Failure is what all great entrepreneurs have in common, from Thomas Edison to Elon Musk. After all, failure is natural. Setbacks test and validate. They force change.
Fear is natural, too, though, it gets talked about less often. Maybe that’s because worries, faced in the moment, are far more messy and scary. They haven’t yet been pressed neatly into storylines long after a setback has passed.
Of course, managing fears, like managing failure, is just as important to shaping a business. After all, our insecurities can propel us or break us down.
Last night at a fireside chat in Denver for -- a seven-city tour celebrating entrepreneurship outside Silicon Valley -- entrepreneurs talked about fear and how it shaped them. Established names such as Foundry Group’s Brad Feld and AOL co-founder Steve Case sat alongside a panel of rising female CEOs and founders from the Colorado area to weigh in on this topic.
Below are how each addressed the issue of fear and how it plays a role in every entrepreneur’s daily reality, regardless of stage.
Everyone is vulnerable.
I used to be very scared to talk to investors but teaching taught me that anyone at any age can feel vulnerable and self conscious. You have to remember that everybody feels those things. I look at it as my job to make them comfortable, my job to bridge that. So instead of being fearful, I try to find a connection with that person. It helps when you look at investors as people. I think a lot of people forget that. When I first started, and began looking at research online, and all it talks about is how horrible [securing funding] is, that was a little daunting. I really had to dig deep and think, “It’s gonna happen regardless, I’m just going to get over this.”
-- Jacqueline Ros, CEO and co-founder of
Remember, everyone is scared.
I’m afraid of not being able to pay people tomorrow. I’m afraid of waking up and making the wrong decision. I’m afraid of asking for things. I’m afraid that people won’t like me. I’m afraid my parents will be ashamed of me. I can keep going. But trust me, I’m afraid of everything. And it keeps me up at night. People that know me know this.
My team gets emails at 4 am, because I don’t sleep, because I’m afraid. And I think the best thing that I can tell any of you who is afraid is that everyone is. But I’m guaranteeing that everyone somewhere, sometime has been afraid of something. So, it really shouldn’t be a blocker.
-- Lee Mayer, CEO of
Embrace your fears and work with them.
I think there are two fears that keep me up at night: literally paying the bills for my family. I was the breadwinner, and we had two little kids. We didn’t need to be taking that risk at that time. So, that was the most fundamental basic fear that a lot of us parents share.
Also, the fear of waking up and feeling that I was wasting my life, because I was just chasing some business model. I was just selling things to people. And therefore I wanted our connection with our customers to be authentic. And I really wanted to make sure that we showed up everyday to make the people on our team’s life better and therefore I knew that I could sleep at night.
-- Jenna Walker, co-founder of (and former teacher)
Use fear to be productive
One of my favorite literary lines is from a book called Dune, which is “Fear is the mind killer.” And I agree with Lee that we all have a lot of fears.
This is something I’ve struggled with a lot: how to relate to the fear in a constructive way. It’s not that you eliminate the fear. We have all the fears. That’s natural; that’s human beings. But how do you deal with the fears, how do you engage with your fears in a way that’s productive? Not just in a quiet corner but in terms of how it impacts your teams and the people around you, your customers, your loved ones and yourself. I carry that around with me.
The biggest problem with fear is when it paralyzes you. When you don’t recognize that it’s an OK thing, then you create some detachment and you try to move through whatever is causing this fear.
-- Brad Feld, entrepreneur and venture capitalist at
Let your fears push innovation
I think now, because I’m older, and in the , I’m in a different place, but I worry we will lose our edge as the most innovative, entrepreneurial nation. We have a divided country, a lot of people feel left out and they’re fearful of their future. I think entrepreneurs, innovators and technologists need to be sensitive to that and find some way to bring people together and create opportunity for more people.
I try to do what I can to contribute and steer things in a more positive direction, but everyone has to do their part to not just focus on their product or service. How do you work together in building a stronger community where people are helping each other?
I’m hoping that in this next wave, people will focusing little less on the cool, less on photo apps, and more on the things that really impact the lives of millions around the world. Entrepreneurs can change the world. I know that. I’m just trying to steer the conversation to take on society’s biggest problems and swing for the fences, even though they may fail. I remind people that Babe Ruth was the “home-run king,” but he was also the “strikeout king.” You have to keep fighting.
-- Steve Case, AOL co-founder and investor