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Getting the guts: Helping entrepreneurs overcome the emotional challenges of starting businesses

December 2005

Most entrepreneurs will attest that starting a business is no easy task. But oftentimes, emotional issues create as many challenges for new business owners as analyzing balance sheets, developing marketing strategies or securing financing. “It takes courage to get out there and do it,” says Suzanne Mulvehill, an experienced business counselor and entrepreneur.

Mulvehill should know. She quit her job three times before finally starting her consulting firm, Profit Strategies, in 1998. Although she had both a business plan and a savings account before striking out on her own, she initially lacked the courage to leave behind her office job.

Over time, she developed techniques for overcoming the emotional challenges she ran up against, which she now shares with both entrepreneurs and business counselors worldwide. “Very often, the challenges [entrepreneurs face] are really opportunities for both business and personal growth,” Mulvehill says. “But if the personal growth opportunity is overlooked, the business challenge is likely to reappear in some way or another.”

Mulvehill has identified several emotional challenges that many entrepreneurs encounter. Read on for her recommendations of ways incubator managers can help entrepreneurs turn these emotional challenges into business opportunities.

Developing confidence

Giving up the security of a steady paycheck for the great unknown takes courage. Help would-be entrepreneurs develop the confidence they need by making them realize that entrepreneurship is a choice – a choice that can be re-examined if or when an entrepreneur’s life circumstances change. “Help them recognize they’re not stuck,” Mulvehill says. “They have power. They can choose to commit and recommit to their business over time.”

Connecting to a passion

Mulvehill believes if entrepreneurs do what they love, success will follow. “If an entrepreneur really enjoys what he or she is doing,” she says, “that person is going to do much better at it.” The challenge is helping entrepreneurs discover what they really want to be doing – even if they enter the incubator operating a business in an entirely different field. Encouraging them to identify their interests, recognize their strengths and acknowledge compliments from others can help them discover their calling.

Integrating values into business

Mulvehill has counseled several entrepreneurs who grew up believing that a desire for money equaled greed. This belief, she says, kept these individuals from developing their businesses to their full potential. “When you hear, ‘I can’t do that,’” Mulvehill says, “ask why.” After hearing the answers, you might be able to help the entrepreneur transform an old belief that is holding him or her back into a new belief that will encourage personal and business growth.

Overcoming obstacles

Some entrepreneurs believe they must know everything there is to know about a particular field before starting out on their own – what Mulvehill refers to as the “not-enough” syndrome. “Tell them they know enough for today,” she says. Encourage clients to focus on the present rather than looking too far into the future, to stop comparing their businesses with others, and to give themselves permission to make mistakes. “Encourage mistakes,” Mulvehill says. “They’re not failures. They’re opportunities. If we’re making mistakes, we’re making progress. If we’re repeating mistakes, that’s when we stay stuck.”

Leaving the comfort zone

When first starting out, most entrepreneurs wonder where their next paycheck will come from or whether potential customers will buy their product or service. “They’re vulnerable doing what they love,” Mulvehill says. “They feel exposed thinking, ‘What if someone doesn’t like it?’” Help clients work through their insecurities by reminding them that what they’re feeling is normal. “Remind them that they’re going to be OK no matter what,” Mulvehill says. “It’s OK if someone doesn’t like what they’re doing. [They can] go on to the next one.”

Redefining success

Mulvehill says she struggled for years with her views of the correlation between money and success. “When I made money, I felt great, and when I didn’t make money, I felt terrible,” she says. Over time, she overcame this yo-yo effect by redefining her view of success. “I now believe that I am successful because I live the life I desire,” Mulvehill says. “This definition is unconditional – meaning it doesn’t change if I make a lot of money or a little money.”

This story is based on a session that took place during NBIA’s 18th International Conference on Business Incubation in Atlanta: “Emotional Endurance: What It Is and Why Entrepreneurs Need It,” presented by Suzanne Mulvehill, president of the Emotional Endurance Institute and author of Employee to Entrepreneur.

Keywords: professional development -- client

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