The unlikely DNA of an entrepreneur

The unlikely DNA of an entrepreneur

“Risk-taking is almost synonymous with entrepreneurship.”—

I read a New Yorker article about an entrepreneur I admired. They introduced him with the description: “He was a drinker, a yeller, a man of unstoppable urges and impulses, the embodiment of the entrepreneur as risk-taker”.

If as a culture we’re defining entrepreneurship in this way, who are we welcoming into the field? What type of person is going to be willing to take this leap of faith? Reader, who do you picture? 

I’m going to bet the entrepreneur you imagined looked something like Mark Zuckerberg: young and male, maybe wearing a hoodie. Perhaps you even pictured Mark himself. 

We all have these unconscious biases. We’re pattern matching against what we’ve seen and we’re taking cues from what we’ve heard about entrepreneurship.

What if you want to start a company and you don’t fit the stereotype of someone well suited to take on risk? What if you are cautious? A woman? A parent? Older? Have financial obligations like a mortgage and a family? Will you be able to see yourself in the role? Will others believe in you? Will you take on the risk?

I am a woman. I am a mother. And I am a serial-entrepreneur.

It’s easier this time around, psychologically. I have a few successes under my belt and a lot of experience pushing past obstacles. I’ve learned not to overreact to my fear. But the first time I was trying to drum up the courage to start my own business, it felt something like this:

I couldn’t relate to the person leaping with no abandon, but to the person thinking that if they take just one step forward it will lead to certain death! The person thinking that survival means solving every anticipated challenge before making the first move.

No wonder most people only dream of starting their own company! The responsibility on day one is overwhelming.

But what if we reframe the start-up launch process, and visualize it not as one giant leap of faith, but as a series of small determined steps, focusing sprint by sprint on what we next need to validate to make our business succeed.

It’s the same destination, but it looks a lot less scary, right?

Years ago, I attended a boarding school in Colorado that had an amazing outdoor education program (please allow my digression, I promise, it relates). My junior year the instructors felt that I had proven myself enough to be assigned to the most technical trip: scaling a 14,000 foot mountain covered in ice and snow, with the final ascent up an ice cliff using an ice axe and crampons attached to my boots. The reward would be a long glissade down, which is like sledding down a mountain.

It was just me and four muscled senior boys who had much more climbing experience. I remember the moment when we were packing group gear and one of the students, towering over me with a thick mountain man beard at the age of 17, showed off his $300 shiny red mountaineering boots that he’d worn on several ice-climbing trips. I was out of my league.

We hiked in to the base camp from which we were to head to the snow line and up to the summit the following day. 

I woke up with terrible altitude sickness. Pounding head. Nausea. I kept imagining the ice climb and I couldn’t get the visual of falling and sliding down the entire mountain to my death out of my head.

As it came time to leave the camp my instructor could see my hesitation. 

He cautioned, “You’re at mile zero and you’re thinking about everything you need to do to make it to the top. Just focus on reaching the snow line that you can see up ahead. Can you do that?” 

I could.

I put one foot in front of the other. By the time I made it to the snowline I thought to myself, “Now I can see the ice wall. I might as well go have a closer look.” By the time I got to the ice wall and kicked my crampons into the foothold with shaking legs, I though, “Well I’m tethered into the rope now. It would be very inconvenient to the others if I quit. I better just keep going.”

I was terrified.

But step by step, building momentum, with the support of my fellow climbers, I reached the summit.

And that glissade down was epic!

Now imagine that as your entrepreneurial process, tackling it one step at a time. Instead of taking a giant leap of faith, commit to spending just one afternoon, one weekend, one day. Use that time to get traction on the next thing you need to do to validate your business.

I got started by spending an afternoon in the UC Berkeley Haas library pulling industry reports to validate the market opportunity. “Hey that looks pretty good,” I thought! Next, I jotted down my assumptions and started interviewing people in the industry to gain insights. A few weeks later, I formed my hypothesis into a pitch deck and applied to UC Berkeley’s Skydeck Accelerator program.

I made my commitments attainable, and I took action. Each step I asked myself a simple question, “What’s the next thing I need to do to validate this business?”

As I slowly stepped up the mountain, I established new basecamps along the way. Getting into the Skydeck hotdesk program at UC Berkeley was one. Raising a $300k friends and family round was another. Landing critical advisors and team members another. As new basecamps are established, the distance to the summit starts to shrink. 

Even with this process, the fear creeps in. Some days, the fear itself becomes such a strong signal it makes me think failure must be coming. Otherwise why would I feel this way? The fear must mean something.

But it turns out, fear isn’t a very accurate predictor of negative outcomes. Fear is a natural healthy tool to jolt your body into productivity, often resulting in a better outcomes. When I am anxious, I try to remind myself that fear is a helpful friend.

Reader, are you still there? If so, I imagine that means you have felt some of these feelings. Maybe you are nodding your head thinking about how coronavirus, in particular, has given you so much more to fear. 

I’ll leave you with final thoughts by repeating what my behavioral therapist said to me when I was working to overcome panic attacks, which perhaps by no coincidence, began (and ended) the same year I started my first company.

She said, “You’re afraid? So what? Be afraid. And do it anyways.”

“Be afraid. And do it anyways.”

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