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The Unintentional Way You're Holding Yourself Back

Even successful entrepreneurs often unconsciously put a limit on what they can achieve. Here's the antidote.
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Let me tell you three quick stories about three successful entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneur one is a member of the Forbes 400. He has created a worldwide retailing empire, but it all began with one small shop.

"Back when I was starting, my dream was to make $15,000 a year from that one store," he told me. "That would have been about 50 percent more than my Dad ever earned in his best year and would have been enough for me to buy a new Buick every three years.  I thought if I could accomplish both those things--earn $15,000 a year and buy a new car fairly often--I would have it made."

Entrepreneur two is running a $50 million company that has net income of more than $5 million a year, after paying employees quite well, and offering phenomenal benefits.

"To be honest, I started this business just so that I could provide for my family," he says. "I never thought we would be this successful."

Entrepreneur three is an overnight success, 26 years after founding her company. Sales will hit $5 million this year, but could easily double by 2017.

"I wish I had dreamed bigger early on," the founder/CEO says.

And there is your commonality.

Yes, stories like the first entrepreneur's and even the second happen, but they are rare.

And one reason I think they are is that company founders often settle for less than they could be.

Is the second step the hardest? 

I have never seen a study on this, but it seems to me there are an awful lot of people who really stop trying to grow their companies after their initial success. If they were like the first entrepreneur we talked about, they would have stopped after opening that one store.

Now, if you stop because you are content--that one store provides all the money you need and you feel fulfilled, and you wish to spend your time in other ways--then I have no quarrel.  We all need to lead the lives that make us happy. Your definition of success is the only one that matters in your life.

But, often that isn't the case.

Often people stop trying to grow for exactly the same reason so many others fail to try to start in the first place. They are scared they might fail (in their attempt to come up with an encore, in this case.)

Or they think the concept of growing is too difficult.  Scaling an enterprise and/or increasing its scope is different from creating something from scratch. And so people back away from the challenge.

To me, if you accept either reason for stopping, you are short-changing yourself, even if you are not doing it consciously.

How you develop your second product/service/store can be remarkably similar to how you created your first.

You overcome the fear that comes from moving into the unknown again, by taking a small step, pausing after you do, and building that learning into the next step you take.  The smaller the steps, the less risky each one is.

Yes, scaling is different and involves an increased level of complexity and ambuigity, but others have done it. Talk to them.  What did they do? How did they do it? Who did they bring in to help?  This is not exactly uncharted territority.

If you don't want to grow your company any further, as a result of deep thought about how you want to spend your days, I salute you.

But if you are choosing not to do it out of fear, may I suggest you identify your potential goal and then break down the route to getting there into a series of the smallest steps it will take to accomplish it. Then, take the first step and see what happens.

Don't limit yourself.

Last updated: May 23, 2014

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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