100% of the Time It’s 90% Mental

January 3, 2013

2:00 pm

The biggest challenge to being an entrepreneur is keeping your mental game in check. Not everyone verbalizes it, but everyone feels the anxiety, fear, and occasional shame of not knowing what you are doing. One of the best posts I’ve ever read that exposes this issue is from Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz. It’s called “What’s the Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology.”

Every startup business (maybe every business, period) faces struggles:

Technical Risk  Will it work?
Product Development Can we build it?
Market Risk Will anyone buy it?
Finance Risk Will we run out of money?
Team Development Why aren’t we working better as a team?
Competitive Pressures Will we get to market on time?
Business Model Risk We have a product that people want, but we don’t have a profitable business.
Personal Financial Risk What will happen to me financially if I fail?
Reputational Risk Will anyone ever hire me again?


To deal effectively with the challenges, regardless of the particular issue, you must keep your head on straight.

  • Don’t take it personally.
  • Don’t be ashamed if you feel like you don’t know what you are doing.
  • Stay in action. Focus on doing something.
  • Stop complaining.
  • Seek help from mentors and trusted advisors or a coach.
  • Be responsible and accountable, but don’t be emotionally culpable.
  • Separate the issues from how you feel about the issues. Then deal with them as Mr. Spock would.

I have a friend who wants to write a book. He has the knowledge to do it and a good thesis. The problem is, he’s his own worst enemy and critic, and he’s been unable to produce anything that he considers good enough and worthy of his name.

I’ve been a mentor to a nascent startup that has a good idea for a niche market, but the founder has never gotten past the understanding that to be an entrepreneur means to take risks. Not everything will be perfect, and not everything will work out. The art of a startup is to be nimble, not to have the perfect plan. You have to be willing to step into the darkness and deal with the risks described in the table above.

My wife once gave me a plaque for my desk that says, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

Like Randy Pausch said, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.

As you make your plans for 2013, consider these words carefully. Chances are you know what you need to do. Just get out of your own way.

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Neil Kane, the Director of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship at Michigan State University, is a leading authority on technology commercialization and innovation and has the battle scars to prove it. He was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum in 2007. His Twitter handle is @neildkane. He’s also on Google+ and LinkedIn.

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