By Joe Johnson, PhD
Entrepreneur. Investor. Startup Expert.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” FDR famously noted in his 1933 inaugural address. But, he wasn’t trying to get a startup off the ground. Facing fear of failure is a huge reality in the minds of every lean startup entrepreneur.
Fear motivates a lot of people—and holds even more back. However, most people overcome fear, especially when starting a business. As a general rule of thumb, about 50% of businesses, that are actually successful enough to hire employees, fail within 5 years (Small Business Administration). Entrepreneur recently published some positive news showing a declining trend in the failure rate.
Understanding Facing Fear of Failure
The biggest problem most would-be entrepreneurs suffer from is facing fear of failure. Failing scares many entrepreneurs, especially when they pour their heart and soul into something and invest time and resources. Even worse, the level of fear increases when other people’s resources are involved. But, it’s possible to face the possibility of failure, learn from our fear, and move forward. While it won’t guarantee success, embracing the fear guarantees action.
Failure Always Possible
Facing fear of failure means deconstructing your fear to better understand it. By doing so, you identify the rational from irrational fears and set processes to move forward with your dream. Let’s be honest, there’s always going to be a possibility for failure.
Whether it’s bankruptcy, hiring the wrong person, a poorly launched service, or an incomplete business plan, failure is a real aspect of business. However, with the right planning and mindset, it’s possible to work through the fear while reducing your odds of failure—and even build something amazing.
What does failure look like to you?
Alain de Botton explained in The Consolations of Philosophy how stoicism, the ancient philosophy founded in the 3rd century B.C, could help modern individuals overcome fear and anxiety. Essentially, Seneca and other philosophers contemplated the worst possible thing that could happen in a situation. Like the old adage, ask yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen?” The philosophers believed that by asking the question, they were able to let go of the fear and move forward.
While it isn’t that easy, this Stoic method helps entrepreneurs move forward from the “what if I fail” stage and begin planning to succeed. By considering the different ways a business can fail, we can begin to see how highly improbable some are and identify the things that are most likely to cause trouble. Then, we can focus energy and resources to creating viable plans that are appropriate for the market.
Defining True Failure
Take a moment and consider what true failure would look like. It might sound a bit like a stereotypical country song: lost your job, dog, spouse, and house. How likely is this to happen? Chances are, it isn’t that likely. It is more probable that you’d lose money and time and feel pretty badly, perhaps embarrassed or humiliated, even.
Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach, names thinking of the worst possible scenarios as one of her “5 Ways to Keep Fear of Failure From Holding You Back” in Entrepreneur. According to Whitemore, removing the emotional element from decision making helps us focus on a rational plan to deal with any ideas or roadblocks.
As you’re thinking about failure, consider this: Steve Jobs failed. While he’s certainly remembered for bringing Apple back from the brink and introducing must-have products such as the iPod and the iPhone, it’s important to remember his failures and how he continued to persevere in spite of them.
Fear of failure can be a great planning tool—as long as it’s rebranded into a useful framework.
Unfortunately, “failure” suffers from a big image problem. It’s scary, it’s humiliating, it’s discouraging… but does it have to be?
Once you’ve understood what you think of as failure and considered the absolute worst, you may realize that the chances of those things happening isn’t that big. Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t fail, but you probably won’t earn the gold medal for failing in the most spectacular way possible. Although, I think I may already have that medal somewhere!
Famous athlete and astute businessman (and arguably one of the best basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan credits his failures for his success. Failure can educate. You’ve heard it before: you must learn from your mistakes.
Thomas Edison, the dogged inventor and businessman famously stated, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And so it is with almost every business.
In her Forbes article “How to Conquer the Fear of Failure —5 Proven Strategies”, contributor Vanessa Loder mentions reframing goals.
By reframing goals and shifting the ideas of success and failure away from benchmark goals like revenue to idea of learning more about business and conducting business, some of the sting of failure can be removed and replaced with lessons learned. For example, rather than focusing on making a certain amount from a new product launch, focusing on learning the best ways to go to market with a product can provide a sense of success even if a product launch fails to meet financial expectations. Rebranding failure won’t protect us from the possibility of failure, but it will make it easier to learn from it.
Knowing When to Pivot
Let’s say you’re researching and getting those entrepreneurial ducks in a row and you come across something that could give you trouble. Maybe the need for your service isn’t as great as you thought it was or the market is saturated.
Facing fear of failure may tell you to abandon ship and run for hills. A healthy fear of failure will advise you to pivot, to change your plan and find a way to succeed. If you know the market is saturated with many competitors, try to set yourself apart, rather than abandoning a business idea flat out. Whether it’s how you deliver service, what you stand for, or your pricing structure, you can pivot your business plan to avoid offering the same services as everyone else. Fear of failure acts like a yellow light, advising you to slow down and reassess before moving forward full steam.
Most of my startup successes, whether in media, real estate, or sales and marketing business, have come as a result of a “pivot” from a prior failed startup model. What I learned in the failed model helped me frame changes for a new and improved model. These key changes led to major startup follow-on success every time. However, without going through the failed startup experience, I would not have learned about those key model changes.
Fear of Failure Doesn’t Have to be an Obstacle
Fear of failure doesn’t have to be the obstacle preventing you from starting a business or a second after failing. While facing fear of failure will always remain—even at juggernauts like Circuit City—many entrepreneurs move forward anyway. Why? Because they believe in their visions and know that failure isn’t the end of the road, but a turning point.
While there will always be a chance of failure, facing the possibility of failure, rebranding failure, and recognizing the lessons gained prepare us for our next journey and new opportunities.