Fear and the Business Owner – (Please Don’t Read This if You’ve Never Been Afraid)
I spent the last three hours talking with a business owner. He’s terrified.
It’s a small business, two locations, 10 staff with a low, seven figure revenue number – and he’s frozen with fear.
He’s losing money every month. Part of that is seasonal, and part is that he can’t find enough employees to bill out sufficiently to cover his overhead. So, he’s understandably anxious, but it’s not like it’s worse than it has ever been.
The conversation hit me, because I’ve been afraid before as a business owner. So anxious that I hid in my office for hours at a time, ignoring the ringing phone and the incoming emails. Terrified that it was going to be yet another piece of bad news or another problem to solve. It didn’t matter how good things were going overall, when I was afraid it was all bad news. So, I’m incredibly sympathetic to what he’s dealing with. It’s debilitating.
Again, to those of you who are “fearless” and have read this far, please go away. You won’t understand us, and I don’t understand you.
In business, and in my personal life, I don’t think I’m a coward. I’ve taken risks. I’ve successfully built and sold several businesses. I’ve done my time as a volunteer fire-fighter including active, interior firefighting. I’ve gone into the burning building and come back out. Even with that I don’t think I’m anyone’s example of bravery, and I continue to have an active relationship with fear – just like the business owner I was talking with.
“What if I lose it all?”, he said.
“What if I’m 43, bankrupt, with nothing to show for the last 15 years of effort.”
“What if I can’t figure it out?”
Fear was at our table the entire meeting.
Every tactic we talked about, he was able to describe real reasons why it might not work.
Every strategic change we explored, he was able to picture the negative outcomes.
Everywhere was fear.
What did I tell him? What brilliant piece of advice did I provide?
How did I help him see the way forward?
I didn’t. We just talked.
We talked about how the risk isn’t really that different than it’s been since the day he started the business. We talked about how he’s dealt with the same challenges (and worse) before. We talked about the times he met the fear with a smirk and a flip-up of his middle-finger. Coincidentally he’s also a guy that’s been in the burning building before, so certainly no coward.
We talked about how there are always good reasons for a business owner to be afraid, and that the only thing that changes is us and how we deal with it.
I hope the conversation helped him – it seemed to. It was a striking conversation. Like talking to myself at any one of the 10 times over the last 20 years when I was really struggling with managing the fear of business ownership.
I don’t have the answer. The fear is real, at least it is for me and for the business owner I was talking with. But it hasn’t stopped us from moving forward. From taking the next breath and the next step (at least it hasn’t stopped us yet).
Not sure this is the conclusion you were hoping for. I apologize that I don’t have a profound lesson, or smooth wrap-up for you here. But I’m going to go ahead and post this now anyways.
Otherwise I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve.
Mike is an entrepreneur, business coach, and the founder of www.exitoasis.com.