On September 26, 2011 I sat down to email a few startup founders to recruit them to participate in a free trial of leadership coaching. They were all entrepreneurs I knew from my years at Stanford undergrad or the business school—friendly folks who I thought would be open to the idea of trying out my then-hypothesis that even very early-stage founders could benefit from the executive coaching usually reserved for the few founders who make it past a Series B round.
Question: Guess how long it took me to write and send that first email to a friendly former classmate?
Answer: Four hours.
Insert: Your disbelief and judgment [here]
The answer to why one email took me four hours to write is the same as why any entrepreneur drags his or her feet on starting something new or taking on some new risk: fear.
But it’s a special kind of fear. This kind of fear actually comes from love. It’s a this-is–so-important-to-me-I-don’t-even-know-how-to-start love. We care so darn much which is why we even put ourselves in the slightly terrifying and very vulnerable position to start something and risk something in the first place. But then we have to take this sweet innocent love and subject it to the harsh sunlit reality where it could blossom or grow or (statistically more likely) it will shrivel and die. And that’s enough to give anyone pause. That first email was, in effect, the first time I ever told anyone publicly what I was trying to create. And yes, I cared more about my new coaching venture than I had ever cared about any business or job. Ever.
So when you feel that fear/paralysis as an entrepreneur, I encourage you accept it as a sign that this is important because you care a whole hell of a lot.
I’d like to explode the myth that all entrepreneurs move fast and break things. Sure—it’s an important skill to be able to move quickly when needed and many entrepreneurs do that routinely. But, if you’re like most entrepreneurs, you may also have a few areas of startup life where you really care and that care leaves you vulnerable to being really afraid of something. Worried. Nervous. Anxious. And you want anxiety to go away so you put off starting or you drag your feet through something. And then—here comes the thoroughly un-helpful pile-on—you beat yourself up because you’re not supposed to be like that! You’re an entrepreneur who moves fast and risks it all and breaks things. So frustrating.
Myth busted: Even entrepreneurs drag their feet and feel fear sometimes.
When I find myself getting hung up on something that “should NOT be taking me this long” I ask myself three questions:
- What am I afraid might happen?
- If that happened, what would I do then?
- Would that be so bad?
These questions help me to self-coach myself in the moment and I use them with my clients to help them to put a finger on the fear and then gently nudge it over just a bit so they can squeeze by it to start. Start something. Start anything. Move forward.
It also helps to have a mantra.
A few months ago I was dragging my feet on sending out a particular email to some people in my network. I was telling my coach Ed how I wanted to wait for this thing or that thing because that would make the email “better” and that’s when he made it very clear for me by telling me, simply:
“The better email is the one that is sent.”
So, in turn, I tell the entrepreneurs I coach:
“The better experiment is the one you try.”
“The better product is the one that is launched.”
“The scarier failure is the one where you never even try.”
Forget perfect being the enemy of the good and all that. It’s usually not perfection extremes that hold us hostage, but the more subtle, nagging desire for “better.” That’s where a lot of entrepreneurs secretly hide and waste heart-wrenching amounts of time and energy.
So, next time you find yourself not starting something you want to start: Acknowledge the fear. Accept that it might be coming from love. Take a deep breath. And then start. Once you start, a million other paths might open up—but until then there is only one path forward.
Because the better beginning–indeed the only beginning–is the one that, well, begins.