[Stellar Insights] Managing self-doubt as a founder: a handbook from personal experiences

Naman Lahoty of Stellaris Venture Partners shares his personal handbook for overcoming self-doubt and coping with insecurities.
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Honestly, I am very uncomfortable sharing this. Just like depression / mental health, personal insecurities a founder goes through is also a rarely talked about issue. In my experience, most young first-time founders go through it with no clue how to deal with it.

I have founded two startups in the past -- the first one was a VC-funded startup in consumer internet services and the second one was a bootstrapped consumer brand startup. During both my startup journeys, I have been through multiple phases of self-doubt. I found myself in difficult situations I had not experienced before with no idea of how to deal with them. I often questioned my abilities during the early stages.

I don’t think it was depression, but because I never asked for professional help, I can’t say for sure. I was afraid of discussing my insecurities with my team and co-founders -- there was a constant fear of getting judged if I opened up to them. Moreover, my job was to guide my team and keep them motivated. How was I supposed to do that if I doubted my own abilities?

Learning to cope with insecurities is a must for a founder. (Image: Shutterstock)

However, I slowly began talking about it with close friends who were founders of other startups. With time, I made peace with the fact that most founders go through such phases, and everyone has their way to get over it. All of us were able to come out of it, each time stronger than we were earlier.

During such phases, the most critical skill to learn is - how quickly can you recover and ensure your insecurities do not impact your work.

I am consciously calling it a ‘skill’ because you can learn it, practice it, and master it until it becomes a part of your routine and eventually your muscle memory.

It is noteworthy that most of those friends bounced back strongly after overcoming their low phases -- some built successful companies, either starting-up again after their initial failure, or finding success within their first startup itself; others parked their entrepreneurial dreams to take up jobs, and are successful at them.

Below are a few actionable techniques that have helped my friends and me overcome moments of self-doubts. I don’t claim to be an expert in this. Neither do I claim to have any scientific backing to these approaches. These are just a collection of different courses of actions we took, independently, that eventually helped us come out with a positive outlook.

Speak with other founders and people outside of work

Being a founder is a lonely affair, and there are not many people whom you can talk to about your insecurities. The best solution is to find someone outside of work to express your problems without the feeling of getting judged.

When you share your vulnerability with others, it opens them up to share their vulnerability with you and the fact that they are over it gives you confidence. This positive mindset is the first and the most important step in this journey.

Remind yourself of prior successes, and keep a track of them

Most of us bookmark interesting articles to read later. Do the same with your moments of success, no matter how small. When the uncertainty hits, instead of getting stuck in the mental trap of negative thoughts, reflect on what went right in the past.

Take screenshots when a customer sends you a happy mail, copy emails/text when other people appreciate your work and save documents that speak about your good work or achievements. Collect all of them in a folder to revisit later.

In Sept 2016, when we announced that we were shutting our business, we received an overwhelming response from our customers telling us how much they liked our service. It was heartening and proof that we built something of value. I took the screenshots of those emails and kept it in my repository. I still refer to them every few months to lift myself up during the low phases.

Do things you are already good at

Your hormones drive how you feel. When you are under stress, you need to put an extra effort to boost happy hormones (Dopamine, Serotonin, and Endorphins) in your body. Doing things you are already good at will increase the production of these hormones and will put you in a positive frame of mind.

When I was going through that phase, I re-started playing squash (which I was supposedly good at). An hour of a good game in the morning used to take me to a different feel-good high that continues for a good part of the day. Some of my friends ran and meditated while others played guitar. Spending time doing things you are already good at has worked for most of us.

Hire a professional coach

I never took this route, but a friend of mine did. He paid a decent amount of money to hire a professional coach/mentor and later told me every penny was worth it.

These are mostly successful business people who volunteer to mentor the young generation at a nominal fee. They can be helpful in two ways. First, by helping you with the business problem you are dealing with, which most likely they themselves have been through during their journey. Second, by sharing their experiences of dealing with insecurities which they eventually overcome. Nothing gives you more strength than seeing a successful person who was stuck at a similar spot as you are.

Surround yourself with the right people and content

Keep the people who encourage you close, and take their feedback regularly. Distance yourself from the people who are pessimistic about you or the future prospects of your business. Same goes for the books you read and movies you watch. You need to take active steps to break the cycle of negative thoughts before it consumes you.

Autobiographies and movies based on real life stories are my favourite resorts. Immersing myself in someone else's life has a tremendous positive impact on my thought process.

Develop a non-competitive mindset

Although a healthy dose of friendly competition is a good motivator, there is an unintended dark side of a super competitive mindset, particularly when it is taken too far. This is a piece of special advice for young founders.

I first started up when I was 24 and had a highly competitive mindset. I used to constantly compare myself with other successful entrepreneurs on every attribute. Unknowingly, my competitive personality led me to perceive social environments as hierarchical: there are people at the top and people at the bottom. It created the zero-sum perception bias, and when business was not going smooth, insecurity crept in, and I started doubting my abilities.

A simple, yet difficult remedy is to develop a collaborative and cooperative mindset. And the best person to compare yourself to is your own past self.

Forgive yourself and move on

Self-doubt usually occurs when you make a big mistake and are holding yourself accountable for it. Before you start blaming yourself, think of any successful person you know (and have access to); call them and ask if they had made any mistakes in their early career?

Chances are, they have done blunders. Also ask them - what did they do about it? Most people will say, they thought hard about why it happened and how it can be prevented next time; and then they let it go.

After shutting my second startup, I was carrying a baggage of five years of failed attempts at building two companies. This experience left me financially bankrupt and low on confidence. I took advice from a college senior who himself had three failed startups in his kitty but was a successful venture capitalist then. He mentioned how he was at a similar spot four years ago and what helped him in getting back up. Speaking with him gave me immense confidence and a positive forward looking outlook.

These approaches are not exhaustive, neither is there any guarantee of results. Not all approaches were effective for everyone. You’ll have to try out different things and find the ones that work for you. If you are dealing with moments of self-doubt, the most important thing to note is that:

  1. You are not the only one dealing with insecurities - most people do
  2. People learn and grow - so would you
  3. It is just a phase and you will come back stronger - as other people have

Facing such times with optimism and confidence should be your only option. The world is going to accept you in the end, irrespective of the outcome.

Edited by Dipti D

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)