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Becoming an Entrepreneur Is Less Scary Than You Think

Taking tiny steps toward your goal is the best way to minimize risk
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The host had run out of questions about a blog I had posted and so when the interview ran short, she opened it up to questions from listeners of her talk show.

"I think I have a good idea for a company," began the third person who called in. "But I am scared to death about starting. Any advice for me on how I can overcome my fear?"

It was really too bad we only had 10 minutes left. I could have gone on much longer.

This is one of my favorite topics.

There are countless people--the number is probably in the millions--who have an idea for creating a business and yet have done nothing about it. Why? My guess is that the primary reason is they don't have the requisite desire. Without that, nothing ever happens.

But the second-biggest reason, I am convinced, is that they are like the person who called in. They are afraid.

What do I tell these people?

My starting point is always this: I don't know if fear is helpful as a motivating force, as many people have argued, but I do know it is normal.

Going into the unknown--and that is exactly what you are doing every time you start something new--is by definition scary. That fact may be the biggest reason so many don't start anything new, despite having the requisite desire. They are literally frozen in place by their fear. The fear of the unknown keeps them from beginning.

The primary cause of that fear is the very real fact that you may fail, as you go about starting something new. And that fear, in turn, has three parts.

  1. Self-perception. You think because your idea failed--or might fail--means you are, or will be, a failure. And who wants to view themselves that way? The guaranteed way not to fail is not to try.
  2. You worry about what other people will think if your new venture doesn't work out.
  3. You are afraid of the lasting consequences that could come from that failure. There is a very real fear that not only will you use up valuable resources--money and time and reputation capital--but you will have jeopardized your current status and position in the attempt as well.

As I said, all those fears are natural. But saying the fear is natural is not particularly helpful nor does it give you a plan to eliminate it.

How to Eliminate the Fear

When we think of the fear, we are usually imagining a full-blown venture that hasn't worked out. We picture ourselves having invested hundreds of hours of time and untold money to get our idea up and running. And if that were the case, the failure would certainly be devastating.

But you don't have to approach starting anything new that way. Let's use a couple of extreme examples to hammer home the point.

Sure, you could quit your day job to see if you could turn your hobby of building birdhouses into a full-fledged business. Or you could build a few and take them to local craft fairs and post pictures of them on a retail site like eBay and see if anyone is interested. If they don't sell, it is no big deal. You are not out very much either in time or money. And if they sell, you can take another small step toward making Birdhouses 'R' Us a reality. (Maybe you think about selling your plans as well as the birdhouses, or you hire a retired neighbor to build them for you.)

Similarly, starting from scratch a new pizza joint at Fourth and Main could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take months and you would cause a substantial hit if it failed. But how much time would it take to survey potential customers and give away samples of what you plan to offer to see if you are on to something. If people don't like what you have, or tell you they are really happy with the pizza place two blocks down, your "failure" is small.

The idea here is simple. If you break the idea of starting something new down into extremely small steps, the risk diminishes and so should the fear.

It also gives you early confirmation that you are onto something or could reveal you need to do more work.

There are three other benefits to taking this approach.

  • You can get started right away. No elaborate planning is needed. You take a small step and see how the market reacts.
  • You don't need a lot of resources to take that small step.
  • You can quickly respond to market needs.

What we have just explored in depth works for established entrepreneurs as well. Just because you have succeeded once doesn't mean you won't have fears when you try for an encore.

Taking small steps should help.

Last updated: Jul 15, 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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