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Balance fear and hope

Most people are searching for a path to success that is both easy and certain. Most paths are neither.

Seth Godin
Easy and certain
May 19, 2011

Businesses require hard work. Not hard like back-breaking manual labor; hard in the sense that it’s a long slog that will test your will to continue. But it doesn’t have to be tedious.

To start a business you need both fear and hope in healthy supply, but too much of either and it’s going to be painful. Too much fear and you’ll never take those calculated leaps that you must to get a business off the ground. Too much hope and you’ll either be perpetually disappointed or entirely overconfident. Few companies are an immediate success. And for those that are successful, a stubborn persistence to never give up usually played a central role.

Don’t expect to be an overnight success. No matter how fast your business gets going, it’s incredibly unlikely that it will ever be fast enough. Slow growth isn’t only a problem at the beginning–it will linger forever. It’s human nature: if your goal is to be a millionaire in five years, it’s much more likely you won’t be, but you shouldn’t perceive your business as a failure if it’s only halfway there.

Don’t be scared. Fear is a dangerous emotion. Fear comes from your lizard brain. Not only can it prevent you from trying, but once you try, it can prevent you from succeeding. Family. Mortgage. Health insurance. Servers. Processing credit cards. Programming. Disappointing your customers. Chances are, some of these fears have chased you away from starting your own company. But rest assured that when you break it down, you can handle all of them.

There are two kinds of fear involved in starting a business: costs, and unknowns. Costs convince you that you can’t afford to start a business. Costs include time and money–working on a side project costs both, while quitting your job creates time but costs money. The fear of unknowns is usually tied to tasks that require learning new skills. These are scary because they’re difficult to evaluate until you acquire the skills or knowledge.

Let’s look at the costs. Financial costs can almost always be reduced, and I’ll focus on this extensively in the next chapter. Some are easier to reduce than others, but there’s almost always a way. Similarly, time can nearly always be found. It can be difficult to handle these costs when transitioning from a side project to a full-time job, but the shortfall shouldn’t last long in the grand scheme of things. Even if it does last, there are often creative ways to help bridge the gap.

Unknowns represent the worst type of fear because they’re usually the most overblown. I was originally scared of the idea of handling people’s credit cards, and of finding time to respond to support emails if I worked a full-time job in addition to Sifter. Not to mention managing the servers–I earned a D in my Unix class in college, and I was dreading the day I’d have to learn how to talk to a server. I’ll address many of these fears in later chapters, but the short version is that it’s rarely worth being scared of the unknowns. They’ll slow you down a bit, sure, but you can either learn about them or get help from an expert. In our case, while I’ve since improved my Unix skills, we hired an expert to set it all up and help with some ongoing maintenance and updates. The point is, a solution is often much easier than you might think.

If fear talks us out of creating a business, hope nudges us along. We push the fear back because we have high hopes for what we can create. Whether you want to change the world, improve your own life, or improve the lives of others, somewhere there’s hope that a better world is on the other side of your success. Embrace that–but be mindful of your expectations.

Just as we can exaggerate fear, we can overestimate hope. While some businesses grow quickly, many more ebb and flow. Even when your business grows in the long term, it’s quite possible it won’t grow fast enough, or the downturns will be scary. In our early days, I was often afraid that Sifter had peaked. We’d have a week of flat growth, and I’d believe we were done for. But whenever I stepped back and looked at any three-month period, the numbers were consistently positive. It’s easier said than done, but you have to think about the long term.

When you tell yourself or your other half that the business will be making $X by Y date and it doesn’t happen, one or both of you inevitably begin to wonder: will it ever happen? If so, when? You had an initial hope that wasn’t fulfilled. That doesn’t mean the business was a bad idea, but it can be challenging to avoid disappointment. While hope can help motivate you, when those hopes aren’t achieved according to plan you can become tremendously discouraged. Try not to let yourself get caught up in highly specific hopes or timelines.

When I started Sifter, I wasn’t married and I didn’t have a mortgage or children. But all of that loomed on the horizon as I was making the decision. If I had to choose one moment that stoked my fear of being self-employed, it was our decision to have children. I was terrified that being self-employed meant we couldn’t get maternity coverage through health insurance. At the time, in the United States, it was virtually impossible to obtain maternity coverage on an individual insurance plan. That has since changed, but at the time we were on our own.

Sifter was well under way when we started thinking about having kids. We were well aware of our lack of maternity coverage and, based on our research, planned to spend $15,000–$25,000 for the pregnancy and delivery. And while I had been full-time on Sifter for about a year, my salary was still substantially less than it was when I worked at my old job. All of which made the prospect of having children rather intimidating. Fortunately, we learned that many hospitals and doctors provide significantly discounted rates when they know you’re paying in cash, and that put us at ease a little. Not much–but a little.

Lauren wanted to try for a natural childbirth, and we had every intention of giving birth in a hospital. But after finding and talking with a doula (a professional trained to assist during childbirth), we ultimately decided that using a midwife and a birthing center would be a better fit for us. As time went on and the pregnancy progressed without any complications, we went one step further and Lauren decided to give birth at home.

Once we knew Lauren was pregnant, I put more pressure on myself than ever. Our team was in the middle of migrating to a more advanced hosting environment, and I wanted to wrap it up before our daughter arrived. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It was fortunate, however, that my work enabled me to attend every appointment and be with Lauren through every step of the pregnancy. I did a poor job of taking time off after Bella’s arrival, but since I was home with them every day, I could still take regular breaks and spend a considerable amount of time with them each day.

We were initially concerned about the potential costs had there been any complications, but it turned out that while the pregnancy itself wasn’t covered, any complications would have been. Since we chose a natural birth at home, our total cost for the pregnancy and delivery was about $4,200—drastically cheaper than we ever could have imagined. Of course, that was for a healthy pregnancy without any problems, but our insurance would have covered them had they arisen.

We could have easily chosen to delay having children. In the face of $15,000-$25,000 in up-front expenses, it was tempting. But once we stopped thinking about things from a place of fear and started looking at them simply as a dollar amount, we felt confident we could find the money if we needed to. More on that later.

Even having a child, one of the most significant life changes for anyone, hasn’t been nearly as challenging as we anticipated. Don’t get me wrong—it hasn’t been easy—but for every challenge introduced by being self-employed, there were just as many ways in which it was easier because I was self-employed and working from home.

With eight years of hindsight, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that fear and hope are both easily overblown. My original fears were barely blips on the radar, and the stuff I thought would be hard wasn’t that bad. My original hopes were never fully realized, but I’m incredibly happy with how things turned out. I’d do it all over again—although I’d like to think I’d be a little smarter about it the next time around.

The way I look at it, it’s not that my hopes weren’t met, but I was hoping for the wrong things. With what I know now, my hopes would have been founded in doing work I enjoy, rather than trying to hit growth milestones. And I wouldn’t waste time worrying about all the things that could go wrong—I’d just do it.

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