Overcoming imposter syndrome when starting your own business

So I had this friend. Let’s call him Brian because … well … that was his name.

Brian was an ideas man.

I vividly remember the day I tagged along with Brian to our local grocery store. He picked up a cantaloupe and froze, staring at the thing as if he were a guy named Hamlet and the melon a skull named Yorick. I was beginning to get concerned when he looked up at me with a peculiar, almost manic zeal in his eyes.

“Cantaloupe-flavored cough lozenges,” he whispered. “Now there’s a million-dollar concept.”

Now, to be clear, Brian’s ideas weren’t always great — I present melon-scented sore throat relief as exhibit A — but he just had this knack for thinking not just immediately outside the proverbial box, but down the street from it, round the corner, and about 200 yards across the railroad tracks.

It came as no surprise to me at all when, a few months later, Brian dropped me a text asking if I’d like to help him get an amazing new business idea off the ground. What happened next? Well, spoilers, neither he nor I currently lead a life of leisure running a hobby cantaloupe farm in picturesque Portugal.

But together, we did learn something useful. We discovered that the crisis of personal confidence known as imposter syndrome can be one of the hardest challenges you’re going to face as a new business owner. We’ll get into Brian’s (mis)adventures and how he eventually overcame imposter syndrome in a minute.

But first, let’s talk about you…

You can succeed! But do you believe it?

So you’re in the process of starting a new business! Hopefully, you’re brimming with self-belief and ready to take on the world with naught but a solid business plan, a box of swanky business cards, and a jaunty grin.

But for all that confidence, you may have your weaker moments.

Perhaps you feel a bit of a fraud at times, making things up as you go. Or perhaps you catch yourself downplaying your achievements. Or perhaps you’re plagued with a secret fear that this big business idea you’ve spent so long nurturing is just some beautiful shimmery bubble bound one day to burst into a sticky puddle of busted dreams like so much disappointment-flavored bubble gum.

If you yesssssed to any of these, the less good news is that, yes, you may indeed be dealing with imposter syndrome.

But don’t worry! Because you can banish imposter syndrome.

All it takes is the right strategy…

… and in this blog post, we’ll show you what that strategy looks like.

Here’s the game plan:

Table of Contents

Understanding imposter syndrome

So getting back to my friend Brian.

The big business idea he wanted my help to get off the ground involved selling hydroponic plant stations to businesses around our city. A tad hare-brained, sure, but at least better thought through than cantaloupe-flavored cough lozenges. He unleashed a whirlwind of facts and figures at me over the phone. I had to admit—his excitement was intoxicating. I told him I was in. We met over coffee to talk about it later that week.

It did not go well.

Instantly I could see that something was off. Something had changed about Brian’s … what was it? His energy? His mojo? The fire had gone from his voice. He stuttered through a disjointed elevator pitch, and—quite theatrically—beads of sweat appeared on his forehead.

It was as though Brian had a bad bean burrito for lunch—only the burrito in question was a business idea. Brian, the ideas man, the self-confident go-getter, that self-same Brian of cantaloup-flavored cough lozenge legend had become this stuttering creature of clammy palms and clumsy ideas.

I left the conversation wondering if I’d made a very big mistake in agreeing to support him. Later that night, though, I dived into some online research and realized Brian’s anxiety and discomfort were classic symptoms of … you guessed it… imposter syndrome.

Here’s what I learned.

What is this imposter syndrome thing?

Let’s name the imposter in the room. Imposter syndrome (alternately referred to as The Imposter Phenomenon) is defined as “a self-doubt of intellect, skills or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.” That last bit is key. Imposter syndrome is most common among people with big ideas and lofty ambitions — just like Brian and probably just like you if you’re in the process of brewing up your own business. It’s a bit of a paradox, but imposter syndrome tends to hit confident and ambitious people the hardest.

How common is it?

Over 80% of people experience the imposter effect at some point in their career, The American Psychological Association reports. Even Paul McCartney had it, for Pete’s sake. If the guy who wrote Yellow Submarine had it, anyone can have it. (I filed that away as good reassurance ammunition if Brian went all bean burrito on me again.)

Is it important enough to worry about?

Imposter syndrome can make starting up your own business so much harder if you don’t address it. Just take a look at some of the delightful ways this condition can manifest:

  • Feeling like a fraud: Some little voice at the back of your mind keeps reminding you that you’re only pretending to be a serious contender.
  • Downplaying your accomplishments: An opportunity to shine comes along, but in a misplaced flourish of excessive humility, you shrug and shy away from the limelight.
  • Overwork and perfectionism: You can’t break free from the feeling that everything could be whisked away from you in an instant, so you set an impossibly high bar while simultaneously working yourself into the ground.
  • Procrastination: Or it could end up going the other way entirely. It all feels too hard, so one by one, those big business plans end up relegated to life’s back-burner.

Will it just go away on its own?

The short answer is … perhaps? But probably not. It’s a bit like a toothache—while you might get lucky, it’s safe to assume imposter syndrome won’t magically resolve itself. Case in point—here’s a happy little statistic for you.

Recent public health research on the impact of the condition on health professionals suggests that upward of 45% of people with imposter syndrome may experience burnout (a need to withdraw or slow down) at some point in their career. So the take-home here is that It’s best to find a way to manage this thing before it manages you.

Let us fly then with purpose to the bit where we talk about how to banish imposter syndrome to the foul den of doubt from whence it came.

Beating imposter syndrome

So I took all of that information to Brian, and to his credit, he listened. 

Well, at first, he changed the subject by scrawling an impromptu pie chart analysis of the hydroponics industry on the back of a paper napkin. But then he listened. And after that, he agreed we needed to tackle the problem head-on. Hopefully, that’s your headspace too.

Here are a few practical steps you can take to find your confidence and build on it. 

1. Practice a healthy dollop of self-care.

Sorry if this sounds a smidge corny, but the first step is to go easy on yourself. Remember that stat you read a few minutes earlier. Over 80% of people experience the imposter syndrome at some point in their career — four in five! 

A high achiever who doesn’t feel some level of self-doubt is unusual. So first things first: 

  • Acknowledge that what you’re going through is normal and nothing to be ashamed about.
  • Talk to your friends and family about what you’re going through so you have a team of boosters and believers—if not at your beck, then at least at your call.
  • Strive to be outrageously reasonable with yourself. Small, achievable short-term goals serve the dual purpose of overcoming procrastination while giving you a much-needed guarana-enriched jolt of distilled self-belief.
  • And finally, just do all the stuff a prototypical kind grandma might espouse when things get tough: Get rest, eat well, and make time for the stuff you enjoy. Oh, and get plenty of sleep. 

Aww. Thanks, Generic Stock Footage Nanna.

2. Get involved in your community.

So you have the self-care on lock. Good. An important next step is to brush away some cobwebs and get right out of your head. An easy and practical way to do that is to become an active presence in your local community. There are all kinds of ways you can make this happen:

  • Go along to networking events: Meetup is your friend!Check out small business groups in your area and get along to the next small business meet ’n greet.
  • Join local associations: Take a look at what’s going around you. What groups and causes are active? Which of those do you feel good about getting behind? Which of these best reflects and reinforces your business venture? Volunteering your time and resources to something you believe in is a great way to prove you mean business—not just to others but also to yourself.
  • Run a promotion targeting people near you: You can always reach out to your local customer base with a local promotion, contest, discounts, or an old-fashioned giveaway. Socrates said it best. People like free stuff!

Ultimately, you get something valuable back every time you pass it forward. You gain credibility. People around you will see that your business means something, and that external validation, in time, will serve as a wonderful boost to your self-belief too.

3. Put your name out there.

Back in the day, starting your own business generated a lot of “tangibles.” You had a shopfront, merchandise, a physical place of commerce with brick and mortar walls you could stick an A Team poster on if you felt so inclined. Flash forward to business today. It’s easy to feel invisible if, like the great majority of startups, you’re setting up an online business. The whole thing, in some sense, is invisible. 

How do you get seen if you have nothing physical to show? It sounds a bit like a riddle in a bad martial arts movie, doesn’t it? 

Fortunately, the solution is rather less prosaic — get your name out there! And here are some simple ways you can do just that:

  • Spring for some paid advertising: Whoa, don’t skip to the next bullet just yet. Paid ads can be amazingly cost-effective if you have the right game plan. Check out our interview with advertising guru David Lambert for a few good pointers to get you started.
  • Host classes or events: Another great way to get your name on the who’s who is to offer great info for free, whether via hosting a webinar, offering a course through a local community college, or just curating a topical and informative library of information through a blog on your website.
  • Leverage social media: It’s never a dumb idea to take full advantage of the networks around you. LinkedIn is a no-brainer, but less obviousl businesslike platforms may also yield a ton of valuable networking opportunities. Here are a few resource-friendly social media hacks to help you on your way.

4. Make your business your own.

Finally, it’s worth taking a moment to get back to one of the basic principles we talk about a lot here at Ruby—authenticity. One of the most powerfully transformative ways you can avoid feeling like an imposter is to step away from the urge to imitate what everyone else is doing.

The world’s awash these days with pre-baked formulae for making a fast buck, from the rise of drop shipping businesses to the endless brass band parade of online get-rich-quick schemes, each more clangorous and off-key than the last. Who wants to be that?

It’s tempting to paint by numbers. But by doing what everyone else is doing—by trudging the well-trodden path of trends and tropes and influencers (oh my!)—it’s so terribly, terribly easy to lose the precious chutzpa that grounds you, that makes you and your brand instantly recognizable.

You started a business to pursue your passion, yes? So pursue that thing!

Race after it with all the love and ambition and authentic ferocity your singular heart can muster. You want to own your own business? Then own it. And any trace of doubt that you’re somehow an imposter will evaporate like the proverbial wet gremlin in sunlight.

Banishing the imposter

Important stuff rarely happens overnight.

Brian did eventually rediscover his weird and vibrant energy, and great things happened for him. It took a while, but every day saw new progress, and eventually, Brian’s nasty little bout of imposter syndrome vanished into the ether, as insubstantial as the elusive fragrance of cantaloupe cough lozenge.

If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, remember that four in five high achievers experience this problem at some point in their lives! You’re not alone.

Remember, too, that imposter syndrome is something you can get past if you commit to a simple change strategy like the one outlined above. This thing is beatable.

And finally, we just want to remind you that you have powerful communication tools within reach when you’re ready to grow to the next level. Click here to watch Ruby in action.