Why courage matters as a start-up founder

Nic Brisbourne explains why aspiring entrepreneurs need to dig deep and make themselves courageous - even if they're naturally not

There are many qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur – creativity, intelligence, confidence, tenacity, determination and charisma are some of the most frequently talked about.

One that is less talked about is courage, and that’s what I’m going to discuss today.

Firstly, it takes great courage to found a start-up. I’m often humbled when I sit across from entrepreneurs who have taken great risks to found their companies.

They have walked away from safe corporate jobs, taken a step into the unknown and exposed themselves to a real risk of failure. Less obviously, but perhaps more significantly, many of them are taking their families on that journey with them.

That is the sort of courage that we are all familiar with – to do something or not to do something. Just like asking somebody out on a date or making a risky investment. More complex, but equally important, is the courage required to make the most of a start-up after it has been founded.

Know when to carry on or change course

My thinking in this area has been heavily influenced by Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, a great book and one I highly recommend. Mostly the book focuses on making better choices for ourselves and our loved ones as we grow old which is a far cry from start-ups, yet one passage is highly relevant.

It’s about the courage needed to navigate the latter stages of life which turns out to be remarkably similar to the courage needed to navigate the ups and downs of start-up life.

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Gawande starts by turning to Plato who wrote “Courage is strength in the knowledge of what is to be feared or hoped” and “Wisdom is prudent strength”. Which brings me to its relevancy for start-ups. It takes great courage to found and build a company, to maintain conviction, to get back up again when you get knocked down and to persevere when things look helpless.

But it is also important to be wise. To know when to carry on or when to change course, or even give up. After all, sometimes this leads us to something better; it was only after Ev and Biz Stone gave up on Odio, that we got Twitter.

Be honest about your failures

Interestingly, Gawande goes to on say that at least two kinds of courage are required in ageing and sickness. The courage to seek out the truth of what might happen both on the upside and the downside, and then the courage to act upon it.

Again, that’s super important at start-ups – the best founders tirelessly look for ways to expand the upside and ways their companies can go wrong. Less courageous founders put their heads in the sand.

Be courageous during uncertain times

In a further parallel with start-ups, Gawande notes that ageing and sickness are highly complicated and uncertain, and that it is very hard to build an accurate picture of what’s going on or of the implications of any particular course of action.

It is in this uncertain environment that we must find the courage to act. Very often that choice means deciding which is more important, our hopes or our fears. Do we want the chance of a much better life, or do we simply want to stay alive?

Change course or stick to your guns?

That last question is as relevant in start-up boardrooms as it is in the emergency room, but it is rare to see the difficult topic of potential permanent decline and failure addressed well enough that the resulting course of action gives the best chance of happiness to all concerned.

More common is to raise more money if it’s available, keep going with more or less the same plan and only make radical changes when the writing is well and truly on the wall. By this point there is much less cash left, the options for remedial action have become limited and the chances of achieving even a half decent outcome are much reduced.

Contemplating anything other than success is tough for most people involved with start-ups. Nobody likes to be thought of as unambitious or lacking tenacity.

However, it’s also vital to have the courage to address the real issues and challenges your business faces in a timely way – even when the conclusion may not be the answer you hoped for and difficult decisions need to be made.

I would encourage each and every start-up founder to ensure that courage remains a focus for themselves and their team regardless of whether they’re facing good times or more testing times. It’s the quality that ultimately helps us to move forward, make the decisions that need to be made and execute on those decisions for the greater good of teams and businesses.

How to increase your own courage

If you want to work at increasing your courage it turns out there are three things you can do:

  • Put yourself in situations that demand courage – e.g. go to networking events and force yourself to talk to people, ask somebody out, etc. Courage is a muscle, and the more you use it the more you will have.
  • Fake it till you make it – tell yourself and others that you have courage and you will start to believe it, display it, and the muscle will grow stronger. Preparation is your friend here – plan difficult conversations, talk through things that scare you etc.
  • Meditate – practices learned from mindfulness and meditation help enormously when fear strikes. Rather than be overwhelmed mindfulness practitioners can identify and isolate fear. As a bonus, brain scans of long time meditators show that the region controlling fear (the amygdala) has shrunk and the region which manages fear (the pre-frontal cortex) has grown thicker.

Nic Brisbourne is founder and managing partner of Forward Partners, one of the UK’s leading early-stage investors in start-ups.



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