The complex role fear plays in a startup

Startup-FearA quick search on Google reveals that fear is undoubtedly one of the main barriers to starting a new business.  Whether it’s fear of losing money, of the venture failing or one of many other possible reasons holding someone back.

Of course this is a distinct narrative in it’s own right, and conforms the view that entrepreneurs are fearless and brave.  It’s a narrative that distinctly frames fear as a negative to be overcome if one is to be an entrepreneur.

In an organizational context, fear can often be a driver for change, with the so called burning platform moment believed to be the trigger for many successful change projects.  A recent study set out to explore whether fear can actually be a motivating factor for an entrepreneur.

Harnessing fear

The researchers spoke with a bunch of existing and potential entrepreneurs from across the UK and Canada to examine their relationship with fear.

Rather than the typical black and white image of fear, the responses revealed a much more nuanced relationship.  It emerged that fear plays a different role at different parts of the entrepreneurs journey.

To start to comprehend the role fear plays, the authors explored the importance of the various events involved in starting a business to the entrepreneur, and in particular how likely it is that they will turn out negatively.

This perception was largely formed from various external cues, such as their financial situation or the talent within the team, and internal cues such as our self perception.  Taken together, these provide us with a confidence level for the success of each action we take.

Suffice to say, fears are seldom just logical, and emotions also play a big part in how we feel about our task, with these emotions often helping to shape our thoughts on the task at hand.

Driven by fear

When taken together however, the analysis revealed that far from being inhibited by fear, many entrepreneurs are positively driven by it.  Even this notion of fear as a driver is not without nuance however.

For instance, fear can drive action in the wrong way, thus resulting in an increased risk of failure.  Alternatively, it can be ignored altogether, thus prompting us to underestimate risks and also increasing the chance of failure.

If it isn’t clear by now, the whole concept is a very complex and nuanced one, and indeed one that can change even as events unfold and our experiences evolve.  Nowhere is this more evident than as the experience of the entrepreneur grows.

Whilst on one hand this often gives them the wisdom to better appreciate certain risks and manage fear more effectively, it also attaches them more firmly and deeply to the venture.

As you can see, it’s far from a simple situation, and the authors don’t really provide any hard and fast tips to resolve things.  They do however conclude that with experience we hopefully become better equipped to both understand the fears we have, and how those can be effectively managed.

I’d love to hear your experiences if you’ve started a business of your own, and how you managed the fears you encountered along the way.  Let me know your stories in the comments below.



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