Starting a business all begins with the first step – the statement, which then turns into a belief, that later turns into a mantra – that I AM STARTING A BUSINESS. This step happens differently for everyone, but this is my story of how I got over the fear and started a business, supplemented with the stories of friends and acquaintances and the entrepreneurs featured in the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. (All the quotes below are from that great book. If you are an entrepreneur, buy it today, it will inspire you.)
I’m convinced that in order to be able to get over the fear and start your own business, most people go through some combination of the following things:
You can’t keep doing what you have been doing. I am pretty sure that starting a business involves some level of desperation. For me, when I made the decision to start my own thing, it was early 2007, I was working for Ziff Davis Media, heading the product development team for the Web Buyer’s Guide. Things were going great with the division – we were one of the favorites in the company, making money hand over fist with a long list of the top clients in the industry. I was working with an amazing team of people, I truly liked and respected my bosses and the people who worked for me. But I was growing increasingly dissatisfied with my job. The problem was, with things going so well, I had little hope that they would ever change. The better things went with the group, the worse I felt about the job because I had to keep things going, to make sure that the clients stayed happy, to just do more and more and more and more of the same.
I love building new things. I like the creativity of it, the innovation of it, the challenge of trying to figure out how to solve problems. I enjoy gathering a team of people who can all collaborate to get something done. And I like the thrill of launching something new. I couldn’t possibly stand to stay still, the lack of creativity was sucking me dry. I had to do something else.
You realize that the only way to do what you want to do is to start your own thing. Once I knew that I wanted to do something else, I knew that I wanted it to be related to using the Internet, and I knew that I wanted it to be creative. But the more that I thought about it, the more that I knew that going to just some other company wasn’t going to solve my problems. I already worked with really great, smart people. And another company would make me specialize, as well. I realized that what I really wanted to do was have the flexibility to do lots of different things, all the time, just the way that I wanted them done. There is no job description that reads that way.
“I think the hallmark of a really good entrepreneur is that you’re not really going to build one specific company. The goal – at least the way I think about entrepreneurship – is you realize one day that you can’t really work for anyone else. You have to start your own thing. It almost doesn’t matter what that thing is.” – Max Levchin, Cofounder PayPal
You understand the odds are against you, but you believe that you will beat the odds. The statistics for businesses to fail are staggering. It’s something like 8 out of 10 businesses don’t make it past the first year, and 8 out of 10 of those don’t make it past the second year. Something horrible like that. But, I believe I will be one of the successful ones. Why? Because I know I can do it, which is not a good reason, I’m sure. But if I didn’t believe that I would succeed, I would never have started in the first place. There has to be some level of (sometimes irrational) optimism in every business founder.
You figure out your biggest points of fear and try to work around them. For me, the prospect of starting a company led to three major fears. One, I didn’t know how to do the stuff related to starting a business because I hadn’t done it before. So I found some mentors and a business partner who have vast experience in this area and who can help me when I have questions. Two, I was concerned about putting Chris (my husband) and I in debt because of the business. I overcame that fear by taking a very small salary out of the initial seed money. I took a fairly substantial pay cut, but having just a small monthly income gives me the peace of mind that I am at least not going backward in my financial situation. Three, I was concerned that everyone I knew would think I was crazy. That issue was not something I could fix, but it was a personality flaw anyway, so I decided that being faced with that type of opposition would help me to grow as a person so it was worth facing the fear. The fears will be different for everyone, but all business owners will have to figure out how to face them.
“About the next day after I said no to starting Apple…my friend Allen Baum called me in the afternoon and he said, ‘Look, you can start Apple and go into management and get rich, or you can start Apple and stay an engineer and get rich.’ As soon as he said it was OK to do engineering, that really freed me up. My psychological block was really that I didn’t want to start a company. Because I was just afraid. In business and politics, I wasn’t going to be a real strong participant. I wasn’t going to tell other people how to do things. I wasn’t going to run things ever in my life…I just couldn’t run a company. But then one person said I could be an engineer. That was all I needed to know, that ‘OK, I’ll start this company and I’ll just be an engineer.’ To this day, I’m still on the org chart, on the bottom of the org chart – never once been anything but an engineer who works.” -Steve Wozniak, Cofounder, Apple Computer
You realize that other people do this all the time. The other thing that really helped me was to realize that other people start companies all the time, which led to the feeling that if they could do it, I could do it too. Chris started a business in 2006, and it was doing well, so that was encouraging. I was part of a company that was a start-up that was acquired by Ziff Davis, so I had seen how it was done firsthand. Although starting a company was daunting, just knowing that other people had started companies in the past was helpful.
“We both had parents who were entrepreneurs, so the idea of running your own business was a normal thing. There are people who come from backgrounds where they’re used to working for a company, and they couldn’t dream of doing it themselves and not having that safety net. When your parents and family are entrepreneurs, you know it’s nothing special. I worked at big businesses and I worked at small businesses beforehand, so the idea of starting your own business was just a normal thing.” – Dan Bricklin, cofounder, Software Arts
You weigh the benefits vs. the risks and responsibilities. For me, the timing was right to start a business. I was married, with an income-producing husband (who is also an entrepreneur, but his company, which builds medical devices for spine surgeries, had four submissions into the FDA for approval and it looked good that they were going to make it). I didn’t have any kids, no mortgage, no debt. My risk was very low because my responsibility was light. This is one of the reasons that so many young people are starting companies, because it doesn’t hurt them too much to do it. If things fail, they can always put on their resumes that they were the founder of a company. People who have a lot of responsibility have a harder time making this jump, and it is really important that they carefully weigh the risks before starting anything.
You jump in, even if it’s stupid. At some point, after you consider all these things, you just take the plunge. For me, that involved going to my bosses, thanking them for everything they had done for me, and resigning from my job. I was lucky because I was able to make a slow transition, I gave them a lot of notice, and I took some time off between Ziff Davis and my new business. Not everyone will have the luxury, but at some point, that statement has to be made: “I’m going to start a company.”
“There are a lot of programmers that are very tentative about starting their own companies. There are a lot of working programmers doing something they hate, with some company that they hate, but they need money to pay the mortgage. So they figure, ‘I’ll develop something in my spare time. I’ll put in 1 hour every night and 2 hours on the weekends and I’ll start selling it by downloads.’…But because they never really take the leap and quit their job, they can give up their dream at any time. And 99.9% of them will actually give up their dream. If they take the leap, quit their job, go do it full-time – no matter how much it sucks – and convince one other person to do the same thing with them, they are going to have a much, much higher chance of actually getting somewhere. Because they either have to succeed or get a job. Sometimes ‘succeed’ seems like the easier path than actually getting a job, which is depressing. So quit your day job.” – Joel Spolsky, cofounder, Fog Creek Software
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what happens after you make the leap.