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How to Deal with Your Demons

What does imposter syndrome look like in a start-up founder?

The following extract is taken from the book, From Start-Up to Grown-Up.

Insecurity is almost part of the job when you start a company. You’ve raised five or twenty or 100 million dollars—that’s a lot of responsibility. You’ve hired a team and told them about the great future everyone will have if you’re successful. And yet you often feel severe self-doubt. It may show up as the worry “who am I to make this a reality?” or it may be the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing and will sooner or later be exposed as a fraud.

The feeling of imposter syndrome—that your luck will run out—can overtake you regularly or jolt you in certain situations. You read about how famous CEOs handle things, you picture Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, and you think you’re not doing it like they are, so you must be doing it wrong. Your employees are second-guessing your decisions, the investors are looking over your shoulder questioning you, sometimes kindly, sometimes not. Someone asks you a basic question about your metrics, and you can’t answer it off the top of your head. The pressure on you builds, and you often don’t get any positive reinforcement.

Not only that, but especially in the early stage, founders imagine this dystopian fantasy when things are bleak: “When someone joins the company, they’re doing me a favor. I have to make sure they stay. If one person quits then it will create a cascade and everyone will leave. I’ll be all alone with my laptop in the conference room.”

My client Matias, who was building a new category of company, experienced this when I was helping him crystalize his vision. He was at a very early stage—he had raised $5 million and had a very small team.

As a way to start the process, I asked him just to tell me the vision so we could get it onto paper. This is a common, even vanilla idea—hone the language of your vision and articulate it to your team. When we talked in our coaching meetings, the language and the conviction would just flow out of him. This wasn’t hard for Matias. So I was surprised when he narrated his vision to me and it sounded flat. Even boring. Considering how very fresh this concept was and considering how Matias normally spoke about it, this was confusing to me. He tried his “speech” and then tried again. “It just feels like you’re reading out of textbook,” I said. “That’s not like you. What’s up?”

Long silence. Then: “If someone told me about this project, I don’t think I’d believe it. I’m not sure if I can really build something that big. And who am I to lead something like this?” As much as he believed in the importance of the project and its value, he hadn’t convinced himself that it was possible to do. How could he convince anyone if he couldn’t convince himself?

When does imposter syndrome go away? For some, it may last their whole life. What the phrase “imposter syndrome” obscures is that it’s not a single, monolithic thing. It takes many forms and flavors of self-doubt that get triggered in founders in certain situations. There is, however, a way to resolution: tapping into your underlying fears and concerns, using strategies to resolve them, and finding ways to both dance with your demons and move forward anyway.

On the bright side, you are more than capable. Founders are pretty impressive people. You are smart, competent and energetic. You have moments of feeling like an imposter, but you also have moments of feeling competent, capable—even great! And I know that you have your own superpowers. One founder I coached raised about $30 million in less than three months because he was so passionate, convincing and determined. He had plenty of self-doubt, but even he couldn’t deny that he must be doing something right. Another founder I worked with was an incredible product visionary—I’ve never seen anyone have such an uncanny dead-on instinct for the shape her market would take. She had moments of real concern about her management skills, but in every fiber she knew she could lead the company to the right answer.

Imposter syndrome is about you, about your own self-doubt, which makes you overly self-conscious, too focused on where you might fall short. You have to take yourself out of the equation. I want to share with you a different point of view from another enormously successful founder: Suzy Batiz, the founder of Poo-Pourri and one of the top eighty richest self-made women in the US, according to Forbes. When I spoke to Suzy about imposter syndrome, she told me, “I don’t have imposter syndrome. I AM an imposter! I’ve never run a company this size before. We’re all doing things for the first time and figuring it out.” Give yourself a break and embrace the journey. Then try some of the strategies I give you in From Start-Up to Grown-Up.

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