Getting a startup off the ground is a marathon, not a sprint. Let me explain how true that is…
I will never forget the six hour car ride to run my first marathon. I had trained for four months to run four and half hours and I was suddenly terrified. My fear built up with every exit sign.
(Sidebar, for those that don’t know, a marathon is a 26.2 mile run; or A LOT of freakin’ miles. It tests mental and physical endurance and the training is almost as daunting as the race. And although my coach and training plan were outstanding, it still felt like there were A LOT of unknowns going into race day.)
I called my coach from the car hoping he could calm my nerves…make me fearless! Instead, he said that being afraid meant I cared, was the result of trying something new and difficult, and that hard work and preparation is only the path to race day; not a cure to fear. He also told me to trust the training and enjoy the ride which included being afraid.
That call changed my mindset from fearing my fear, to embracing it. Instead of focusing on fear, I focused on what I knew.
1) The race was going to be hard, but I had also survived training which was TOUGH. 2) My body was ready and my fear lived in my mind.
3) No matter what happened on the racecourse, I was going to enjoy all 26.2 miles. And I did…with a smile on my face the entire way grinding through the pain to the ultimate payoff, pride in a job well done, and accomplishing a difficult goal.
The rise of fearless leaders...
I'm not sure I can count the number of social media posts, articles, and videos I've seen about becoming fearless leaders. Do we really want to lead as fearless leaders? Leaders that may seem unfeeling or robotic? Leaders, that aren’t scared about losing their business, not getting enough funding, or not providing engaging enough environments to attract or keep their talent?
What would have happened if I wasn’t afraid before my marathon? Would I have had the edge, the ferocity, the fight to push? I say no. I’ve run races feeling ‘flat’ and my performance suffered. Being fearless would not have served me during my marathon or during so many other experiences in my life including starting my own business. In fact, I've found that fear often has the opposite effect.
Fear is often villainized. And while it shouldn’t be glamorized, fear deserves its seat
at the table or at least a firm handshake.
If you are an early-stage startup, keep the following in mind as you grind out getting your business off the ground.
Become friends with your fear.
Startup founders experience A LOT of unknowns. It might seem like in such an unknown environment, that fear is inevitable... and because fear is often about the inability to imagine how one might navigate an unknown situation, this may be true. If fear is an inevitable part of entrepreneurship, then learning to utilize and navigate fear is one of the great competencies of great leadership.
Here are three of my observations about how to become friends with your fear so it becomes a tool to help build your business rather than crack the foundation.
1. Use your fear to your advantage.
Fear signals your brain to let you know it’s time for action and can make you hyper-aware of your surroundings. You may be asking how does this apply to my startup? The next time you wake up in a cold sweat worrying about your business, use this heightened awareness to assess the state of your startup.
Ask yourself a lot of questions. Do you have enough staff? Do you have a growth strategy? A marketing strategy? Have you been getting customer feedback? Do you have the right tools in place? Could you be more efficient? How is the lead flow and how are sales? What are the barriers to purchasing?
Take advantage of your fear by getting curious and getting answers to as many of your unknowns as you can. Make a list of what you can and can’t control. You’ll never account for all of them, but you can minimize them.
2. Be prepared to ask for help.
When I decided to run a marathon, part of me was excited and the other part was terrified. I knew I needed help because I 1) had never run a marathon and didn’t know what I was doing and 2) wanted to finish with as much success as possible. So I hired a coach. I wanted someone who would guide my training process, help me set goals, and hold me accountable.
Getting a startup off the ground is a lot like running a marathon. It requires not only daily grinding work, but goals, checkpoints, and accountability. Set yourself and your business up for success with good preparation. Find a coach, a mentor, an outsourced consultant, or a board of advisors that you can turn to when you have questions, need to bounce ideas around, and learn from their experiences. Use them to help you set goals, create a strategy, and prepare you for the fear that will come with launching and running a new business.
3. Don’t push the pace: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
FOMO or fear of missing out. Everyone experiences it at some point. Runners frequently experience it at the start of a race when the gun goes off. What if everyone leaves me behind? Maybe I can just go a little faster than I trained for…
Pacing is essential in a marathon and for the success of your startup. It can be tempting to try and run your business like a string of sprints without a coach, without support, and without rest.
In my role - I see a lot of founders do this with their marketing. These founders often have a path of half-finished projects, blown budgets, and murky messaging. If I had run my first marathon without knowing the course, I might have run the full 26.2 miles in lots of different directions without ever reaching the end. This is what unguided and poorly considered company building can be like as well.
Don’t be afraid to start slow.
Utilize your preparation, pull together a clear business strategy that aligns with your goals, and test, refine, and test again until you start to see results. Don’t be afraid to run your own race.
So maybe instead of becoming fearless leaders, we should be striving to become brave leaders. A leader who cares, who prepares, who advocates for their customers and their employees, who takes chances and isn’t afraid of making mistakes. In fact, brave leaders know mistakes are inevitable and fear comes with the territory.
Let’s face it, starting a startup can be scary…you will experience fear. Next time you find yourself afraid, consider embracing it. Get comfortable with it and realize that your fear doesn't need to be viewed as a negative. It's all about perspective.
Anne Laffin is the founder of Fin Marketing Management. She created this consultancy out of her experience watching startups try to navigate marketing during their foundational years. She understands the hazards of running marathons and starting a business and created a solution that keeps you focused and effective.
Are you a startup founder who is looking to become friends with their fear? Reach out to Fin Marketing to learn how the right preparation, pacing, and mindset can put you on the path to success.