

Edelstein took a part-time job at night so she could grow her business during the day. She took design jobs that paid the bills but were not necessarily glamorous. She kept her old, run-down car and parked it blocks away from client locations so they wouldn't have any idea she was just starting out. Her fortitude eventually paid off--Edelstein currently owns a design center with $1 million in sales and has more money than she has time.

6. Fear, and fear again. Define it, say it out loud, embrace it and ask others for help in solving the issues. Then use the energy this unique feeling creates to propel your business forward faster than you could ever have imagined.

You Shall Overcome

"If you are 'sorta interested,' do not waste your time. You must want your success more than anything. Simply wanting to do something is not enough. You must have relentless passion for what you do." -David Cardona, fashion designer in Los Angeles

"Don't give up. Success is around the corner. Experts say most businesses fail in the first two years because of a lack of planning. I say it is because people become fearful and simply stop. For the people who have been there for a year and 11 months, stay for the next 3 months. You will get your clients." -Marie Edelstein, CEO of Designwest, an interior design firm in Woodland Hills, California

"Get rid of fear of success by implementing and executing. Surround yourself with the most skilled people in your industry in order to help make your business a success--never feel threatened by their expertise, but learn from it and work as a team." -Nina Yang, founder of Double Edge Entertainment, a film production company in Sherman Oaks, California

"I let go of fear of rejection by doing my best. Once I get an interview, I buy myself an ice cream to celebrate. If I get the job, it's icing on the cake, and I celebrate again." -Cynthia Brian, author of Be the Star You Are! 99 Gifts to Living, Loving, Laughing and Learning to Make a Difference(Celestial Arts)

"Before going into sales meetings, I reinforce the feeling of confidence by forming my arms into the shape of a 'V' above my head and doing a victory dance. Literally reaching for the stars and signaling victory and shouting out 'Yes!' It seems silly, but it works." -Linda Hollander, author of Bags to Riches: Success Secretsby the Wealthy Bag Lady (Celestial Arts)

"I respond to fear by listening to my intuition. One thing I am doing to encourage this within my work space is creating a 'chill room' where one can relax, decompress, do some yoga, meditate, sit or just be. A quiet oasis where employees can find peace in the middle of a crazy day." -Cathleen Mitchell, founder of McRoberts Mitchell LLC, a New York City full-service communications firm

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