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Becoming an Entrepreneur: How fear helps and hurts the company?


Fear can inhibit or exert a strong motivational drive: the study conducted by the University of Harvard which identifies 4 strategies to positively exploit their fears

In the path to become entrepreneurs the fear of failure naturally becomes an inseparable companion. There are many fears, from losing the most important customers to running out of capital. For an entrepreneur, courage does not correspond to the absence of fear, but to the ability to persevere despite fear.

Even success can become a cause for fear, because the more a company grows and the more it exposes itself, both in terms of reputation and as regards the protection of its employees.

The motto of lean startups is “fail early, learn quickly”, but in reality no one would ever wish to fail. It is no coincidence that it is precisely the fear of failure, and above all of the responsibilities that would accrue to lenders, mentors, associates, colleagues and employees – without forgetting the terror of being put publicly to the pillory and stamped for life – the first reason so many aspiring entrepreneurs renounce even before starting.

Yet, as often happens, not everything is just white or just black. Fear, in fact, can inhibit, but it can also become a source of motivation. Instead of blocking any business ambition, it can also be a powerful incentive to fight for success.

A research conducted by Harvard University on 65 entrepreneurs between the United Kingdom and Canada, entitled a re-conceptualization of fear of failure in entrepreneurship, and defined fear of failure as a temporary cognitive and emotional reaction to a threat to potential success.

The research has identified 7 sources of fear, all shared between both entrepreneurs who have already started or between those aspiring or beginners.

  • Financial security
  • Ability to finance the company
  • Personal capacity / self-esteem
  • Potential of the idea
  • Threat to social esteem
  • Executive / operational capacity of the company
  • Opportunity costs

These fears are not all born the same way, and it is important to consider what the origin is. According to the research, concerns regarding opportunity costs, personal financial security, or the ability to find sources of funding are all positively associated with the determination of the entrepreneur to achieve their goals.


Consequently, if the entrepreneur has reflected on the choice he made to run his business, and how this necessarily implied the renunciation of other opportunities, both in the professional field and in the personal field, will be more motivated to pursue the success of the his business.

Similar reactions have also been found in the case of financial concerns, both in terms of personal economic security and the ability to raise funds. Instead of inhibiting behavior, these sources of fear have led them to intensify their efforts to reach the pre-established goal.

On the other hand, when an entrepreneur is afraid of the possibility that his business idea is not valid or does not have the capacity to realize it, he tends to react negatively and in a less proactive way. Decision-making is inhibited, because any decision is seen as potentially wrong.

The fear of failure can also lead the entrepreneur to radically change his initial goal. So there are those who will be tempted to tack on less ambitious targets, and those who will head headlong towards daring or even virtually impossible targets. In this second case, at least, the possibility of failure is rationalized and conceived as possible, thus making less fear. However, the fact remains that fear is able to seriously compromise the personal perception of objectives.

Another result highlighted by the research is the tendency to intensify efforts to reach certain goals at the expense of other activities, very often with the awareness that the road to reach the goal will be particularly fraught with pitfalls. The less desirable consequences for those who decide to undertake such a path can lead, for example, to risky investments in what could eventually turn out to be a very bad idea.

How should an entrepreneur react to the fear of failure?

The Harvard study offers four strategies to help entrepreneurs take advantage of their fears.

Self-monitoring and emotional control

Emotional intelligence involves the conscious acceptance and management of our emotions, and the ability to control their influence on our thinking and behavior.

“If I’m down and look at my projects, I only see the downsides and the obstacles to getting them done. I learned to understand that this negative attitude is not related to projects in itself, but to my emotions” he said, for example, one of the interviewees.

Emotional self-awareness is a capacity that can be learned, and that allows one to recognize the symptoms of emotions that are about to influence one’s consciousness through feelings and mood states, thus anticipating their impact on rationality and stemming their effects on decisions and actions.

Developing self-awareness can be of great help in limiting the influence of negative emotions when setting goals or making decisions.

Problem solving

Go proactively in search of weaknesses and things that do not go – or may not work – in your business and think about ways to improve the situation or deal with a crisis – in a nutshell, like “putting a piece” – is an extremely effective way to reduce the fear of failure .

Intuition is a powerful source of information, and implicit knowledge and instinct encourage rapid and effective decision making. These instincts are more often associated with emotions than with specific rational thoughts. Feelings of fear triggered, for example, by concerns about the potential of the idea, can be interpreted as an alarm bell signaling that perhaps the idea needs to be analyzed and developed a little more. These emotional signals, if not ignored or repressed, but treated as something that warns us of a danger, can help the entrepreneur to identify and plug any flaws in his idea and business project.

Proactively combating the senses of fear with a problem-solving approach significantly reduces the fear itself. However, the study also showed that problem-solving skills can be inhibited if the fear of failure comes from doubts and insecurities about the validity of the business idea. This means that deliberately choosing an action-oriented approach, overcoming the temptation to repress or ignore the problem, can really make a difference. Of course, you cannot expect to solve all the problems and eliminate every single weak point. It would risk falling into a spiral of excess perfectionism, a potentially dangerous situation for any entrepreneur.

Learning and therefore training

Learning and knowledge are powerful allies to overcome the fear of failure. This applies both to fundamental skills, such as programming skills in the case of a software developer seeking funding, and for the constant updating necessary to keep up with the evolution of its field of activity.

This concept is also valid in more traditional fields, for example in the heating and plumbing market, an entrepreneur who runs a plant engineering company, reserving time for personal training and employees can guarantee greater chances of success for his business by discovering, for example, new services, techniques, materials and markets.

Participating in refresher courses or refresher courses, forums, meetings and congresses, but also developing and maintaining an attitude to personal research and discussion and dialogue with other entrepreneurial realities, mentors, and experts in the sector is essential.

Learning is a powerful antidote to the fear of failure, because it helps to reduce insecurity by increasing the capacity of the subject. It is also true that some insecurity will always be present, because real life is full of unknowns. One cannot think of always having everything under control, let alone predicting the future. Precisely for this reason, constant learning will help to always be one step further, to be able to peek around the corner, reducing doubts and uncertainties.

Look for support from experts and consultants

For an entrepreneur, especially in the case of start-ups, to relate with mentors and a network of professionals in his field of activity can be a vital source of reassurance.

The comparison with more experienced people is essential for developing attitudes to learning, problem solving and self-awareness.

In particular, forms of social learning, thanks to those who have already embarked on a given entrepreneurial path and have more experience and expertise on the subject, can be very useful in reducing thoughts and feelings of negativity.

Novice entrepreneurs often find an important help in groups, networks and local organizations that offer support to those with less experience. In this way, the subject learns that doubts, uncertainties and concerns are common feelings, he understands what the aspects to pay more attention to are and how to improve and resolve weaknesses and critical issues.

The Harvard study indicates that the fear of failure is universally widespread, and that it has both negative and positive effects on motivation, decision-making, behavior. The causes of fear can lead to stressful situations potentially harmful to health, so developing the skills necessary to prevent and manage the fear of failure is not only for an entrepreneur, but for anyone, a fundamental imperative.

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