Overcoming Fear of Startup

Think about this famous quote by Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” I never really understood this quote until I started working with people who wanted to start their own practices, and until I started my own businesses. I have thought a lot about fear and the way it can paralyze us and I have seen this paralysis first-hand.

For example, I spent a lot of time, and many phone calls and emails, helping a grad with the startup process. He would go only so far, only to stop. He would find a practice to buy, and then he would back out of the deal because it wasn’t quite right. Or he would find a location, but never actually sign a lease, convinced that this location wasn’t perfect. He couldn’t find a loan, but he only tried a couple of banks then gave up. After months he finally decided to stay as an associate, where he was unhappy; for all I know, he’s still there.

Why does fear paralyze us?

1. Old voices. We all have voices in our heads, from times when someone (parent, friend, spouse) told us, “You can’t do this,” or “This is stupid. You’ll fail,” or “Don’t risk failure.” “If you fail, it will be terrible.” As long as we listen to those voices, we don’t move ahead.

2. Perfectionism. It’s great to want to do things well, but we often are way too picky about how things must be. For example, the guy who wanted the perfect location. A friend of mine gave me some advice about writing: “My rotten published book is better than your perfect unpublished one.” So I’m sending it off to be printed.

3. “Don’t just do it.” We figure we have to start at the beginning and work toward the end, in some kind of specific sequence. Then when we get stumped at a certain point, we figure there’s no way around. Not necessarily. Sure you will have to get a loan before you can start buying equipment, but there are lots of things you can do to get started with little money, and there are lots of paths, not just one.

Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek (Crown, 2007), has some suggestions for overcoming the paralysis of fear:

1. First, define your nightmare. What is the worst thing that could happen if you fail in your new practice? Spend some time thinking about this. Create a worst case scenario. Then consider two factors: Probability and Severity. These are insurance terms, but they apply. First, what’s the probability (on a scale of 0% – never happen, to 100% – guaranteed to happen) of failure? Then look at the severity – the cost – of failure. While I’m not a fan of dwelling on the negative, I do believe you need to look under the bed to convince yourself there really are no monsters under there (like Grover.)

2. Then look at the steps you could take to repair the damage. How could you get your life back on track if you fail in practice? Spend some time thinking about alternatives, like starting again elsewhere, or working for someone else. Think about what’s really important, and “don’t sweat the small stuff.”

3. Consider the outcomes and benefits of more probable scenarios. Think about what your life would look like in a “best case” scenario. Then set yourself to thinking that this is the more probable outcome of starting your own business.

4. Prepare to succeed. Start taking baby steps to overcome your fears by working on the positive steps to success. Resolve to do one thing every day that you fear. Do one small task every day that will move you toward your start date. It might be as simple as calling the Yellow Pages and ordering an ad in the next book. Work on your business plan. Focus your energy on positive action. By the time you are done writing the business plan, I think you’ll find you will see that startup success is not only possible, but you’ll feel more confident about starting your practice.

Remember, as Henry Ford said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”