Opinion: The Risk You Have to Take In Business

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My favourite question that our reporters ask our 10 to Watch winners each year is: What scared you most about starting your business? In the nine years since Douglas launched the annual 10 to Watch Awards, the winners have named everything from fear of giving up salaried jobs to fear of losing their investors’ money.

These are legitimate fears, but they didn’t stop our winners from moving forward. Instead, they found the moxy to walk, jump or catapult past those fears to start new enterprises in everything from creating a circus school to using artificial intelligence to screen rental tenants.

Business culture talks a lot about how entrepreneurs need to possess courage, boldness and even audacity, but the fear factor is often ignored. Yet one of the most important lessons new businesses can learn is how to distinguish between fear that is useful and warns of danger, and fear that derails us or causes us to make bad decisions.

Psychologists tell us that, typically, when humans feel fear, we get aggressive to scare away the threat and regain control; or we run away, physically or emotionally, to avoid a situation; or we become immobilized, hoping the enemy won’t notice us (or will think we’re dead and therefore not a threat!).

In business, reaction to fear might play out like this: a salesperson who loses a client becomes overly aggressive in an attempt to keep or win clients, and ends up losing more. A CEO having cash-flow issues avoids calling suppliers to negotiate a payment schedule and ends up being sued. Or a retailer faced with new competition refuses to do customer-service improvements because “we were here first” and ends up losing customers who are drawn to the shiny new business.

You can see how fear hijacks our sensibilities. So what can we do about it?

A smart entrepreneur I know says learning how to deal with fear should be right up there with learning how to read a balance sheet or how to manage employees. I’d add that learning how to deal with fear will improve both your balance sheet and your relationship with your employees.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge the fear, to yourself and perhaps to a colleague or mentor, as in: “I’m terrified I’m going to freeze during my pitch to angel investors.”

By acknowledging fear, you unburden yourself to work on a course of action instead of going into denial (or asking your COO to do the presentation instead). Maybe you hire a presentation coach to help you prepare and gain confidence.

Next, forget about trying to be perfect, which can be ultra-paralyzing. Remember what artist Salvador Dali said: “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.”

Finally, move forward. If you’ve acknowledged your fear and determined it’s overblown or irrational (and not a real danger), then put one foot in front of the other and go in the direction of your goals. You might be uncomfortable (or terrified) but you haven’t let your fear control you. It’s a risk, sure, but you have to take it if you hope to make your business successful.

On that note, I salute our 10 to Watch winners for 2018. I think I can safely say they’ve all had to overcome fear. The result is some very amazing businesses — and Vancouver Island is more vibrant, bold and entrepreneurial because of them.

This is from the April/May 2018 issue of Douglas.