Joe Johnson, Ph.D.
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.
Fear of failure is the most common fear experienced by new entrepreneurs when starting a business. As I discussed in an earlier post, the fear of failure can be broken down into categories and is widely accepted as part of the entrepreneurship journey. The question is, how do you overcome the fears you face? Here are several ways in which your fear can be transformed into a profound learning experience, one that will benefit your future venture in significant ways:
Failure is Part of the Process
While failing can be a frightening prospect, the more we fail, the more tangible experience we gain. This experience can be used productively in the future to ensure that the same mistakes are not repeated. Mari Vavulski, the CEO of Startup Estonia helps entrepreneurs to grow their business ventures. She promotes the productive use of failure, stating,
“In order to succeed, you need experience. So, you test, you fail, you pivot, and you start over again. The problem comes if you don’t learn anything from those failures.”
She is far from alone in espousing this philosophy. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs have experienced failure after failure, Walt Disney being a prime example.
Case in Point #1: Walt Disney
Disney founded his first cartoon studio when he was just 22 years old, after having received multiple rejections as a cartoonist. He made an early business decision that resulted in his venture going bankrupt. He then headed off to L.A. – sans belongings and money – to become an actor, an effort which also failed. He then proceeded to found his own cartoon company with his brother. During the Second World War, his studio was transformed by the military into a repair shop for tanks and artillery. This led to Disney being in debt, at war’s end, by over four million dollars! Talk about a living nightmare. Despite these setbacks, he still persevered. By means of producing a feature overseas, Disney was able to rebuild his business from scratch. His name is now one of the most well-known in children’s entertainment and film throughout the world.
Case in Point #2: Mark Cuban
Another example of a successful entrepreneur who turned his passions into big business is Yahoo founder Mark Cuban. Prior to his success, Cuban failed at most of his jobs. He tried carpentry, cooking, and waiting tables, but couldn’t seem to hold down a career. He says,
“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve failed. You only have to be right once. I tried to sell powdered milk. I was an idiot lots of times and I learned from them all.”
The list goes on and on: Michael Jordan, Donald Trump, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Oprah, etc. If you begin to investigate these successful people, you’ll discover their stories of struggle and the sometimes amazing details of the experiences they’ve individually had to overcome. There’s a quote by Jonathan Boyle, the founder of Guns & Oil Beer Co., on allowing failure to keep you humble and lead you to success. He says,
“An entrepreneur’s success is laced with failure. A first failure teaches us the humility we need to be successful. The sooner you fail, the sooner you realize you don’t have all of the answers. You get hungry and you work harder. You seek advice, you share stories, and you connect with people. It helps you control your emotions because you’ve been there before. And, ultimately, it keeps you humble.”
Understanding that failure is part of the process of starting a business, is the first step to moving past the fear of failure. You can reassure yourself that failing is not the end – quite the opposite, actually.
Here are some other tactics you can use to work through your fears of failing:
Identify Your Fear and Understand It
The enormity of the emotion can, itself, engender powerful negative feelings. If this happens, remember to take deep breaths and set aside time to sit with the feeling. Oftentimes, we are scared of unknown negative possibilities, and, by fearing them, create our own self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s important to pinpoint your fears and understand why they’re present. Instead of backing down from a fear, investigate it. Discover its root cause and determine where the risk truly stands in reality.
Chris Hunter, founder of Phusion Projects, recommends allowing yourself to consider a worst case scenario, as this often is far less threatening when explored in detail than you imagined. By doing so, you’ll free yourself from the debilitating fear and be able to power forward with a sense of courage and control.
Visualize Obstacles and Think Positively About Them
Positive thinking only works if there is a realistic understanding of what might and might not happen in your future business venture. A recent study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology demonstrates that positive thinking alone isn’t enough. There needs to be an element of mindfulness as to what the future might hold and how you will overcome any obstacles.
Think of a situation in business that scares you. Then, imagine the obstacle in detail and allow yourself to feel the fear. Visualize yourself moving forward from it in a number of creative ways. Watch yourself succeed by eliminating these barriers through a series of techniques. This will help you feel prepared for the reality of business and the obstacles that you will face.
Externalize Your Fear
Fear is an internal experience that can feel uncontrollable but it doesn’t have to be that way. Externalizing your fear means moving it from a mental space to a physical space. For example, you could set your fear up with an email address. That might sound a little odd, but giving your fear an identity and sending it emails is an activity that allows you to detach from it and address the feeling. The same can be said for talking to a business coach, writing a ‘fear journal’, or making lists of your fears on a piece of paper and addressing them individually.
Internalizing fear can lead to loneliness and an inability to move forward. It can be difficult in business to express fear due to the expectation that you must be optimistic and positive at all times. Martina Welke, founder of Zealyst, advises that it is important to have a few trusted confidants with whom you can be honest and upfront. Talking to these selected friends or colleagues can take a weight off your mind.
Break Your Goals into Smaller Steps
The prospect of starting a business can seem overwhelming when looking at the big picture and can intensify any fears being felt. This is why breaking your goals down into small steps can result in the process seeming much less daunting. For example, you can take a pen and paper and make a plan, much in the same way you would when writing an essay. This plan might include registering the company, reducing your hours from your previous job to focus more on your new business, approaching particular investors/customers, etc. Doing this will help you see how it is realistically possible to achieve your goal. Once you’ve accomplished the first goal, it’ll build momentum for you to continue making incremental achievements.
Embrace Your Fear
Being uncomfortable is a natural feeling when starting a new business. It is a scary endeavor and beset with uncertainty. Remember, though, that fear can lead to success and fear of failure is commonplace. It’s best to wear your fear as a badge of courage. Corey Blake, CEO of Round Table Companies, says that by wearing your fear with pride you will dismantle its power over you. So, the message here is to get comfortable with your discomfort, accept that running your own business does hold risk and uncertainty, and know that your journey down this path is a brave one.
Know What You Lose By Not Trying
If you don’t make the attempt in the first place, you will never achieve your dreams or discover your true limits. Could you have done it? The lessons you might learn from failure, such as new ways of addressing a business venture or networking with others, will never be known. These are, in themselves, things to fear! Failing is not failure but a steppingstone to success. Not trying at all is the only path which guarantees that you will completely fail.
I have encountered many fears throughout my business ventures and have learned how to navigate through them. Let me tell you, what is on the other side of your fears will amaze you. Take it from those who have gone before you and found success. Walt Disney…Mark Cuban… There are ways you can overcome your fears and be successful. I don’t think anyone would say it’s easy, but I think all would agree that it’s ultimately worthwhile.
Bizjournals.com (2015) 11 ways to overcome your fear of failure. Online. Available at http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/growth-strategies/2015/01/11-ways-to-overcome-your-fear-of-failure.html
Brinkmann, J. REPORT OF THE FACE PROJECT DELPHI RESULTS . FACE Entrepreneurship Failure Aversion Change in Europe. PDF, http://www.face-entrepreneurship.eu/images/Face/knowledge/8/DELPHI_Study.pdf
Cope, J (2016) Entrepreneurial learning from failure: An interpretative phenomenal analysis. The Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship. University of Strathclyde. Pp1.
Estonianworld.com (2016) Project aims to help overcome fear of failure in entrepreneurship in Estonia. Online. Available at http://estonianworld.com/business/project-aims-help-overcome-fear-failure-entrepreneurship-estonia/
About the Author
Dr. Joe Johnson is an entrepreneur, investor, and startup expert. He is the founder and principal of GoodField Investments and the GoodField Foundation (www.GoodField.com).
Joe has a Ph.D. in Entrepreneurial Leadership and an MBA. He is the author of the upcoming book on The Science of Why Most Entrepreneurs Fail and Some Succeed.
Most importantly, he is the incredibly blessed husband of one amazing wife and father of six wonderful children. He resides in Bradenton, Florida. For more information on Dr. Johnson and his work, go to www.JoeJohnson.com.