How Entrepreneurs Can Overcome the Fear of Failure When Starting a Business

“Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.” Suzy Kassem

Courage is defined as facing difficult situations without fear, but can also be characterized as facing them despite fear.

Does it take courage to be an entrepreneur?

Lots of entrepreneurs would say yes because learning how to be a successful an entrepreneur means facing a whole range of fears.  In the Journal of Business Venturing (Volume 31, Issue 3, May 2016, Pages 302-325) there is a study of 65 entrepreneurs who were interviewed about sources of fear and they identified 7, which were validated in further studies. These fears were:

  • financial security
  • opportunity costs
  • ability to fund the venture
  • personal ability/self-esteem
  • potential of the idea
  • threats to social esteem
  • the venture’s ability to execute

What was particularly interesting about these fears is that the first 3 fears on this list tended to motivate and the others tended to inhibit. That is, the first ones pushed entrepreneurs to work harder, push through, succeed. The latter ones, the ones in which entrepreneurs question if their idea has legs or whether they personally can launch a successful venture, slow them down and sometimes stop them in their tracks.

While the Journal of Business Venturing identifies the above 7, others frame them in other ways that might speak to you not only in a business context, but in life:

  • Fear of change.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Fear that you don’t know enough.
  • Fear of the unknown (which is often related to fear of change)
  • Fear of spending your hard-earned money on your venture.
  • Fear of letting others down.
  • Fear of doing things that make us anxious
  • Fear of making mistakes.
  • Fear of not measuring up –often referred to as imposter syndrome.
  • Fear of saying no

While fear is widespread and can cause stress that isn’t great for your health, the ability to anticipate it and manage it is a vital skill that you can actually learn. There are strategies that help entrepreneurs act courageously, and help them continue moving forward in the face of fear.

While these strategies are discussed here in the context of entrepreneurship, take note of the following as they would be just as useful in the business of life! There are a bunch of techniques below, but ask your network if none of these work for you as they’re likely to share many others.

So, what can I do to act courageously and continue moving forward even when I’m scared out of my wits?

  1. Start by being aware. Figure out when you’re feeling anxious and see if you can figure out why. Sometimes the fear and anxiety have nothing to do with work.
  2. Use your fear to help you address issues. If it is causing you anxiety, is there something about it that makes your worry? Is there a flaw or weakness in what you’re doing that you need to address? Sometimes, the fear is a way of telling you to open your eyes and look again. Sometimes fear is how you get to the right answer.
  3. Seek information and advice. Take advantage of both formal and informal sources of education including entrepreneurship classes, coding bootcamps, accounting skills etc.
  4. Surround yourself with a network of experts and mentors. They’ve been there and have valuable experience and info to share. Take advantage of them.
  5. Ask yourself the following question: 10 years from now, will I regret not doing this thing? Most entrepreneurs say that their biggest regrets are not the things they DID do, but rather the things they DIDN’T
  6. Reframe the fear – call it excitement instead. Your body responds to both in very similar ways but your brain makes them feel very different.
  7. Just start moving forward. Dale Carnegie said that “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go and get busy.Take incremental steps and test at each step. When your testing says that you’ve proven your hypothesis to be correct, keep going. If you’ve disproved it, pivot and test again. That way, you break things down into much more manageable, less scary steps. There is a saying that goes…How do you eat an elephant? The answer is…One bite at a time.
  8. Finally…Imagine the worst. Then imagine your response to that situation. Then say to yourself…Then what. Say it again. Then what… When you’ve gamed out all the possible end points to your worst fears, and you know how you would respond and how that response would impact the outcome, you remove the fear we identified above – Fear of the unknown.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re going to be afraid sometimes. In fact, Statista reports that as many as 35.2 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs experience the fear of failure. – (StartupNation). And that isn’t even counting all those other types of fear we talked about above. And that isn’t even counting all the fears that come with just living your life. So, you’d better get a handle on how to deal with it.  And don’t let it stop you…because Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.


Elisa Palter

About the Author

Elisa Palter

Elisa has co-founded and successfully exited 2 small businesses, written business cases for Harvard Business School, and was part of the team that founded a prestigious Liberal Arts College overseas. She assists select NFP organizations with their messaging and strategy, and coaches women who are looking to become entrepreneurs. Elisa is passionate about entrepreneurship and its ability to empower individuals, particularly women.

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